The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie by Muriel Spark

The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie by Muriel Spark was first published in 1961. It’s one of those books which I seem always to have known about, there have been a few TV dramatisations of it and of course a film starring Maggie Smith and Gordon Jackson. For that reason I was never in a rush to read the book although I have read a lot of Spark’s other books. In fact I think that for a long time I thought I had already read it. For a lot of people this one seems to be their favourite but my favourite is still The Girls of Slender Means, which nobody else seems to rate!

The setting is of course Edinburgh where Miss Jean Brodie is a teacher at the Marcia Blaine School for Girls, obviously a rather posh fee-paying establishment. She isn’t keen to stick to the curriculum, preferring to teach her own form of ‘education’ giving her own views on politics and art rather than teaching the arithmetic which will be necessary to get the girls through their exams. The school authorities are not happy about Brodie’s attitude and are looking for a way to get rid of her.

I wasn’t keen on the way this book was written, I don’t like it when an author ‘gives away’ the future fate of characters, jumping ahead to something which happens years in the future, and the repetition annoyed me too. How many times did we have to be told that Rose Stanley was famous for sex? It’s the sort of writing which was more usually used in poetry or song writing where you expect the same refrains to be repeated. But I don’t happen to be a fan of poetry.

It is however a very Scottish or maybe more correctly an Edinburgh book, very Calvinistic and split personality-ish, light and dark. Nothing is as it seems.

What I was thinking about when Miss Brodie was gathering her wee coterie of acolytes about her – her ‘creme de la creme’ was: What were the other girls in the class thinking? The ones deemed not to be special enough to be one of the chosen. I have in fact witnessed something very similar in the past, amongst grown women can you believe it? all fluttering around their goddess. I know that I was just observing and thinking to myself – what a bunch of embarrassing idiots. So the likelihood is that one of the girls, or all of them who were not in the Brodie set, would have spiked the Brodie guns many years before and complained to the headmistress about her via their parents. But that’s me over-thinking a book – as usual, because obviously if that did happen, there would have been no book.

I read this for the Read Scotland 2014 challenge which is thankfully being carried on into 2015. I haven’t read any Scottish non fiction at all this year as far as I can remember and I must rectify that soon.

Blue Wicked by Alan Jones

Blue Wicked is the second book from Scottish author Alan Jones and is quite different from his first one – The Cabinetmaker. Although I found the subject matter to be a bit too gruesome for my taste I can see that it will appeal to a lot of people who are less squeamish or should I say maybe don’t have such detailed and graphic an imagination as I have.

Eddie is a vet who has the unenviable task of dealing with a poor cat which has been skewered by some evil nutcase. It isn’t the first time that he has come across felines which have been tortured horribly and he knows that there is a theory that those who do such things move on to torturing and killing humans. He searches back in SSPCA files and discovers similar cases which he thinks might be linked.

When murder victims with the same injuries as the cats start turning up in Glasgow he is certain that they are connected and with the help of Catherine, a local detective, he sets out to track down the perpetrator.

As I have already implied, this book was way out of my comfort zone, and in fact I had to dive into the 1950s realms of an Angela Thirkell book as soon as I finished it, but if you enjoy a more violent and gory read such as books by Val McDermid then you’ll probably like Blue Wicked which is well written and does capture the atmosphere of misogyny and condescension which I’m sure exists within all police stations. The actual storyline is well thought out and all of the loose ends are satisfactorily tied up at the end.

And the Land Lay Still by James Robertson

It was Jack who recommended that I should read And the Land Lay Still by James Robertson, he thought it was great, and I have to agree. It was first published in 2010 and it’s quite a chunkster at 671 pages. It’s written in six parts and it involves quite a lot of characters who at times don’t seem to have anything to do with each other but their stories all link up eventually. (You can read Jack’s much fuller review here.)

I loved it because it’s the history of Scotland since the 1950s although it does dip back into some old soldiers’ World War 2 experiences. It brought back so many memories, particularly the unexplained death of Willie MacRae, a solicitor and SNP activist which I had forgotten about (how could I have?) and the rise of Scottish Nationalism in the early 1970s. In reality I’ve always hankered after an independent Scotland, but never thought it was worth one person’s life or any acts of violence at all. There were a few complete nutters who did try campaigns of violence. I remember standing waiting at the station for the train to come only to be told that it wouldn’t be coming because there was a bomb on the line just outside the station – really! Even crazier it turned out that the bomb had been put there by someone I was at school with and his brother, and ‘we’ all knew that they didn’t have three brain cells between them! Since the successful devolution referendum in 1997 there has thankfully been none of that sort of nonsense, not that it ever amounted to much.

