Category Archives: Scottish things

Obsolescence

This morning I happened upon this superbly articulate and, I would say, essential essay by McKenzie Wark, and I’ve been thinking about it all day. Quite apart from the admiration one would obviously feel for the way it is written – such an engaging and dynamic arrangement of arguments – it seems to me that this piece presents one of the most cogent defences of science fiction I have ever read. Wark shows SF to be not just radical but necessary as a means of exposing the derangement of our present age:

Ghosh thinks that this strategy of introducing chance or the strange or the weird or the freaky into the novel is to risk banishment. But from what? Polite bourgeois society? The middle-brow world of the New York Review of Books? Perhaps it’s not the end of the world to end up exiled in genre fiction, with horror, fantasy, romance, melodrama, gothic, or science fiction. Frankly, I think there’s far more interesting readers to be found reading there.”

The essay seemed to come as an answer to the question of why I feel an almost inevitable unease – discomfort even – in the presence of a novel like Ben Lerner’s 10:04, one of the most perfectly realised studies of interiority I have encountered recently with not a word out of place or superfluous, and yet there is that dis-ease, all the same. It seemed to chime with feelings of sadness at the death of Brian Aldiss, one of our most insatiably curious writers, and devoted to SF almost at his own peril. Along with others whose comments I’ve seen in response to the various online memorials, I could come close to arguing that my intellectual life was kick-started by Aldiss’s great Penguin Science Fiction Omnibus, and the vision it presented of SF as a distinct literature, a movement almost.

I feel fortunate in reading Wark’s essay precisely now, as I contemplate new work, new directions. I have a pile of notes already for the next book and I think it would be fair to say that I’m excited about it but even more so after today, with all these new thoughts about what the novel is for still in my mind.

Most of the book industry conspires against such a vision but that only makes it more exciting, more necessary.

*

Currently reading: Denise Mina’s The Long Drop, which is spare, chilling and excellent. It is also on the shortlist for the Gordon Burn Prize, which by accident rather than design I happen to have read most of, as well as several other titles that appeared on the longlist.  I’ve been so impressed by the Gordon Burn Prize – its ethos, its juries’ choices – that I am seriously considering reading and reviewing the full longlist next year, as a planned reading project. As for this year, I was lucky enough to hear Denise Mina talk about The Long Drop at the recent Bute Noir crime writing festival right here in Rothesay, an event that has proved to be one of the highlights of our first summer here, a miniature Bloody Scotland with every seat taken and everyone already looking forward to more of the same in 2018.

“In the future they will think they remember this moment because of what happened next, how significant it was that they found Mr Smart’s car, but that’s not what will stay with them. A door has been opened in their experience, the sensation of being in a car with friends, the special nature of being in a car; a distinct space, the possibility of travel, with sweets. Because of this moment one of them will forever experience a boyish lift to his mood when he is in a car with his pals. Another will go on to rebuild classic cars as a hobby. The third boy will spend the rest of his life fraudulently claiming he stole his first car when he was eight, and was somehow implicated in the Smart family murders. He will die young, of the drink, believing that to be true.”

*

The summer is well advanced, but still so full of things. Chris and I will be guests of Fantasticon, in Copenhagen, at the end of this month. At the end of next month there’s FantasyCon, and after that I’ll be in Paris on a writing residency, and hopefully writing. The new book will be set in Rothesay, or rather versions of Rothesay, with the novel that brought me on my first visit here more than a decade ago now – Andrew O’Hagan’s ravishing Personality – standing over me like an admonishment…

Our Pavilion

Last Friday, we had the excitement and privilege of being able to participate in a ‘hard hat tour’ of Rothesay Pavilion, which is currently undergoing a major programme of redevelopment – read rescue project – prior to its scheduled reopening in July 2019. 

The pavilion was designed in the 1930s by James Andrew Carrick, son of Ayr architect James Carrick, a noted practitioner of Arts and Crafts style. The pavilion opened in 1938, its clean Art Deco lines providing a startling and significant addition to Rothesay’s traditionally Victorian seafront architecture.  Carrick’s design is thought to have been inspired by the De La Warr Pavilion in Bexhill, which opened in 1935 as one of the very first Modernist buildings in Britain. An art exhibition space, cinema and seafront cafe, the magnificently refurbished De La Warr was a venue we visited often and with great pleasure when we lived in Hastings. When we discovered she had a ‘cousin’ in Rothesay we were delighted.

Carrick went on to design two more iconic buildings on Scotland’s west coast: the Cragburn Pavilion in Gourock and the ice rink in Ayr. Sadly both of these are already lost to us, making Rothesay Pavilion three times more precious and worthy of preservation.

Although the exterior of the building looks rather the worse for wear at present, a sizeable amount of important work has already taken place inside – removing hazardous materials, securing the structure – in preparation for the major second phase of building works that are due to begin in the autumn.

The new Rothesay Pavilion will be a vital community space as well as a major arts and music venue, a youth training facility, an important source of inspiration and revenue for the island, a slice of the town’s history reborn. It’s a thrilling project and a thrilling prospect, and huge thanks are due to the Rothesay Pavilion registered charity‘s artistic director and CEO Julia Twomlow and to project manager Peter McDonald for hosting such an instructive and hands-on tour.

