Goldacre, Ben: Bad Science

Ben Goldacre is a British physician, academic and writer.  From 2003 to 2011 he wrote a science column, ‘Bad Science’ in The Guardian.  The book was published in 2008.

The proposer had the book lying unread on his shelves for some years and in response to the repeated urgings of his daughter, a research scientist in the fields of immunology and cancer, had finally got around to reading it.  Himself a scientist, he found that it brought to light some issues – about medical research in particular – of which he had been previously unaware.

The group’s responses to the book were predominantly positive, but one member of the group (another scientist) had once shared a stage with the author and found him somewhat overly confident and assertive about his opinions – perhaps even untrustworthy.

However, there was little disagreement with the fundamental argument of the book, which identified problems in the ways that the media presented science to a lay audience, and attacked various branches of pseudo-science such as homeopathy, the cosmetics industry and nutritionists.

Our conversation about the book tended to the diffuse and anecdotal rather than the taking of positions and counter-positions.  This blog can only take the form of a rather undifferentiated list of some of the things that cropped up.

The BBC Radio Four programme ‘More or Less’ was praised for its critiques of data used by politicians and others to justify their views.  Like Goldacre, the programme’s approach is to question the exact methodology lying behind tendentious statistics and factoids.

It was pointed out by a doctor among our number that in spite of the comprehensive refutation of the science behind doubts of the MMR vaccine’s safety, the issue has refused to die away.  Non-scientists continue to stir up trouble (vide Donald Trump tweet from March 2014:  “Healthy young child goes to doctor, gets pumped with massive shot of many vaccines, doesn’t feel good and changes – AUTISM. Many such cases!”) (Goldacre quoted another writer’s definitions of lying, truth-telling, and bullshitting, and we agreed that Trump was the perfect incarnation of the bullshitter).

The recent furore over the Volkswagen emission trials was discussed.  The trials results were reported as ‘cheating’ in the media.  It was suggested that if real drivers could drive in the efficient manner of the software running the engines during the trials, then the same results could be obtained.  Were the low emissions reported actually ‘cheating’?

The conventional media are the chief target of Goldacre’s criticisms.  One of our group had discovered the practice of paying for articles in colour supplements and advised against considering any information from such sources as reliable.  Personal experience with The Times on an issue had convinced him that the broadsheets were as culpable as the tabloids in conveying misinformation.  However, he admitted that The Guardian had so far not disappointed him, in that although guilty of occasional factual errors, it did not seem to have descended to outright mendaciousness on any issue of which he had knowledge.

We agreed that contemporary social media also offered infinite examples of the abuse and distortion of information. 

Richard Dawkins and George Monbiot were quoted as good writers who, like Goldacre, set out to upset and confound their opponents.  It made for engaging writing when someone had an axe to grind and wrote with a kind of controlled fury.  However, it was pointed out that such writers, including Goldacre, were not above using the wiles of rhetoric in making themselves persuasive.  On the other hand, one of our group defended his capacity for making decisions on the basis of facts and statistics, unswayed by rhetoric.

Our doctor mentioned the medical writings of Richard Asher (1912-1969) as being superior to those of Goldacre.

We discussed various science and history pundits on television.  The importance of public understanding of science was agreed upon, but nevertheless some of these popularising figures were rather irritating.

It was mentioned that the website ‘Bad Science’ was still active and one of Goldacre’s current concerns was the use of statins.

In relation to Goldacre’s examples of challenging the proponents of bad science, the danger was that it could bring those very people into prominence, and thus legitimise their views.  It was felt that this was a particular difficulty for the BBC, with its obligation to provide ‘balanced’ coverage of issues.  The misinformation propagated by the ‘leave’ campaign during the run up to the Brexit referendum might have been a beneficiary of such ‘balance’.

One reader questioned whether there really was a ‘golden age’ of medical discoveries which is now over, as described by Goldacre.  Our scientists and our doctor concurred, but it was suggested that maybe we were now on the verge of a new period of medical advancement with gene therapy. Goldacre, writing in 2008, could not have been expected to go into this subject.

We liked Goldacre’s analysis of the positive effects – sometimes underestimated – of the placebo effect in making people feel better.  One of our scientists recounted his recent period of time in China.  Having a heavy cold, he was taken to a pharmacy in China where people lay on beds with drips attached.  Having talked his way out of this particular treatment, he was later persuaded by a well-meaning colleague to wear a microwave heated jacket for a morning… and subsequently felt much better!

It was pointed out that people often like to see a particular doctor – the placebo effect in operation.  Medicine is an art as well as a science.

Another member of the group suggested that universities seemed to be too keen to release information to the press.  This was in the context of hope-inspiring cancer treatments that later proved disappointing.  Those with experience of such matters identified a common process by which an academic publishes a peer reviewed paper, the public relations department at the university latches onto it and promotes it, and then the press exaggerates its significance.  Where precisely does the fault lie, we wondered, when the public is mislead on the significance of some scientific discovery?  The writing of the peer-reviewed paper was in itself an organisation and ordering of what one of our scientists described as ‘fumbling about in the lab’.  Our human cognitive proclivity for identifying patterns where none may exist could result in misleading conclusions.  Another reader raised the issue of the book’s title in this respect – ‘bad’ science could be inept or misleading (as in the research paper) or morally ‘bad’ (as in the distortions of the press).

The arguments of the book were felt to be applicable to many fields of human activity beyond medicine and science.  For example, people tend to become paternalistic and defensive about ideas that they have originated or to which they have tethered their reputation.

Discussion moved onto the general gullibility of people – for example the readiness of people in the mid twentieth century to have all their teeth removed because of the ‘superiority’ of dentures.

We wondered if the data that would emerge in due course would support the recent introduction of the 20mph speed limit in many parts of Edinburgh on safety grounds.

We were interested in how different health scares took hold in different countries.

We agreed that – in principle – we should trace back the information given in media sources to its origins.  Of course we don’t always have the time and motivation to do this, so we sometimes have to take the pronouncements of trusted sources at face value.

Discussion moved onto the current political campaign for the upcoming general election, and the statements made in the media.  For example, a nurse had been featured on television who used a food bank – presented as a disgraceful situation – but we wondered how food banks monitored the degree of need of their clients.  There was also a difference between the ‘average salary’ of a nurse, and the ‘average earnings’ of a nurse (taking into account overtime payments).

We then got onto the subject of the alleged decline of the Labour Party.

And then onto Economics.

And then onto Education.

And then onto Deep Learning (your correspondent had never heard of this).

By this time the room was in pitch darkness.  Our host groped his way to the light switch and we could all see who we had been talking to.  For this reason, or perhaps because we had now put the world completely to rights, we soon disbanded and made our way out into the gloaming.

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Gibbon, Lewis Grassic: Sunset Song

The proposer provided a detailed background to the author’s life, his relationships with his family and with the countryside in which he grew up. Born James Leslie Mitchell on 13th February 1901. He was raised in farming communities in the Howe of Mearns. The family scraped a living from the land with great difficulty and as a child he was expected to help with the endless chores. His father was strict and life was harsh. Mitchell was intelligent and thoughtful forming his own views of life, challenging traditional values and this set him apart from his family and the community of the Mearns.

