Sunday, 27 May 2012

Just a book review


So, the sun is shining and I've been sitting in the garden. And thinking that I should write a blog about why Independence is such a misplaced objective for the Left with reference to the experience of the successors of James Connolly.

But, then again the sun was shining.

And when you’re sitting in the garden, perhaps with a glass of wine, to be honest, politics can wait. Nothing better than a good book.

When I was a very young man, and still at University, I was given a lift back from a Labour Party meeting by a guy called Mike Pepper. He seemed to me to be very wise, for he was one of the few local party members who could properly be described as an intellectual. He had a postgraduate degree and had worked as a senior civil servant in the then equivalent of the Department of Overseas Development. He also seemed to be very old, although I suspect he was more or less the age I am today.

“What” he inquired “are you currently reading?”

Now, I am sure I at first tried to impress him with reference to something by Gramsci,  Luxembourg or Marcuse (in the latter case, never a more wasted hour). He however pressed on. “No. What fiction are you reading?”

I confessed that I didn’t have much time for fiction, particularly in the midst of also having to read the occasional Law book at the time. I would, I confidently asserted, have time for fiction in later life.

“No you won’t.”

And there was never a truer word spoken.

The reality of my life is that I seldom have time to read fiction nowadays. Except on holiday.

But, when the sun shines in Scotland, an admittedly rare occurrence, you can have a mini-holiday. So, over the last two days, in my own garden, I have digested Andy Nicoll’s book “If you’re reading this I’m already dead.”

Now, it is very rare for me to have met somebody who has written a book. By a book, I mean a work of fiction. I know lots of people who have written non-fiction books. Anybody can do that. Well maybe not anybody, but anybody with a commission, time and, not unimportantly, a reasonable command of the language. Whether the result is then readable then kind of depends on whether you are interested in the subject in the first place. I was once, thanks to a luggage disaster, marooned in the Alto Adige with nothing to read but a biography of Albert Camus and, I have to admit, I struggled. Despite the Goalkeeper’s fear of the Penalty, there wasn’t even much about football in it.

But a work of fiction is something else entirely.

And a book written by someone after you have met them is something else again. Before is altogether easier. Christopher Brookmyre is among the elect of the Black and White Army, and, in that capacity, a pal of my brother. So, when I first met him I could happily have ignored his celebrity and stuck to more important matters, such as whether Hugh Murray could play another season at the top level. (Answer: when we first met, certainly; Today, regrettably not)

You could in the process avoid any awkward questions about his oeuvre by pretending to be unaware of it, or, at least, by implying from it lying undiscussed, that it was not really to your taste. Not that, I should hurry to add, that this was required in Chris’s (spot the name drop there)  case; indeed the problem was more rather that he clearly did not feel the North Bank at Love Street was an appropriate location for a “We’re not worthy” demonstration on my part; such obeisances being reserved, at that place and time, for the great Hugh Murray himself.

But it’s altogether more complicated when somebody you already know declares that they have written a book.

So, when I learned that Andy Nicoll had written a book, I was a bit apprehensive. Because, before he ever wrote any kind of book, I knew Andy Nicoll. He was an acquaintance, perhaps a bit more, as he was a great pal of my best pal, John Boothman. And he was, and here I am descriptive rather than judgemental, a hack. A senior hack but a journalist nonetheless. While he could smell out a story and write it up as well as any; and occasionally contribute a witty comment piece, he was essentially a fact based writer. And he worked, indeed still does, for the Sun.

So, given his employer, the fear was that, as fiction, he might produce some sort of sub-Freddy Forsyth thriller. Full of square jawed former SAS men determined to right the wrongs left un-righted by the fall of Mrs Thatcher.

In fact, his first book “The Good Mayor” could not have been further from that than anyone might reasonably imagine. Indeed, as a secret fan of derring-do, it wasn’t really my thing. It would best be described as a bit surrealist (“a bit” anything being as far as Scottish people ever go). Towards the end the central female character turns into...............I had better say no more in case you some day read it.

I did however, as you will have gathered, read it in anticipation of encountering the author. Only I didn’t; since this was that brief period of my life when I abandoned the company of low-life political hacks to temporarily masquerade as a member of the legal establishment.

And, shamefully, he then wrote another book which I have not yet read at all.

But. It is always darkest before the dawn.

I met the self same author at the last Labour Party Conference in Dundee. Not the greatest event I’ve ever attended; indeed, learning that Andy had written another book was the single thing I did learn. I was even invited to its launch event, at which I was promised “free drink”. I couldn’t manage that, even for the free drink, but I did buy the book.

And, as I imply, after a few false starts when after a long working day a single chapter was struggled to completed before I was overtaken by Morpheus, over the last two days I have read “the book”.

It’s brilliant. When my dad died I inherited a large number of novels given to him as school and boy scout prizes before the War. Memory serves that they were all written by W.G. Henty, although I suspect others were involved. Adventure stories nonetheless. Written in that period Hobsbawn would refer to as the final part of the long 19th Century.

Now, I know, had I been alive in that period I would have spent my time railing against the iniquities of the age in Methodist Halls and Miners’ Welfare Institutes. But it was also, at least in fiction, an era of great adventure. Of perils on the high seas; in “darkest” Africa and, above all, in the Levant, where, almost credibly, the direst of circumstance could be saved by the sudden arrival of the Royal Navy.

Andy has written an adventure story in that tradition, and brilliantly. But he has also coupled it with a rather cynical contemporary and retrospective commentary in the style of (and I mean no false praise) Umberto Eco. As you travel from Budapest to Fiume and then onwards to Albania you turn every page keen to know what happens next but, increasingly, find yourself in apprehension that the reducing number of pages means that the adventure must be drawing to a close.

And when it is all over? You are left reflecting not just on the dangers but also the attractions of the “Great Man” school of history.

Buy this book. Although he doesn’t know it yet, the author has promised me a pint for every additional 100 copies sold. If he turns out to be the new JK Rowling I might never need to buy a drink for myself ever again. This year at least.

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