You can even see some live footage of our explorations at the Rothesay Pavilion Facebook page!

Where we are

It is difficult to keep finding new words for the political catastrophe that is engulfing the UK: the disingenuousness with which the Brexit government conducts itself, the wimpishness with which the majority of sitting MPs go along with it all, the – well, the non-existence of any opposition. Although Ian McEwan did a swift back-pedal on remarks made in interview with the Spanish newspaper El Pais (no, they weren’t ‘garbled in translation’, Ian, it was you being spineless: how pathetic, to try and make out that ‘Nazi’ was substituted for ‘nasty’ – did it never occur to you the two words only sound alike in English?) he was perfectly right, and there was no need for him to hand out any mollifying ‘clarification’. The people of the UK are not Nazis (although a vocal minority are doing a damn good impression) but the democratic underpinnings of our parliamentary system have been subject to exactly the kind of depredations that laid the foundations for Nazi dictatorship in Germany in the 1930s.

A plebiscite – that’s a referendum to you and me – might look like democracy but more often than not it’s a power-grab by a government or section of government bent on weaponising the general populace towards its own ends. And talk about the Big Lie. Again, the people of the UK are not stupid, but they have been urged towards a certain viewpoint based on unsound principles, evident falsehoods, and the poisonous drip-drip of tabloid sensationalism. That blatant lies went virtually unchallenged as part of the pre-referendum Brexit ‘debate’ is not just a scandal, it has morphed into the biggest threat to our parliamentary democracy in living memory. That the sitting government now seems bent on pursuing the wages of these falsehoods – diving after them like lemmings over a cliff, in fact – is like watching an experiment in mass hypnosis run fatally out of control. That we as an electorate are effectively without an opposition – well, those ‘nasty’ comparisons just get bigger and bigger.

In a UK where government ministers can push ahead with an insane and retrograde agenda – an agenda that will set the social and political agenda for decades to come – without due parliamentary process (what sop to process we’ve been offered has been nothing more than a charade), and where the Lord Chancellor can stand by while the most scurrilous of our national newspapers labels our judiciary enemies of the people, it feels as if literally anything could happen here and there’d be fuck all we could do about it.

Remind you of anywhere, Mr McEwan?

A speech to Scottish Labour in which London’s mayor Sadiq Khan drew parallels between those in favour of a second Scottish independence referendum and those voting for Trump or Brexit kickstarted some heated debate last month about the nature of Scottish nationalism. I can see why Mr Khan might feel worried: he has had to face down the most appalling racism and the very word ‘nationalist’ must set off about a hundred warning bells. But while the frenzied backlash against Claire Heuchan for her timely and thought-provoking piece supporting Khan’s view is an unfortunate example of exactly what Khan was talking about (although I disagreed with Heuchan’s essay on several points, it seems to me that she is precisely the kind of thinker we need more of) I still think Khan got it wrong. Not about nationalism – he’s dead right about that – but about what the SNP stands for.

When talking about Scottish nationalism, we would do well to remember that the ‘N’ in SNP does not stand for ‘nationalist’, but for ‘national’. The SNP is the party for Scotland, in other words – not the party that promotes ‘Scottish nationalism’ in the sense Khan was getting at.

That kind of nationalism is old – so old – and invariably toxic. Not just in Scotland, but everywhere. As a planet, we are facing unprecedented challenges from disease, from poverty, from educational inequality and above all from climate change (which, if ignored, will exacerbate all the above a millionfold), In the face of such challenges, many of which are threatening to become crises even as we speak, the idea of something as thoroughly nineteenth-century as ‘nationalism’ is almost indecently parochial, destructive, and above all useless.

For Theresa May to claim that Nicola Sturgeon has ‘seized upon’ Brexit as an excuse to drive forward her own political agenda is just another piece of gross misinformation – all the more gross because everyone who peddles it knows it is untrue. The material change in political circumstances since the 2014 independence referendum could not be more seismic. Anyone who has followed Sturgeon’s numerous attempts these past six months to liaise with Westminster, to talk through options, to come to a reasonable compromise can see clearly that her announcement yesterday that she will be seeking consent from the Scottish parliament to call a second independence referendum was made because Sturgeon felt she would be failing in her responsibility not to do so. On the eve of May’s triggering of Article 50 and still with nothing but icy contempt shown for her efforts, there was finally no alternative.

As she made her announcement to the press yesterday, Sturgeon made it very clear that ‘it is not just our relationship with Europe that is at stake. What is at stake is the kind of country we will become’.  As journalist and commentator Robert Somynne so beautifully put it in his piece contesting Khan’s view of Scottish nationalism, ‘the ambition is not being “better than England”, but aspiring to just be better in an age in which progressivism is under threat‘.

I think Nicola Sturgeon is brave and I believe she is honest. As First Minister for Scotland she has my full support. My dream is to see an independent, diverse, progressive Scotland at the heart of a stronger European Union and that is what I’ll be voting for when the time comes. Whatever happens, I am proud and very happy to call Scotland my home.