He gained a place at Stonehaven’s Mackie Academy but at the age of 16 walked out following an argument with a teacher. He worked as a trainee journalist in Aberdeen between 1917-1919 and joined the ‘Scottish Farmer” in Glasgow. There followed a troubled period in his life. He was dismissed over expenses irregularities and attempted to take his own life. His family took him back in the hope that he would settle to the farming life but he could not and in order to escape the Mearns he joined the army. Although he hated life in the army, it did allow him to travel. In particular to the Middle East and Egypt, which inspired his first short stories and much of his fiction and non-fiction.

Mitchell returned to the Mearns in 1925 to marry a local girl whom he had kept in touch with throughout his years of travel. They moved to London where life was initially difficult, however, he eventually established himself as a talented writer.  From 1930 to 1934, eleven novels, two books of short stories, three anthropological books and an “ intelligent Man’s Guide to Albyn” with Hugh MacDiarmid entitled “Scottish Scene” were published under the names Mitchell and Gibbon. He died prematurely in 1935 of peritonitis brought on by a perforated ulcer.

The most important of his output is the trilogy of novels, “A Scots Quair“ published under the name Lewis Grassic Gibbon (taken from his mother’s maiden name). The “Quair” (meaning book) is a trilogy, which was published over three years as “Sunset Song” (1932), “Cloud Howe” (1933), and “Grey Granite” (1934). Sunset Song is considered to be Gibbon’s most loved work and, out of the three “Quair” novels, the most easily read as a single book.

Most members of the book group first encountered Sunset Song as a “must” read on the Scottish Higher English Syllabus. Many had moved on from the “forced reading” and revisited the novel to enjoy and more fully appreciate the qualities that have made it one of the most important Scottish novels of the twentieth century. In addition to reading the book many had seen the BBC’s 1971 serialization and some had seen Terence Davies’s film released in 2015.

The story, woven round the character of Chris Guthrie, draws on Gibbons own experiences of living and working in the Mearns. It was suggested that it is this that provides the fascinating and sometimes intimate insight into a way of life that was changing rapidly through the impact of mechanization on farming communities and the devastating effect of the war. The book ends with the end of the First World War and this heralds the end of the crofting way of life. Chris is intelligent, capable and spirited but also conflicted by what she describes as her Scottish self and her English self. Her love of the land and the rural way of life and her need to satisfy her interest in literature and more scholarly pursuits.

The novel details the challenges she faces through girlhood to being a young widow with a child. Her life is harsh and at times brutal living in a dysfunctional family, observing its disintegration and coping with the associated tragedy and loss. While Chris is the central character some of the charm of the book comes from the vivid depiction of other characters, their behavior, moods and physical attributes. It was pointed out that Kinraddie itself is a collection of farms- Blawearie, Peesie’s Knapp, Cuddiestoun, Netherhill, The Mains, Bridge End etc populated by characters that anyone from those parts can recognize. Long Rob of the Mill. Pooty the shoemaker, Chae Strachan, Mr Gibbon, Mistress Munro. The language, wit, and humour of these characterizations add hugely to the depiction of community life.

The accuracy of these descriptions and the frankness of their portrayal proved to be controversial and provoked his mother to comment that he had made the family “the speak of the Mearns”. The way that Gibbons used the custom of gossiping to depict life in Kinraddie provided both insight and amusement in equal measure and was greatly appreciated by all.

“ Aye, if it is wan’t in a rage it was fair in a stir of a scandal by postman time”

It was mentioned that at some point there is a telling passage about gossip replacing meaningful activity and it was suggested that gossip, not necessarily deliberately malicious, more a kind of recreational activity is a continual theme ripe with scandal and innuendo but funny too.

“Alec would say Damn it, you’ve hardly to look at a woman these days but she’s in the family way”

The deft admixture of gossip, spite, cruelty and blinkered prejudice that inhabited Kinraddie provided a rich source of material. The language is unique to Gibbons and initially presented a challenge to some of our group, however, all agreed that they quickly got hold of it and then began to appreciate the importance of rhythms designed to capture the local pattern of speech and the lyrical descriptive capacity which brought the landscape to life.

“ This is one of the best books I have read, describing the land, the moors, hills and stones and the essence of cultivation of the land.”

“ The vocabulary was a delight, full of colourful imagery and dialect that conjured up the world of the Mearns folk.”

All agreed with the views of one commentator that “The book’s personality is shaped by that language.” Lyrical passages are precise, evocative but also linked to the harsh reality of farm work.

“There were larks coming over that morning, Chris minded, whistling and trilling dark and unseen against the blazing of the sun, now one lark now another, till the sweetness of the trilling dizzied you and you stumbled with the heavy pails of corn-laden” the sentence ends, “and father swore at you over the red beard of him Damn’t to hell, are you fair a fool, you quean?”

Descriptive passages display a deep and sensitive appreciation of the landscape and the workings of the elements on it.

“the June moors whispered and rustled and shook their cloaks, yellow with broom and powdered faintly with purple- that was the heather but not the full passion of its colour yet…and maybe the wind would veer there in an hour or so and you’d feel the change in the life and strum of the thing, bringing a streaming coolness out of the sea”

There followed a discussion about the possibility that those book club members who were familiar with the landscape and were acquainted with aspects of the language would be more able to appreciate the quality of Gibbon’s writing. It was concluded that, while it might be easier for some to understand the nostalgic theme comprehension did not require knowledge of the precise meanings of the language used.

The simple structure of the novel was considered by the group and the majority thought that it assisted the reader and added an emphasis to Chris’s love /hate relationship with Kinraddie. The novel has a prelude “The Unfurrowed Field” which outlines the history of and introduces the characters inhabiting the Kinraddie estate, followed by four main sections, titled respectively Ploughing, Drilling, Seed-Time and Harvest. Each section begins with Chris at an important time in her life, seated at the standing stones reflecting on what has happened in the past, returning to the present time at the end of the section. There were some who felt that this approach resulted in slowing the tempo and detracted from their enjoyment of the novel.

It was concluded that this novel fully deserved to have been voted Scotland’s best novel in 2005. It was described as a work of substance, with Gibbons displaying considerable courage by controversially addressing taboo subjects in a very direct way.

All of those who had yet to read “Cloud Howe” and/or “Grey Granite” committed to doing so in order to more fully appreciate the scope of Gibbons ambition in writing “A Scots Quair.”

 

Gunn, Neil M: The Silver Darlings

Rumours of free whisky at the Monthly Book Group in honour of Burns night, so your eagle-eyed reporter was on the case! Arrived just in time to see the whisky bottles put out (“for later”), so cracked open a travelling companion of Vaucluse, and tuned in to the host introducing “The Silver Darlings”.