Anyway, I digress, although this book is about ordinary Scottish people, it’s also sprinkled with politicians, pressure groups and spies.

It was only recently that some ex high heid yin admitted that even the CIA was involved in dirty tricks during the first devolution referendum campaign, in 1979. Never mind, we’ll get there eventually.

Some blurb from this very good book:

Bold, discursive and deep, Robertson’s sweeping history of life and politics in twentieth century Scotland should not be ignored. – Ian Rankin, Observer, Books of the Year

Brilliant and thoughtful. Eminently readable, subtle and profound
– Independent on Sunday

Armchair Travelling and Winnie the Pooh

This armchair travelling malarkey can be very surprising. A few nights ago I was innocently roaming the internet when I suddenly found myself in Philadelphia of all places – well at least half of me seemed to be there anyway, through the wonders of google chat. It was Joan of Planet Joan on the other end of course and when during our chat she found that she was a wee bit peckish she happened to mention that she had taken ME down to her basement via her Ipad or some such gadget, so that she could get a snack.

I’ve never had a house with a basement and I find the idea quite alarming, so I wanted to know if there was a wee window which you (I) could get out by in case of being somehow locked in there. Joan assured me there was a wee window, then of course I wondered exactly how wee, because I’m not quite as skelf-like as I used to be!

Immediately Winnie the Pooh came to mind, would I be like him and be stuck half-way through the window, or in his case Rabbit’s door. I just love E.H. Shepard’s illustrations

Where is all this silliness leading to I hear you ask?!

Winnie the Pooh was of course written by A.A. Milne and although he was born in England he was brought up in the very strict Scottish Presbyterian tradition, his grandfather was a Scottish Presbyterian minister. So I count A.A. Milne as a Scottish author, if you haven’t already read Winnie the Pooh you might want to do so now and count it towards the Read Scotland 2014 Challenge.

The Cabinetmaker by Alan Jones

The Cabinetmaker cover

The Cabinetmaker is the first foray into crime fiction by Alan Jones and I hope it won’t be his last because I really did enjoy it. The setting is Glasgow, starting in the early 1970s and ending in 2009.

John McDaid is the newest recruit to the CID and he finds himself in a department full of detectives who are less than careful about their work and the way they gather information. When a young student is jumped in a Glasgow street by a group of thugs, and ends up dead, the resulting investigation is compromised by the behaviour of the older detectives.

Over the years McDaid forms a friendship with Francis the victim’s father. Francis is a talented and successful cabinetmaker and watching him at his craft awakens a love of woodwork in McDaid. The workshop parts of the book contain some of the best writing. Alan Jones conjures up the scene perfectly, describing the techniques involved in making various pieces of furniture.

The main character of McDaid is very likeable and I do hope that Jones will be able to use him in another book. The storyline has some very clever twists and turns but the language of the police station which is mainly at the beginning is what is usually described as ‘strong’ – don’t let that put you off. Jones wanted to be true to the ambience of the 1970s male dominated police force. I’m sure it’s all very authentic. Think of the TV programme In the Thick of It where the language is atrocious but according to those who know, in reality Blair, Campbell et al were actually even worse with the amount of swearing that really went on in Downing Street.

You can read Peggy Ann’s review of The Cabinetmaker here.

It just shows you that everything is relative as Peggy found the football/soccer parts of the book dragged a bit, whereas I thought those bits flew past. I’m assuming that that is because I’m well used to being bored stiff by my husband’s football chat!

If you fancy reading The Cabinetmaker you can buy it here. You can ‘look inside’ and get a flavour of the book too.

Alan Jones is Scottish and lives in Scotland, so this one would count towards the Read Scotland 2014 challenge.

A Double Death on the Black Isle by A.D. Scott

First I want to say a big thank you to Peggy for sending me this book. I’d send her a Hielan’ coo if I could!

This is the second book by A.D. Scott which I’ve read, the first one in this series is called A Small Death in the Great Glen, which I enjoyed but I think I liked this one even more.

Set in the Highlands of Scotland in the 1950s, the main character is Joanne Ross, a typist at the Highland Gazette. She’s now a single mother as she has left her abusive husband and she’s being given more work on the newspaper, learning to become a reporter.

The Highland Gazette has just been given a makeover and the first edition has been well received, now the editor is worried about finding enough news to keep the standard up and interest more readers. But it turns out that there’s plenty going on in the Highlands, I don’t think it’s actually mentioned in the book but the Gazette is obviously based in Inverness and most of the action goes on on the Black Isle where there are two deaths on the same estate, on the same day.

