Recently there has been hot debate about the nature of the Booker Prize and if it has institutionalised class and national prejudice at its heart. I understand why writers view these things as important, but as James Kelman said in his speech following his win in 1994 for ‘How Late it Was, How Late’, he doesn’t need his writing, and therefore his voice, to be given validation from anyone, particularly from a prize giving panel. That’s why I am slightly surprised that many writers seem to care so much about the Booker prejudice, perceived or otherwise.
To deliberately misquote Groucho Marx; ‘I wouldn’t want to belong to a club who didn’t want me as a member’. Do the best Scottish writers really seek approval from Martin Amis? The idea of giving prizes to any art has always made me uncomfortable. I understand it’s commercial, and that as someone who writes about books I’m on the thinnest of ice here, but surely the Booker Prize is simply the literary version of getting your book placed in the 3 for 2 sections in Waterstones. When art and commerce cuddle together something is almost always lost, as anyone who lives in, or visits, Glasgow can see if they go to the underground station at Hillhead, where Alasdair Gray’s famous proclamation; ‘Work as if you live in the early days of a better nation’ has been amended to ‘…in the early days of a better world’. I can only imagine the fraught meetings that led to that compromise.
Most of my favourite writers wrote/write not because they thought it was going to make them a living or win them a prize. They felt they had something to say, and were compelled to say it. I doubt Andrew Raymond Drennan dreams at night of baubles and plaudits. He strikes me as a man who has to write, and would do so even if no one published or read him. His second novel ‘The Immaculate Heart’ is one of the most arresting of recent years. It is so completely about love in all its forms that you cannot fail to believe that this is a man with experience; good, bad and everything in-between. The central relationship in the novel is between 14-year old Maggie and octogenarian Bertrand Mantis whose relationship is the strongest and most reliable, a love which is never complicated with such realities as sex, marriage or family ties.
Maggie becomes obsessed with solving the mystery that has haunted Bertrand throughout his life; what happened to the love of his life Rose? Maggie tries to piece the clues together through Bertrand and Rose’s love letters. While she does this she is obsessively trying, and failing, to find love in her own life. The desperation from Maggie as she clumsily seduces a parade of teenage idiots, desperate to hear those three words, or at the very least to get pregnant so she can have someone to love and to love her, is tragic, and Raymond Drennan surgically dissects the complex nature of relationships, teenage and beyond.
There is the broken soul of a mother who loses her daughter, the broken heart and mind of Dee Dee who is waiting for a gentleman caller who never comes. In ‘The Immaculate Heart’ love belies class, age, gender, reality and even death. In fact what the novel makes clear is that without love nothing matters as no one would care otherwise. The tone of the book is dark and melancholic. Love hurts as much as it nourishes, perhaps more so, and that is why barriers are erected to stop individuals from feeling such pain. Some drink, some take drugs, some lose their mind, and others drop out. The pain would only be worth it if the highs were not so powerful. It may be the hope that kills us, but it’s also what keeps us going.
I thought to match the two extremes of the book I would offer these two videos from Roddy Frame and PIL. The first sees Roddy singing Cole Porter, what a treat, and then there is John Lydon at his most acerbic. You pay your money, you take your choice:
The last few years has seen a real high point in Scottish writing, with some of our best novelists producing work that is among their very best. That is a positive situation, but let’s never stop listening for the new voices and story tellers. There are many ready to break through and change the way we view who we are and where we are from, and Andrew Raymond Drennan could just be the most persuasive of them all.
Further thoughts on Scottish books, film, music, comedy, theatre and the like can be found at scotswhayhae which now has a Facebook home.
The books that we deal with in ‘Indelible Ink’ can be bought from the Dear Scotland shop:
Next Month’s Novel: One of the nice things about putting together this column is sometimes you come across a book which you had quite forgotten about. In 1998 writer and journalist Ajay Close published the novel ‘Forspoken’ which had wide critical approval from the likes of John Le Carre, Fay Weldon, Candia Williams and Allan Massie.
Close was one of the more prominent and insightful Scottish cultural commentators of the 1990s, and I bought ‘Forspoken’ on the basis of her newspaper columns. I haven’t read it in over 13 years but I remember it being one of the best novels of the time, and one of my favourite Glasgow novels. My memory may be playing tricks on me, but I guess we’ll all find out next month.
1. Ajay Close Forspoken (Sep)
2. Nina De La Mer 4a.m. (Oct)
3. William McIlvanney Weekend (Nov)
4. Jeff Torrington Swing Hammer Swing (Dec)
5. Jackie Kay Trumpet (Jan)