 The darlings in question, I was surprised to glean, were herrings, and were written about in 1941 by Neil Gunn. This cove with feelings for fish (whatever next?) was born in 1891 in Dunbeath in Caithness, the son of a fisherman who captained his own herring boat. He moved for his secondary education to Kirkcudbrightshire, then took the Civil Service exam at 16. Before you could say “mine’s a double”, he was a Customs Officer back in Caithness and dealing with whisky. Such a hard life….that it left him plenty of time to be a prolific writer, and he became a full-time writer in 1937 after the success of “Highland River”. And time to dabble in both nationalism and socialism (so… your sharp-as-a-tack reporter spotted…. must have been a national socialist?).

 His work encompassed the novel, short stories, essays, travel and even a history of whisky. He is best remembered for his novels. They fell into three broad groups. The first, and earliest, novels were grim depictions of Scottish life, and the proposer particularly recommended works from this group, such as “The Grey Coast”. The second group of novels, to which “The Silver Darlings” belonged, were written in mid-life, and saw Gunn at his most assured. They dealt again with Scottish themes, but were much more positive in outlook. The last novels were more philosophical and dealt with modern life.

 This book found a very fair wind with the Group. Such a convincing portrait of rural life in the early nineteenth century in Caithness, from which many of the Group had ancestors, was beguiling. Gunn’s sense of place was a particular strength.

 He painted this life as simple but dangerous. He brought into vivid relief the dangers of the sea and the elements. He described avaricious landlords, and a predatory press gang who took off at the beginning of the book the man who had looked set to be the hero. We saw the temptations of the whisky bottle and the flesh counterpointed with the fulminations of a puritanical church. And the tenets of the church were contrasted with the much older myths and superstitions by which the fishermen lived. There was a particularly vivid account of a plague of cholera and how the villagers struggled to cope with its horrors. And then there was the sudden shock of finding the sea silver with herring.

 He was outstanding as a writer of dramatic adventure scenes. One such was the fishermen trying for the first time in their lives to sail round the north of Scotland to Lewis, with little other than verbal advice as a navigation aid. Another was the scene of Finn scaling dizzy sea cliffs in search of water to drink and gulls to eat:

 Roddie’s whole weight threw itself instinctively on the rope, but it was torn through his hands as the Seafoam rose up and up on the towering wave. Along the rock walls it smashed in a roar flinging white arms at crevice and ledge. Swung seaward on the crest of it, they hung for a dizzying moment on a level with Finn. He had seen it coming and flattened to the sloping rock, gripping with fingers and knees and toes. The solid water swept the soles of his feet, but the white spray covered him like a shroud…

 One reader was reminded of the novels of Conrad, with the scenes of the companionship of men on the sea, and how they had to act together against the elements.

 Running as a thread through the somewhat episodic book was the development of the herring industry. Gunn was perceptive and informative about the economics and impact of such an industry, on which the community came to depend. But his central story was the coming of age of Finn.

 His characters were very convincing. He shrewdly charted the interplay of gesture and mood in his story of Finn’s development. This was both in relation to Finn’s quasi-Oedipal resistance of Roddy coming into his mother’s life, and to Finn’s faltering steps to acquiring a girlfriend.

 We felt admiration for his portrayal of childhood, for example in his account of how the young Finn felt on getting a toy trumpet. The analysis of mother/son relationships was an important theme of the novel, primarily in relation to Finn and his mother Catrine. The theme was developed in very striking form when the cold feet of an apparently drowned fisherman were warmed between his mother’s breasts.

 It was also interesting that one of Finn’s first female interests also had the name Catrine, and one member observed that this was perhaps suggested by Gunn’s interest in the works of Jung, who suggested that such a “coincidence” was common. Well, jings, makes you think….

 (Okay, I’ve drained the Vaucluse now……what was that about whisky?…and the famous home bakes??…)

 Gunn’s writing at his best was simple and evocative. It could convey a lyrical feeling for the Caithness landscapes and the world of the sea:

 “They were bound for Stornoway, and it was a brilliant morning, with an air of wind off the land. Green had come through the grey of winter, for it was the beginning of May, and a waft of wood-smoke from a cooper’s fire brought the smell of summer, as if they were setting sail for it…”

 So any reservations at all? Some found the book on the long side, particularly those reading it for a second time. And one found rather irksome the authorial presence, sometimes sententious and sometimes arch, when Gunn was telling rather than showing.

 The characters were perhaps too good to be true. There were no villains in the book. And, when Roddy was depicted as a head-banging drunken fighter, it did not seem quite convincing set against his normal roles of prudent captain and circumspect suitor of Catrine. Gunn had some of the same social concerns as Dickens for the impoverished, but, at least in this case, the novel did not have the same campaigning edge as Dickens.

 Some expressed surprise that Gunn, as a Socialist and Nationalist, did not come down harder on the role of landlords such as the Duke of Sutherland in the Highland Clearances. Gunn did allow one of his characters to criticize landlords regularly, but there were also explanations of why they might have acted as they did.

 This typified the way in which Gunn’s overall mood in this book was one of serenity. He depicted some awful threats to life in the press gang, sea storms and cholera, and several characters met horrible deaths, but the reader always felt that life would turn out all right for the central characters. This was the positive mood that characterised Gunn’s second phase as a writer.

 Had anyone noticed that at the start of the novel Finn could speak only Gaelic, but soon he and his ship-mates seem to be speaking English without difficulty? A continuity problem?….Well, maybe, but Gunn did not himself speak Gaelic and always regretted that……So how many Scots at the time spoke only Gaelic ?…Ah, said our resident history adviser, we do have a figure that, some sixty years earlier in 1755, some 300,000 Scots out of a population of 1.2 million were monoglot Gaelic speakers, ie about 23%.

 And, added our history adviser, how many were aware that while the population of England in 1801 was 8.3million (and that of Scotland 1.6 million), the population of Ireland was over 5 million, rising to over 8 million in 1841 before the potato famine? Surprising….

 So what did we make of the mysticism in the novel, and the section in South Uist with the old man making prophecies and reciting a poem full of symbolism? ……Liked the mysticism….didn’t think the South Uist seer and his symbols worked…reminded me of Gunn’s “The Green Isle of the Great Deep”, which was when I stopped reading him….yes he did have a “Zen’ phase letter on….

 (Get on with it…I only came along for the whisky….)

 So, taking the broad view, did we not think that heroes such as Roddy and Finn no longer existed in the world? Indeed Gunn several times draws a parallel between his Finn and Finn McCoul, the Irish hero of legend. Had we not witnessed the death of the hero in modern times? Well….. it was true that we lived in a much safer world than that of the fishermen and it was difficult to portray as a hero someone who, for their own amusement and gratification, sets themselves a dangerous task such as sailing round the world. But after some discussion we agreed that heroism was still to be found in people who fought for the lives of others during a natural disaster, or during a war.

 However, there was unanimity that this enduringly popular novel was a fine achievement, and a great Scottish novel from the twentieth century renaissance in Scottish writing.

 Ah!!! Here came the famous home-bakes! Tuck in! Yes, don’t mind if I do…

 And why don’t you try comparing these two whiskies? Yes, don’t mind if I do…..(hmmm…thought you would never ask)….

