One of the best things about writing this column is that it has given me the excuse to revisit books from my past, and it’s always interesting to see how they’ve aged. In the late 90s I picked up a copy of Ajay Close’s ‘Forspoken’ for the simple reason that she was one of the few journalists writing in and about Scotland at the time that I admired, and I remember thoroughly enjoying it. Re-reading it 14 years later, while it is absolutely of its time and place, it was a real pleasure to re-make these old acquaintances. Nostalgia; underrated I say.
The setting is a Glasgow that I knew very well indeed. The detail dates the novel, but is done with unerring precision. Junior hair stylists dressed like Lone Justice era Maria McKee, restaurants serving vegetables Gado Gado, tins of Cullen Skink from the cities first delicatessens, cappuccinos in the Wiszniewski Café at the top of the Gallery of Modern Art, beers such as Schlitz, Michelob and Molson, smoking in airport terminals. The strange thing is this setting seems not only another time but another place. It is a Glasgow which rarely gets written about; an urban, urbane, post-Year of Culture city where the only industry that seemed to be thriving was concerned with service and selling, and we now know that even that couldn’t last.
But ‘Forspoken’ is not purely a bathe in the past and Close uses the detail to give the story the feel of authenticity. Tracy Malleus is the central character who is ‘forspoken’. The book opens with a definition of, and a warning about, the word forspeak from the Scottish National Dictionary, ‘Nobody must praise a child or anything they set a value on, for if anything evil afterwards befalls it, these poor ignorant creatures will be sure to attribute to the tongue that spoke of it, and very probably quarrel on that account’. The inference is that Tracy’s life has not fulfilled those expectations that were placed upon her. As she approaches 40 Tracy is experiencing a mid-life crisis.
She is in a relationship with minor, married, TV celebrity, Drew, and admits that there is more than a hint of an Electra complex at work there. Tracy’s father, who is referred to as ‘Darwin’, is the most important character in Tracy’s life, a rationalist who brought his daughters up in what others describe as a bohemian style. Her memory of it is near idyllic, and it is only on the arrival of her sister Sam from the US that she starts to doubt her own version of the past. Tracy has her truth, and doesn’t want Sam to tell her hers.
This is what is at the heart of the novel; individual subjective perception and the questions that result when such points of view are challenged. Was Tracy’s upbringing just different, or actually dangerous, shaping her life in a way she had never imagined? Was 90s Glasgow this confident city of culture, clubs and cafes, or was the consumerism simply papering over the death of a city’s identity and soul? Do the rational arguments answer questions any better than the spiritual ones, or are they both doomed to always fail? Of course there are no easy answers.
Spirituality, or the lack of it, is another theme. Drew left the priest hood, but still prays for Tracy, and is not averse to making statements such as ‘Scotland is full of sin and judgment’. Tracy visits her friend Yolande to have her Tarot read, and even though she sees her self as completely rational about such things, there is the feeling that she is searching for something more. She even fears that someone has stolen her recently cut hair to perform a voodoo ritual. When she loses her job, like many of her fellow citizens, her perceptions of herself and her city change. Like Glasgow, there is the feeling that Tracy is fighting to be something she is not, and that causes their identity crises.
There are a couple of references to great music, but I’m going to use this as an excuse to post one of my favourite singer’s best songs, one which Tracy sings around the house. This is Van Morrison and ‘Tupelo Honey’:
There are many interesting aspects to ‘Forpoken’. This was just after ‘New’ Labour’s 1997 victory, and post-devolution, and it appeared that the whole of the UK was in thrall to the new government. It did seem possible that by voting Labour, Scotland could fulfil the political identity that had been denied it for over 20 years, and any idea of Scottish nationalism still seemed a fanciful notion. How naïve does that seem now? While the book is primarily concerned with Tracy’s past, there are also questions posed about Scotland’s own history, and the common perceptions of the country.
Ajay Close is still writing, working on another novel and in theatre, including a play about the great Scottish poet William Soutar. What is undeniable after revisiting ‘Forspoken’ is her talent as a writer. There are sections, such as the one which details Tracy’s love of public libraries, which are memorable and it’s a shame there is not more of her prose to enjoy. Her style of writing is similar, in terms of detail and character, to Ewan Morrison, whose latest novel ‘Close Your Eyes’ is also a tale of coming to terms with a ‘bohemian’ upbringing. I can’t wait to read it to compare the two. With ‘Forspoken’, Close wrote a novel which packs a surprising psychological punch, and it was pleasing to find out that it hits as hard today as it did 14 years ago.
The books that we deal with in ‘Indelible Ink’ can be bought from the Dear Scotland shop:
Next Month’s Novel: I thought that the 90s dance scene had been written to death, so it was a real surprise to read Nina De La Mer’s ‘4a.m’. earlier this year. The novel takes us back to the clubs and drugs of House music and Happy Hardcore, and takes us overseas to the British Army base of Fallingbostel in Germany and the streets of Hamburg.
De La Mer captures the time and place brilliantly, and manages to write multiple characters without losing sight of their individuality. This is a novel which follows two traditions, that of the Chemical Generation of many 90s Scottish writers, and the madness of army life that can be found in the likes of ‘MASH’, ‘Catch 22’ and particularly Robert O’Connor’s ‘Buffalo Soldiers’.
- Nina De La Mer 4a.m. (Oct)
- William McIlvanney Weekend (Nov)
- Jeff Torrington Swing Hammer Swing (Dec)
- Jackie Kay Trumpet (Jan)
- Frederic Lindsay Brond (Feb)
Photo Credit: Glasgow 1997, by Aqualite