As ever I don’t want to say too much about the storyline but I did enjoy it and the way that Joanne’s character and personality are developing. She’s up against the small minds of a rural community, where women who wear trousers are thought of as scandalous and leaving a husband is just unheard of – but she’s winning the battle. I’m looking forward to reading the next in the series. I read this one for the Read Scotland 2014 Challenge. A.D. Scott is actually a Scot although she doesn’t live there at the moment but I think her nationality comes across clearly, she couldn’t be mistaken for someone who has just chosen to set a novel in Scotland.

The Comforters by Muriel Spark

The Comforters cover

The Comforters was the first of Muriel Spark’s twenty-two novels to be published. It was published in 1957 and as I’ve just recently finished reading Lanark, Alasdair Gray’s first novel I have to say that I did notice similarities between the two, they’re both a bit crazy, written by Scots, influenced by Calvinism and are about writing and characters, with books within books. The Book of Job also features in both books.

At the beginning Laurence Manders is on holiday, staying with his grandmother Louisa, and on waking his first morning there he overhears her asking at the baker’s van for a wholemeal loaf, claiming that Laurence won’t eat white bread, which isn’t true. Laurence works for the BBC, isn’t sure if he is still engaged to Caroline Rose and his main hobby seems to be snooping into everyone’s business, even reading their letters. When he finds a cache of diamonds in the centre of the wholemeal loaf he thinks that his grandmother must be part of a diamond smuggling gang.

Caroline Rose, his sometime fiancee has converted to Catholicism, whilst Laurence is a lapsed Catholic. Caroline has taken herself off to a Catholic retreat as she is having some sort of nervous breakdown and hears a typewriter which seems to be narrating her thoughts.

Throw in a handful of unusual characters, including one Georgina Hogg, a ghastly self-righteous and poisonous pain who was almost certainly a nod to James Hogg’s book The Private Memoirs and Confessions of a Justified Sinner, and it all adds up to a strange but enjoyable read, although it isn’t one of my favourites by Spark.

This book was written as Spark was converting to Roman Catholicism and she was very poor and undernourished. Whilst writing the book Spark took Dexedrine which was apparently used as an appetite suppressant in the 1950s but resulted in her having hallucinations, like the Typing Ghost in this book, she didn’t realise that it was the drugs which were to blame for the hallucinations and she continued to take them for 3 or 4 months. Well, they led to this book I suppose and she certainly wasn’t the first writer to have her imagination boosted by drugs. Just think of Lewis Carroll!

I read this as part of the Read Scotland 2014 Challenge.

Rockets Galore by Compton Mackenzie

Rockets Galore was published in 1957 and is set on the fictional Scottish islands of Great and Little Todday, as were his previous books Keep the Home Guard Turning and the better known Whisky Galore, which was of course made into a film.

It is Cold War era and the government has decided that the islands are needed to house the rockets which will supposedly protect the people in Britain by firing at the people in Russia. The islanders have been told that some land will be needed for the plans and some of them will have to move off the islands altogether, as you can imagine, that news doesn’t go down well. In reality both islands will need to be evacuated completely, but the powers that be are keeping quiet about that to begin with.

Later one islander says: Yes they’re going to make a desert of the Western Isles and call it peace.

His friend replies: I think desert will be the last word you’ll be able to apply to the Islands when they’re full of these chaps training for ballistic warfare. But don’t misunderstand me Hugh. I feel just as strongly as you do about this rocket business, but what can we do? If we could trust the Russians … but we can’t. They mean to rule the world, and we and the United States have got to stop them. And by the time they’re ruling what’s left of the world, the Chinese will step in a rule them.

Well that Compton Mackenzie seems to have been quite a seer, as it feels like China is taking over now!

The islanders are being wildly underestimated by their so called betters of course and have plenty of tricks up their sleeves to see the invaders off.

An enjoyable and amusing read.

I read this one for the Read Scotland 2014 Challenge.

Lanark by Alasdair Gray

Lanark cover

I read Lanark as part of the Read Scotland 2014 Challenge, I chose this one because I hadn’t read anything by Alasdair Gray before although we have all of his books, this one must have been sitting on a bookshelf here since 1981, it’s the first one he had published and was named as the second best Scottish book recently, Irvine Welsh’s Trainspotting was the winner. As ever, these polls should be taken with a bucketful of salt as something like less than 500 people voted for it, so not exactly a large poll.

Anyway, I’m glad that I read Lanark although it wasn’t really my cup of tea, well it was curate’s eggish as it was good in parts. It’s quite a chunkster at 560 pages and in fact the full title is Lanark A Life in 4 Books. It’s obviously very autobiographical, Alasdair Gray is an artist as well as a writer.