 They’re both Japanese…..

 Run that one by me again?

 Both Japanese…..

 Oh……………………Gunn the Scottish nationalist would not have approved, but Gunn the international socialist might have….

 Oh well, any port in a storm for your eagle-eyed reporter……

 Actually, that one’s quite decent, ok if I just help myself?

Grass, Gunter: The Tin Drum

The Proposer of “the Tin Drum “introduced the book, which had been recommended to him by a German friend as an example of a rich literary tradition within Germany.

 This controversial assertion sparked some debate and momentarily diverted the group from its consideration of “the Tin Drum”.

 Getting back on task the proposer found the book challenging, a “difficult read”. Complex and somewhat disjointed. The novel is based on the life of Oscar Matzerath who decided at the age of three to stop growing by throwing himself down stairs. He communicates through his tin drum and by means of other “gifts”. He considers himself as both Jesus and the devil.

 The story is narrated by Oscar who is an inmate of a mental institution. It is a complex mélange of fact and fiction, partly autobiographical, dealing with guilt and loss in equal measure.

 It was published in 1959 and translated into English by Ralph Manheim a couple of years later to international acclaim. Grass initiated a new translation to mark the 50th anniversary of its first publication and Breon Mitchell undertook this work. The new translation is generally considered to have captured much more of the subtlety of Grass’s use of language.

 The group discussed this further with some having read the original translation while others had read the Mitchell version. One member who had read the original felt that he had missed a great deal but thought that any translation from German into English is likely to lose some meaning. Examples of where improvements had been made in the Mitchell version were shared, in particular in sentences where words were used to mimic the sound of the drumbeat.

 The Proposer gave a brief overview of the author’s family background, explaining the importance of this to providing an insight into the source of Grass’s story. He was born in Danzig in 1927 of Polish-German parents. They ran a grocery shop through the years of the depression. Gunter’s mother had the greater influence on him encouraging him to pursue his “talents” while his father wanted him to become an engineer.

 He left school at 15 and was conscripted into the Waffen SS, wounded at the age of 17 while serving with a Panzer Division and interred as an American Prisoner of War.

It was when in captivity and in the years immediately after the war that he first began to question his support for the German cause and to acquire the feelings of guilt and shame which lie at the heart of much of his early work.

 With Danzig mostly destroyed Grass became a refugee following his “talents” via stonemasonry, to Art College where he studied sculpture and graphics and eventually to writing. He was a lifelong Social Democrat though no longer a party member. He opposed the unification of Germany on the basis that there would be a risk that a unified country would revert to the behaviors that brought about the Second World War. He was awarded the Nobel Prize for literature in 1999 and now aged 84 he lives in Berlin.

Returning to the Group discussion it was confirmed that most, if not all, agreed that it had proved to be a difficult read. Some had read the book before and found that a second reading helped them to better appreciate and understand the complexity of the book. Everyone recognized and admired the quality of the writing but there was a unanimous view that the book was too long, that it was episodic with several chapters almost standing alone as if short stories. 

 The Group endeavored to compare the book with others but concluded that it was a “one off”. No one confessed to reading any of Grass’s subsequent books and given that the “Cat and Mouse” (1961) and the “Dog Years”(1963) were, together with the Tin Drum, known as the Danzig trilogy it was suggested that these would have to be read before a comparison can be made. There was little enthusiasm for this idea!

 The group puzzled over how the book had been conceived and whether or not it had been planned. While chronology gave it some structure it was pointed out that there remains a randomness and lack of coherence. One member described the writing as a “creative ferment of ideas and images” but also applauded the imaginative use of wordplay eg “brain explodes on to page”.

Some members appreciated the allegorical approach adopted by Grass while others felt it was overdone. Most were impressed by the imagery, sarcasm, and moral ambiguity that pervades the novel and serves to add layers of complexity to what is a very complicated story.

 The purpose behind the use of a three-year-old child (Oscar) to narrate the story was discussed and it was agreed that this enabled Grass to deal with the difficult issue of responsibility. The observational position given to Oscar allowed him to more freely comment on what was happening around him and it was suggested that being a three year old enabled Oscar to remain unnoticed and to avoid being accused by anyone for his actions.

 Some members remarked on the book’s pervasive sense of futility and on the use of humour that often had an unpleasant edge. They considered the book to be overrated, better received by people outside Germany than by German people themselves. It was suggested that the reason that the book was so warmly welcomed by the English speaking community was because it acknowledged guilt and expressed shame about Germany’s role through the events of the war and postwar years.

 It was mentioned that some critics regarded the book as blasphemous and pornographic when it was first published. This drew much protest from certain members who were particularly incredulous about the suggestion that the book was pornographic. The loudest protest came from those members of the group who have demonstrated in the past a startling liking for what many would describe as racy literature. 

 A more sympathetic explanation for the strength of feeling was eventually attributed to the differences in the two translations with the later Breon Mitchell translation restoring some overtly sexual references thought to be too shocking for British readers 50 years ago.

 In conclusion the book was highly regarded by some but not by all. While everyone considered it to be too long they all admired the quality of the writing and the complex treatment of difficult issues. The majority agreed that while the book had been a challenging read it had been worth persevering with.

Buchan, John: John Macnab, and Greig, Andrew: The Return of John McNab

The books for discussion were “John Macnab” by John Buchan (1925) and “The Return of John Macnab” by Andrew Greig (1996).

Introducing “John Macnab” the proposer said that Buchan (1875-1940) had a long, varied and distinguished career. He would pick out some salient points, in particular to challenge the popular view that Buchan was:

–    a traditional Tory Imperialist;

–    casually racist as was typical of his times;

–   and the author most notably to be remembered for “The Thirty-Nine Steps”.

Buchan was born in Perth and raised in Kirkcaldy, but his heart lay in the Scottish Borders where he spent his summer holidays in Broughton with his grandparents. An uncle and aunt lived in Peebles.   His title, Tweedsmuir, came from that part of the Borders, as well as the names of two protagonists in this book:  Leithen and Lamancha.

He studied classics at the universities of Glasgow and Oxford, and had no less than six of his works published while still at University. After graduating he became a diplomat acting as PS to Lord Milner, High Commissioner for South Africa (which country was to feature in a number of his novels). On return to the UK he became a partner in Thomas Nelson, living in Salisbury Green, and editor of the Spectator.

On the outbreak of the Great War he worked for the British War Propaganda Bureau; became an officer in the Intelligence Corps where he wrote speeches and communiqués for Douglas Haig; and ended up as Director of Information under the future Lord Beaverbrook.

After the War he devoted most of his time to writing, but was elected in 1927 as the Unionist Party member for the Combined Scottish Universities seat. As early as 1910 he had stood as a Unionist candidate in the Borders. However, he was quite a liberal unionist as he supported women’s suffrage, national insurance, and the reform of the House of Lords. He also strongly admired Gladstone. Archie Roylance’s speech probably reflected much of Buchan’s liberal unionist political views.