Lanark is not the place, but is the main character and he is also known as Duncan Thaw. Duncan is a young Glaswegian who hopes to become an artist. As Thaw was living in the part of Glasgow where I was actually born and he visited the park which I have some of my earliest memories in I found those parts really interesting but early on parts of the story become really fantastical, like something written by Lewis Carroll – but for adults, and it was really quite weird. Jack said to me that when he read it when it was first published he thought it was brilliant, nothing like it had been written by a Scot before, but Jack is a keen reader of SF.

The blurb on the front says: ‘An ambitious and marvellously inventive novel’ Malcolm Bradbury

Some blurb on the back says: ‘When dawn comes up and then retires in dismay, we find ourselves in the presence of an overpowering surreal imagination. A saga of a city where reality is about as as reliable as a Salvador Dali watch.’ Brian Aldiss

It’s certainly a novel which makes you think, as civilisation as we know it has disappeared.

Definitely different from my usual choice of reading matter but it’s good to have a change now and again. For my second Read Scotland choice I opted for Rockets Galore by Compton Mackenzie, much more my thing.

Ivanhoe – to chapter 20

I’m just going to give a sketchy summary of the story so far. It should be from chapter 11 to chapter 20 but due to my confusion, and a lack of an actual book to leaf through as my own book is already packed away in one of my many boxes of books, I’m unsure about the length that the story gets to by chapter 10.

Wilfred (Ivanhoe) is the son of Cedric the Saxon and has just returned from a crusade. Soon after his return he saves Isaac the Jew from being robbed and probably murdered, so when Ivanhoe is wounded in the jousting it is Isaac’s daughter Rebecca who nurses him back to strength.

Meanwhile the upper class Norman hooligans who are sucking up to Prince John, have been hatching plans of their own and ambush Cedric and his companions, including Rebecca and Isaac. Front de Beouf imprisons them all in his castle. One of Cedric’s household manages to escape into the forest and luckily stumbles across the ‘men in green’ who are not at all happy about what Front de Boeuf and company have done. Obviously it’s Robin Hood and his merry men.

So far so good, I’m still enjoying Scott’s writing, it doesn’t take long to settle into his long sentences, I thought I would just say a bit about Scott’s choice of subject.

I believe that until he wrote this book he had been writing mainly about Scotland and although those books were very popular he was beginning to worry that people would eventually get fed up with Scotland so he decided to branch out and chose the tensions between the Normans and the Saxons which must have been around in England in the years after the Normans had invaded England. When you think that when Jane Austen was writing Pride and Prejudice she chose a French Norman name for her most fabulously wealthy character, Darcy – just imagine how French names and language of course must have rubbed the native Saxons up the wrong way. In fact there are still a lot of French names around in the UK and I can’t help thinking – hoity toity when I hear them. No doubt it was the same in Imperial Russia as the white Russians were speaking French while only the serfs and peasants spoke Russian. Anyway I’ve meandered from the subject as usual.

I’m wondering if Scott got the whole idea for the book because of the situation in Scotland. He was born in 1771 just 26 years after the 1745 Jacobite Rebellion which of course failed. But the upshot of that failure was that the English and certain Lowland Scots tried to stamp out Highland traditions, the way of life, language and the clothing that was worn was banned. People couldn’t teach their children Gaelic because if they wee ones spoke it in front of anyone in a position of power then it was a death sentence for the whole family. Nowadays everybody thinks of Scotland when they see tartan fabric but at this time tartan was proscribed/outlawed. It was only in 1782 that tartan was decriminalised, so Scott would probably have been 11 years old before he saw anyone wearing tartan. If you want to read about Walter Scott and George IV’s visit to Scotland have a look here. Scott pulled out all the stops for this visit and it’s his designs that we have to thank or maybe blame for all the frou frou lace and velvet that is worn now by Scotsmen, mainly at weddings, in fact it seems that there is an unwritten law that there must be at least one man in a kilt at every wedding. Gordon was at a wedding last year and the bride especially asked him to wear his kilt. However Gordon did not wear his kilt with pink tights, which George IV apparently did.

Anyway, that’s my theory about Scott’s choice of subject matter, as he was growing up he must have felt the tensions in Scotland where there were garrisons full of English soldiers and probably Lowland Scots, just to make sure that they could squash out a rebellion at the merest whiff of one. It isn’t a big leap in the imagination to think what it would have been like for the native Saxon English to be treated like low life in their own land.

Now for the next 10 chapters, for next Thursday I hope! I am of course reading Ivanhoe for Peggy’s Read Scotland 2014 challenge, as is Judith Reader in the Wilderness.

What do you think Judith – have I taken this too far?!