In 1935 Buchan was appointed Lord Tweedsmuir before he was sent to Canada as Governor General, in which post he died in 1940. Buchan was still held in very high regard in Canada. He argued that a Canadian’s first loyalty was to Canada not to the British Empire. He was a champion of multiculturalism – a word he invented. He argued that ethnic groups in Canada should retain their individuality and make their contribution to the nation, and that the strongest nations were those made up of different elements. He also argued successfully that his successors as Governor General should be Canadians.

He was best known for his thrillers, in particular “The Thirty-Nine Steps” (1915), which along with “The Riddle of the Sands” was the first modern thriller novel. However, arguably his best novels, as Buchan himself thought, were his historical ones. The proposer particularly recommended “A Lost Lady of Old Years”; “Midwinter” and “Witch Wood”. His lives of Montrose and Scott were also superb. Buchan indeed wrote over 100 works including poetry, essays, journalism, histories, biographies and some 30 novels. The influence of Stevenson and Conan Doyle on Buchan’s narrative skill was palpable.

The proposer had chosen “John Macnab” for this discussion, partly because it was an amusing, difficult to classify, novel, and partly because it provided an opportunity to compare and contrast it with Andrew Greig’s updated version. There was a good review in Scots of the two books on Wikipedia.

So how did the Group react? Everyone had enjoyed the Buchan – “beautifully written, fluent, and very amusing – and a brilliant idea”, “easy, humorous, rollicking read”, “a well-crafted page-turner”. But two reservations were expressed.

One was discomfort with the cast of upper class grandees and the class-conscious, snobbish society they inhabited (and which the author seemed to endorse).

The other was that the book was a lightweight jeu d’esprit (although Buchan, who worked hardest at his historical fiction, might have agreed). The characters who collectively comprised John Macnab were hardly differentiated and it was difficult to remember who was who. If you compared this book with the “most popular” books published in 1925 (most popular as assessed by contributors to the “goodreads” website) it was competing with “Mrs Dalloway” by Virginia Woolf, “The Trial” by Franz Kafka, and “In Our Time” by Hemingway, works of much greater substance.

But was it really true that Buchan fully bought into the gilded life of the upper classes he was describing? Some detected a note of reservation, a distancing of the author from some of his characters. There was the ironic reference to Lamancha – son of a Marquis – having every disadvantage of birth. It was surely tongue-in-cheek for Janet Raden to spot John Macnab was really a gentleman because he was wearing an Eton prize badge. Admittedly there was some snobbery in the portrayal of the nouveau riche Claybodies (although by the end they became more sympathetic). But the women in the novel came through strongly, and the characters with most energy were a woman, Janet, and Fish Benjie, the artful dodger. Arguably Buchan was foretelling a different type of society in which women and the working classes were to play a bigger role.

Hold on, were we not over-intellectualising something that was written with the intention of being an entertainment? Well, not necessarily: even if we knew what Buchan’s intentions were (and he had a very active and wide-ranging intellect), the meaning of a work of literature is often very different from what the author intends to put into it.

One of the clearest signs of a more serious meaning was at t where Claybody explains to them that they were never at real risk of any public embarrassment. This point was given surprising weight, and highlighted the author’s awareness of their privileged position. It would be going too far to suggest that there was an element of satire in the book, but the author was certainly “knowing” about the social background of his characters.

A shadow cast over the jolly jape was that of the First World War. The three heroes of John Macnab plus Archie had all fought in it. The imagery – particularly in the poaching scenes – was full of allusion to the War, right down to the Flanders mud. The characters’ attitude to ordinary soldiers who had fought in it was central to the moral distinctions drawn between the John Macnab heroes and the non-combatant Claybodies. (Denis Healey has remarked on the difference in real understanding of working people between those who had fought in war and those who had not).

Another point given considerable prominence by the author was the political philosophy expounded by Janet and taken up by Roylance, although it was wrapped up in a comic scene worthy of P.G. Wodehouse. They argued that the landowners had to take up the challenges of the new post-War era if they were not to disappear. The ennui suffered by the three heroes of the collective John Macnab was not just a plot device but a common condition in the twenties in the wake of the War (as evidenced, for example, in Huxley’s novels).

While it was true that it was difficult to separate out many of the central characters, it was normally the case that a novel with a complex plot had little character development, and vice versa (this point is elaborated in our discussion of P. G. Wodehouse  in November 2008). And in this case, although the characters might have little depth, the plot kept you avidly turning pages to see how the tale would finish.

(Phew, just time for a quick refreshment before they were off again on to another book…. whatever next, three books)?

Introducing the second book, “The Return of John Macnab” by Andrew Greig, the proposer said that Greig had started as a poet before turning to fiction. His other most well known novels included “Electric Brae”, “That Summer”, and “Romanno Bridge”. He had also written books on climbing, which gave him good background for writing the Return, which the proposer felt was a good update.

So what did we make of Greig’s Return? On the positive side, it was a bright idea to update the novel, and he had cleverly brought it into a modern setting. It had more of a political edge, but remained a page-turner. He had a real feel for the modern Scottish Highlands, and a deep knowledge of mountains and mountain sports.

Some of the descriptive writing was good, reflecting his background as a poet. His philosophical reflection on metaphors for life – not like the sand disappearing through an hour-glass, but like a tree putting on rings of experience, and at its broadest before dying – was engaging.

Kirsty  – taking on and developing the journalist role played in the original by Crossby – was an excellent and very intriguing character. Her relationship with Neil, and Neil’s struggle to move on from the death of his wife, had the stamp of authenticity.

The author created a fine climax, with a real sense of drama and danger of death (although the gravity of the danger jarred with the jesting tenor of the rest). And the cameo appearance of Prince Charles was amusing.

Alas, we also had plenty to say on the negative side. The relentlessly jaunty, would-be-youthful, tone grated. Some of the dialogue hit false notes. The coherence of the tale was lost as he endlessly explored the relationship problems of the protagonists. He even indulged in some passages of Housemanesque self-pity on behalf of a narrator who, confusingly and unnecessarily, did not identify himself until the end. And it grated to have the novel end with a plug for the follow-up.

Kirsty and Neil did seem real characters with an interesting hinterland (perhaps based on people known to the author or his own experience). However, most of the other characters were either stereotypes (Murray), implausible (Alasdair and Jane and their unconvincing reunion on the moors), or politically correct (the lesbian Shonagh and the Arab Aziz).  And did he need to harp on so obsessively about Buchan’s praise of boys and small-breasted women?

One of our members gave up on the book by page 100. He had been put off by sentences such as:

“The air smelled like white wine ought to taste but doesn’t unless you’ve a lot of money to burn, and he felt fifteen years younger.” (Chapter 5); and

“The light didn’t do anything so dramatic as break that morning.  It was more as if somewhere up in the gantry of the hills, a giant hand slowly pushed a lighting rheostat from closed to open.”

The latter seemed particularly bad, as he says the light wasn’t doing anything dramatic, and then evokes a theatrical metaphor (lights coming up on a lighting gantry) to describe it. (Chapter 7) What was he thinking?  Did his editor read this and say nothing?

Or was our largely negative reaction because you got bored of the plot of the poaching games by the time you were on the sixth one? …Oh really, would you feel that way if it were a sixth bottle of wine?

There was a feeling that Greig – who started off writing poetry and climbing literature, and had written a good book on golf courses – was not too comfortable writing fiction. Perhaps that was why he had hit on the idea of doing a “remake” of the plot of someone else’s book? Certainly those who had read “Romanno Bridge”, which followed on from this book but with an original plot, found it pretty disappointing both as a follow-up and as a self-standing work. Like “The Return of John Macnab” it had flashes of quality – in the idea for the plot, and in some of the poetic and philosophical asides – but it did not function well as a work of fiction.

So, your correspondent ventured, some good tasty bits but rather lost overall in a soggy mass, a bit like a Gregg’s prawn sandwich? Oops – instant silence and intense glares for interrupting the literati….

who moved on to compare the two books.

Greig’s version revealed a rather different structure of ownership of Highland land in 1996, with foreign owners  – Arab and Dutch – outnumbering the one British (and royal) owner. This compared with a couple of Scottish aristocrats owning land in the Buchan version; one self-made English businessman; and just one foreigner, an American. Greig was writing in 1996 before the creation of the Scottish Parliament and the right to roam legislation, and his concerns about the new offence of aggravated trespass, although accurate for the time of writing, already had a dated feel.

(At this moment I idly examined my empty glass and bottle, but to no effect as the debate was in full spate….)

John Macnab has similarly moved from an upper class group of jolly good chaps, with subordinate support from a woman and a tinker, to a group of equals that is more broadly based in class terms, and in which women have a major role to play.

One interesting difference is that John Macnab is in no danger in Buchan’s version, as Claybody is at pains to stress, whereas he is in mortal danger in the Greig version with the “Shoot to Kill” policy of the Security Services.

However, the biggest difference is that Buchan is a major writer at the height of his powers, writing with assured poise in a genre in which he is very comfortable.  Andrew Greig by contrast seems somewhat uncomfortable and gauche as a novelist, and obscures his updating of the novel – intrinsically a very interesting idea – with some unproductive diversions. However, the comparison of the two versions had proved an intriguing exercise, and it had been a particular pleasure to revisit Buchan, whom many of us had not read for many years.

(I put my glasses on, lifted the bottle, and scrutinised it against the light….)

 What were other examples of updating famous works of literature? And were any very successful? We had recently discussed Posy Simmonds’ version of “Far from the Madding Crowd” (May 2009), which was very successful in its own terms. New versions of Shakespeare plots were ten-a-penny in Hollywood and of varying success. And it was widely believed that Shakespeare himself updated an earlier version of Hamlet, probably by Thomas Kyd, which would make it the most successful updating of all.

So on they went, wondering if a yet newer John Macnab had been responsible for the theft of a watercolour from the Signet Library after a New year function, returning it unharmed after a couple of weeks…….discussing a John Macnab jape for the MBG to carry out (watch the press for news of this)… and then segued to the causes of the First World War and the impact of Prince Bertie on the alliance with the French….

I tried turning my glass upside down and shaking it. “I say, fancy a drop of  Talisker?” said the host….Result! Capital fellow!

Gillies, Valerie: The Spring Teller

Introducing the evening and our guest, the host said that it was a very special event for the Monthly Book Group. It was the first time a book of poetry had been discussed, and the first meeting where we had been honoured to have the author of the book present – in this case an internationally known and highly regarded poet.

 Valerie Gillies was a longstanding friend of the host. She was born in Canada, grew up in Scotland, and studied at Edinburgh University. A Commonwealth Scholarship had allowed her to continue her studies at Mysore University in India. She had been writing poetry since she was fourteen and had been a freelance writer since 1971. She was well known as the River Poet who followed the Tweed and the Tay from source to sea. She was the winner of several prestigious awards and had held several writing fellowships across Scotland.

 Valerie had written several books of poetry including Each Bright Eye, Bed of Stone, Tweed Journey, The Chanters Tune, The Ringing Rock and The Lightning Tree and a book of non-fiction Men and Beasts with photographer Rebecca Marr. Her subjects were wide and varied. She had written about cities, towns, castles, houses, people, rivers, animals, fish, birds, insects, guns, medical matters, her family, natural phenomena and, of course, springs and wells. Her poetry was to be found etched onto plaques and stones throughout Scotland.

 She had been appointed the poet laureate for Edinburgh, the first female Edinburgh “Makar”, in 2005 and her official poems include The Balm Well, A Place Apart about the quiet room at Marie Curie Centre and To Edinburgh for the official opening of the new Council’s Headquarters. She taught creative writing in schools, colleges and hospitals. Valerie was also well known for her collaborative achievements in the visual arts and music’, and was editor of the interactive Poetry Map of Scotland.

 Valerie was married to Professor William Gillies, Professor of Celtic Studies at Edinburgh University, and two of their children were pursuing careers in the decorative arts. The “Spring Teller”, the subject of discussion with the Group, was written over a period of three years from 2005 and was Valerie’s most recent work. Her beautiful poems covered wells and springs throughout Scotland, plus one or two in Ireland and even in Wales, India and Crete. Her descriptions were of the locations of the wells and springs, and their topography, history, traditions, healing properties, and wildlife. Also discussed were visitors to the wells, local people and efforts to unblock ancient wells.

 Valerie had been a neighbour for many years, and indeed had composed many of her poems in a summer-house adjoining his garden, which he hoped indicated they had proved good neighbours.

 Indeed so, agreed the lady herself (who could perhaps say little else about the state of neighbourly relations, thought your eagle-eyed correspondent, whose  suspicions were aroused when it later transpired she had penned a poem entitled “Berserk in Morningside”…).

 Mrs Gillies said she traced her fascination with wells and springs back to her grandfather, who had taken her as a child on a mystery tour to an Angus glen. There he had filled a lemonade bottle from a spring and said “there, that’s the water I dreamt of every night in the trenches…”

 It was particularly apt that the Book Group was meeting on the last day of April, because there was a tradition of visiting wells to celebrate them on the first day of May, or on the first Sunday of May. We speculated on why such traditions and our fascination with water might exist. The month of May associated with the Virgin? The fact that we were ourselves largely composed of water? The positive ions produced by flowing water – but wells did not flow (ah not so, we were told, a well is an enclosed spring in which the water moves – not a stagnant pool). Our uterine beginnings in water? Water as part of fertility rituals?

 A clue, suggested Valerie, was given by archaeologists, who had not found remains earlier than Roman in Scottish wells. Such Roman remains had included whole breastplates of armour. So perhaps the tradition of honouring wells had started with the Roman tradition of equipping the deceased for their journey to the next world.

Whatever the origins, it had become customary to “silver the well”. This was of course done with silver coin, and – if that could not be afforded – a small white pebble was used (an example was shown to us by the poet). This tradition had been debased both literally and metaphorically these days by the throwing in of one or two pence coins.

 But not everything was developing for the worse. There was a growth of interest in well-visiting in some parts of Scotland, for example in the Black Isle. This applied particularly to “clootie wells” (rag wells) where a piece of clothing from a sick person was hung up by the well, with the hope that as the cloot decayed so would the illness. (We were advised against placing the sort of non-decaying garments known to be favoured by Monthly Book Group members, such as shell-suits, polythene bags etc, as they might prolong the illness).

 This growth in interest might reflect the general growth of interest in Scotland in archaic traditions, as well as in alternative medicine. And there was certainly evidence that the favouring of certain wells for particular illnesses was soundly based scientifically on their particular chemical properties, such as the chalybeate wells for anaemia, a well that was a cure for “dry–eye”… and so on. The Balm-Well at Liberton was famous for producing a tarry oil that was good for the complexion and skin complaints, and had been much used by everyone in Scotland including royalty in past centuries.

 And the poet took particular pride in the fact that some of her poems had helped to revivify interest in historic wells or springs that had been blocked off, perhaps for health and safety reasons. One example was St Anthony’s Well on Arthur’s Seat, where there was now a chance it would be restored.

 How did she go about writing her poems? The Ordnance Survey “Explorer” maps, large enough to show wells and springs, were an important part of her kit. Also important – for finding wells and springs that had been covered up – was a set of dowsing rods. Dowsing rods definitely worked, and could easily be bought via the web (or indeed made from coathangers).

A sceptical scientist in the group picked up her set of dowsing rods, held them out, and was astounded when they twitched towards a large pool of brown liquid in front of him, contained in a pint glass. And he continued this experiment – with the same results – periodically throughout the evening.

 Her normal method was to record her impressions in some notes and sketches, then later write a poem in pencil, and finally type it up. She wrote little prose, as prose offered an infinity of choice of word, whereas the rhythmic structure of poetry forced the writer towards the right word.

 Poetic influences? Some favourites were Michael Longley, Sorley MacLean, and John Clare.

 We then moved on to inviting Valerie to read – and discuss – our favourite poems from the book. These included:

 “Munlochy”, a sinister poem about a spooky clootie well;

 “Queen Mary’s Bath-house” and “Spring, Tinto Hill” – where the traditional rhyme and metrical structure found favour;

 “The Wellhead”, a political poem addressed to the Scottish Parliament about the lack of history teaching in Scottish schools;

 “Samuel Rutherford”, which recounted the tale of a famous divine who, when a boy, had fallen into a deep well. When those who had gone for help returned they found him safe by the side of the well. He told them he had been rescued by an Angel.

 The poet herself put forward the poem “The Butter Well” in the Lowthers, about a well which had been used in butter-making.

 We noted how interesting it was to hear the rhythms conveyed by the poet herself reading aloud, and discussed the impact of unconventional metrical structures.

 We then ranged more widely, discussing the use of poetry in cancer care, and hearing from the proposer two particularly poignant poems from the collection “The Lightning Tree”. We heard of an indentation in a bank manager’s lawn which had turned out to cover the gaping chasm of a thirty foot well – was this a portent of the credit crunch?

 We established that the poet was next undertaking a poetry-writing project in America, listening to their birds in their woods; and we then insisted she signed our copies of “The Spring Teller”.

 Then at last she was free from the clutches of the Monthly Book Group, and could retreat. Perhaps to the safety of her summer-house, to pen “Berserk in Morningside Revisited”.

 Meanwhile the members of the Group spilled out into the street, led by the no longer sceptical scientist, convinced that his dowsing rods would soon lead us to a public house…

Gray, Alasdair: Lanark

Introducing “Lanark” (1981) the proposer said that Alasdair Gray was born in Riddrie in East Glasgow in 1934. His parents had met on a rambling holiday, and his father worked in a cardboard box factory. Gray, together with his mother and sister, was evacuated from Glasgow to Perthshire in 1940, and then rejoined his father in Wetherby in Yorkshire in 1942. After the war his father could not get a professional job in Glasgow and had to take work as a wages clerk. Gray’s mother died in 1952, the same year he entered the Glasgow School of Art.

 In 1954 he started writing sections of what became “Lanark”. He also wrote and published some of the stories collected in “Unlikely Stories, Mostly” (1957). In the decade after leaving art school, Gray sometimes worked as a teacher, sometimes as a scenery painter for the theatre, and sometimes lived on the dole. But he was always painting, and always writing. He painted many notable murals, not all of which had survived. An example could be found in the “Ubiquitous Chip” restaurant in Glasgow. It was odd that, amongst all his published work, there was not a book of his paintings.

 In 1960 he joined the CND, with which he was still associated. In 1964 his son was born, and he made a television documentary, to be followed by a number of television and radio plays. In 1977 he was employed on a Job Creation Scheme as artist for the Glasgow People’s Palace, from which he soon moved to become “Writer-in-Residence” at Glasgow University.

 “Lanark” was a “big’ book – big in ideas, big in reputation and big in weight. It was the longest of Gray’s works, and not the easiest. It was immediately seen as a great event in Scotland’s literary life when finally published by Canongate in 1981. Scotland’s resurgence of literature could almost be dated from the moment of its publication. Gray had been described as “the grand old man of the Scottish renaissance”, and it had been said that the book “detonated a cultural time-bomb which had been ticking away patiently for years”.

 The proposer had chosen the book because he had read it when it first came out and felt that it had never quite settled with him – therefore he wished to re-read it. This time it had seemed more coherent.

 So what did the Group make of “Lanark”? The discussion revealed a large number of contradictory views, and there was no real movement towards consensus. So a confusing – if not confused – discussion, perhaps rather like the book. Or was the problem that in Scotland we were too close to the book, and less inclined to grandiloquent judgements such as Anthony Burgess’ a “shattering work of fiction in the modern idiom” that Scotland “needed” by “the best Scottish novelist since Walter Scott”?

 So it was a difficult (“unthankful”?) task for yours truly, the luckless discussion summariser.

 A few, in addition to the proposer, were re-reading the book. Some found it more coherent and that it made more sense, fitting in with the less linear style of modern literature; others found it less coherent. Some felt Gray had been prescient in raising issues – such as globalisation, the role of multinationals and the environment – that seemed even more topical now. And he had captured the oppressive nature of large bureaucracies with which we were all too familiar.

 Some in some moods got fed up with Thaw/Lanark  – his inability to seize opportunities, his self-pity, his rejection of those who tried to help him – but in other moods sympathised with him. One who had found the book absolutely brilliant the first time round still found it still pretty good, with its imagination and range, but was more aware of the self-indulgence of sections such as the Epilogue, and the tedium of others. (Whereas another liked the Epilogue!).

 Some were reading it for the first time (or completing it for the first time, after falling asleep during the opening section the first time). Amongst them there was the full spread of opinion.

 One felt it was an outstanding book, containing everything you could want in a modern work. He could relate to the portrait of his early life as someone with whom nobody sympathised at school. The book dealt with the alienation of the individual and the destructive side of capitalism. It was also entertaining and witty. However, he acknowledged its inaccessibility, which limited its popular readership. It was a book more popular with the literati than the common reader, and perhaps not a book you warmed to.

 One thought it was really pretty poor. Indeed he had decided to give it up if it did not improve by page 110, and had only kept going because of the relative improvement of the autobiographical Thaw story. But over the piece he did not like it all. It was absurd, for example, that a writer should need to spell out in the middle of the book what his work was meant to be about (the passage about it being about the inability to love at both personal and societal levels).

But the views of most fell in the middle. Generally they liked the autobiographical Thaw section, but were less enamoured of the confusing fantasy sections (the same view taken by William Boyd in his introduction to the 2007 edition). 

 However, they recognised the book would be pretty ordinary without the fantasy “bookends”. These amplified and echoed Thaw’s problems in the imaginary world of Lanark. The character of Lanark was “Thaw on speed”. Eczema became dragon-hide, and he had (somewhat) more success with women. And portraying Glasgow as a sun-less world of nightmare was imaginatively convincing (but then a Book Group based in Edinburgh would think that).

 For one it was a sad book – about a sad person, unable to engage successfully with the world, and escaping from the drabness of life on benefit in Glasgow into art and fantasy.

 What then of the specifics? As autobiography, the book was distinguished by its honesty. It was an unflinching portrait of a misfit, of a dysfunctional individual with problems in relating to people, particularly to women and people in authority. Where so many autobiographies would boast about the protagonist’s remarkable charms with the other sex, this did quite the opposite, and even confessed to his sadistic urges towards women. It was also interesting as a historical record of West of Scotland life during and immediately after the Second World War.

 The book would have been an easier read if it had started with the autobiography rather than the fantasy, but Gray’s ambition to follow the structure of classical epic and start “in medias res” gave the book a whiff of obscurity that impressed some (and depressed others).

 The book was lightened by some welcome shafts of humour – for example portraying the Intercalendrical Zone as having signposts in the form of Scottish Motorway signs (with New Cumbernauld as hell). However, the science fiction sections were fairly derivative.

 One reader found the second slab of fantasy much less powerful than the first, and felt the whole book  went into a tailspin after Lanark meets the author. Meeting the author was an amusing idea – in a trendy, deconstructionist sort of way – but it shattered the coherence of the book. This disruption was compounded by the pretentious list of influences that followed, as the author became dazzled by the fool’s gold of his own brilliance. Before long the sombre, Kafkaesque intensity of Lanark’s life in Unthank had given way to a burlesque of international conferences and a Red Clydeside rant about the evils of the politico-economic system. The novel had lost its focus and fell apart as much as ended. (Hmmm…bit of a rant there too, perhaps?)

Ah well, but for someone else the critique of governments and businesses was the whole point of the book. The book was essentially a vehicle for a critique of capitalist society. And someone else found it particularly interesting to see what the influences on the writers were. Still no consensus!

 However, most agreed that some rigorous editing would have helped the book – perhaps a book of about 400 pages would have been right. But who could imagine Messrs Thaw/Lanark/Gray accepting any editing whatsoever?

The artwork (particularly for the original dust-jacket, reproduced as the cover of the 2007 edition) found several fans. One member had found himself reading the book in the same Glasgow hospital that Thaw had gone to, and reported that the (male) nurses had licked the striking female nude on the cover (or did he say “liked”? Your correspondent’s hearing has been deteriorating due to the unusual noise levels at Easter Road this year…). Another member speculated that Gray’s greater talent was for art rather than fiction, and there was general dismay that his artwork and murals had received little attention and respect.

 The book was conventionally described as a seminal work of fiction, which had sparked off the Scottish literary Renaissance. But, argued one, in what sense was it really a work of fiction at all? It was more like an autobiography – one half literal, the other half fantasy, but all about one person – Alasdair Gray. There was hardly an invented character of substance and complexity. For the hero to meet the author during the book took self-absorption to new and giddying heights, and the ill-judged “Tailpiece” in the new edition gave us a whole extra Q and A on the subject of me, me (and me)………Well, but wasn’t it in the nature of science fiction – and the Pilgrim’s Progress style of plot – to be more interested in ideas than characters? And weren’t Sludden and Marjory interesting characters?

 And what was the influence of the book on subsequent Scottish literature? Who else was writing in a mixture of fantasy and realism? No one we could think of –other than that Ian Banks did so, but in separate books. Perhaps the influence was more indirect – “Lanark” had encouraged publishers to take up the work of new Scottish writers. And to be fair to Gray his role might have been better acknowledged if he had been the sort of relentless self-publicist some of his contemporaries were.

 And did Gray achieve his ambition of giving Glasgow an imaginative profile to put it on a par with Paris, Rome or San Francisco? Well….err…………………no.

 So were we left with a conclusion? Well, some – but not all – might sign up for describing the book as:

 derivative in many of its building blocks but brilliant in its construction, in its blend of fantasy and reality;

  • but inaccessible because of its  construction, despite being pretty readable in reality;
  • strong and honest in its autobiographical section;
  • very imaginative;
  • yet self-absorbed and self-indulgent;
  • very ambitious in its scope, but over-long;
  • in summary, a work of flawed genius.

And now for some critical footnotes, in the best “Lanark” tradition.

 1.   Our empirically-minded scientific adviser notes that, while theses may have been written about the meaning of “Unthank”, and while some of us wondered if to “unthank” someone was a peculiarly Scottish form of put-down, there is a real place called “Unthank” not too far from Lanark. It is one of three such in the UK. The name has nothing to do with thanking but means “without leave” (from the old English “unpance”) and describes a piece of land occupied unlawfully. It was used in the context of pieces of borderland fought over between the Scots and the English. Therefore the name is perhaps appropriate in the context of the novel.

 

2.   Meanwhile our medical expert reports that Gray refers to stasis asthmaticus when he should have said status asthmaticus. The root of the problem is anxiety, and m*st*rb*tion would be a good way to reduce anxiety. There is evidence that testosterone produced in m*st*rb*tion also helps in the transport of a hormone DHEA which might help relieve asthmatic symptoms. Certainly low levels of DHEA are associated with asthma. There is scope for further research.

 3.   One of our number reports that he was responsible for programmes for the unemployed in the West of Scotland at the time of the publication of “Lanark”. Was he therefore head of the Institute and thus Lord Monboddo?

 4.  Our musical adviser reports that “The Unthanks” are an English folk group from Northumberland, and include two sisters with the surname “Unthank”. Does this mean, he enquires, that the sisters have been unlawfully taken?

 5.   Our medical expert reports that, notwithstanding footnote 2, there is as yet no evidence that m*st*rb*tion cures blindness.

6.   Our internet adviser reports a post on an Alasdair Gray website from a lady with dragon-hide legs. Far from being a disadvantage, she says that her dragon-hide legs have proved very popular on the Hounslow sex scene.

 ??…..Run that last one by me again…