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Men, fathers and grandfathers

 

It is not unusual that writers share similar biographies and write about similar topics. Nevertheless, Andrew O’Hagan and William McIlvanney  are two particularly interesting examples.

They both grew up in Ayrshire although 30 years apart, and each has written fiction which draws heavily on their national and regional backgrounds and which also deals with families and politics.

McIlvanney began his career as a teacher until early book successes allowed him to write full-time. He appeared regularly in newspapers and on TV but through most of his life he might fairly have been regarded as a big fish in the small cultural pool of Scotland. In contrast, O’Hagan became a full-time writer soon after university and established himself promptly within the London literati. His brief biography to my paperback edition of his novel Our Fathers (published in 1999 when he was 31) says, “He is on the editorial board of the London Review of Books and is a contributing editor to Granta”. While his name appears on the website of neither publication now, he still enjoys sufficient prestige to have been allocated a full issue of the LRB for a long article about the Grenfell Tower fire.

O’Hagan’s Our Fathers and McIlvanney’s 1975 novel Docherty each share at their centre an older powerful male character who exerts strong influence on the younger members of his family.

In Our Fathers, he is Hugh Bawn, a long-serving Labour councillor in Glasgow with a personal devotion to housing, influenced explicitly by two great real-life socialists John McLean and John Wheatley and by one fictional one, his mother Effie Bawn, supposedly a comrade activist of Mary Barbour.

 

The centre of Ayr where the New Bridge crosses the River Ayr. “Hugh (Bawn) was born in Ayr in the winter of 1913…”

 

O’Hagan seems to have based Bawn at least partly on Robert Bruce of Glasgow Corporation who produced the Bruce Report of 1945, with its wartime fondness for grand plans, tower blocks and architectural brutalism. Hugh’s powerful personality and political dedication alienates his son Robert, who shares none of his father’s ideas, suffers from alcoholism and moves away to England. However Hugh and his wife Margaret have positively influenced their grandson James who goes to live with them when his parents’ marriage break up. Much of Our Fathers deals with the adult James’ return to Ayrshire to his grandparents and to his family roots.

 

Govan Old Parish Church in 2013, looking north towards the River Clyde. “(The Bawns) moved to Govan with a bundle of blankets and the map of Cork…(They) were only in Govan a month when Britain went to war.”

 

Similar to the relationship between Hugh and Robert Bawn is the stormy relationship which William McIlvanney portrays between Tam Docherty and his three sons, especially with Angus, who believes much less than his father in community and much more on self-improvement and financial independence.

Reading Our Fathers brought back memories not just of Docherty but also of Just a Boy’s Game, the TV film written by Peter McDougall and screened by the BBC in 1979. Where O’Hagan and McIlvanney come from Ayrshire, McDougall grew up in Greenock and Just a Boy’s Game is set in the town. Here the patriarch is McQuillan: like Hugh Bawn at the end of his life, but, unlike him, a veteran gangland street fighter. McQuillan also has an adult grandson who is influenced by him. Jake McQuillan, a restless surly taciturn young man with a taste for street violence, seems to have grown up with his grandparents, estranged from his mother and with his father dead when young apparently in a street brawl. The relationship between the McQuillans is much less close than that between the Bawns: Jake’s grandfather’s dying message to him is that he has never liked him and considers himself a better fighter than Jake is.

All three of these older men are portrayed as physically strong and brave and tough. Tam Docherty and Hugh Bawn have had respectable working lives, and Hugh Bawn has often been loved, we are told, by those who have benefitted from his reforming zeal. But all three are also selfish and frightening, of fixed beliefs, men who have become addicted to the power they exert over others and who have resisted disagreement and challenge.

 

The ruined Alloway Kirk outside Ayr. ”Hugh wanted to see Auld Alloway Kirk before the light went out…The stones of the kirkyard looked bent and grey…”

 

The short road leading to the old Brig o’Doon in Alloway. The hotel on the right of the picture, formerly the Burns Monument Hotel, now the Brig O’Doon Hotel, is named the Cottars’ Arms in “Our Fathers”. “We got off near the Brig o’Doon. Hugh wanted to pee. We went into a hotel, the Cottars’ Arms, and I stood at the bar whilst the old man disappeared…”

 

McIlvanney was always regarded as a major Scottish writer from the 1970s until his death in 2015. O’Hagan, although successful, does not perhaps exert the wider cultural influence within Scotland as did McIlvanney – although that is quite probably O’Hagan’s preference, since he has usually lived and worked outside Scotland. Despite similarities between the two writers, it is intriguing to note the differences in their writing styles. As already mentioned in an earlier post, McIlvanney’s writing is heavy with description and imagery and a didactic narrative voice; O’Hagan is more light and deft, more nuanced, more musical – showing more readily associations with Joyce or Lawrence or Philip Larkin. To complete the trio, McDougall is closer in age to McIlvanney and is also much more similar to him, and, as a TV writer, aims for quotable epithets and one-liners and for imagery and scenes which draw from Hollywood western and crime genres.

I am sure my characterisations of these three Scottish writers is not fanciful. When James Bawn defends his grandfather’s political record against the angry reporter in the Ayrshire pub, O’Hagan has the latter insult James as “English” and “middle-class”. In the same pub on the same evening, he describes James’ mother’s second husband as being “civilised” and showing “a feminine manner of patience”. O’Hagan seems to have a strong awareness of the way masculinity and masculine values have changed in Scotland during his lifetime and that he may be quite different from McIlvanney and his characters and his style of writing.

But, despite growing up in a later period and having absorbed many social changes, O’Hagan is clearly still fascinated by some of the classic elements of west of Scotland life. Our Fathers draws its title from the well-known Christian prayer and also deals with Catholicism and the writing of Robert Burns. The subject and style of Our Fathers shows O’Hagan as writer and man being pulled simultaneously in two different directions, back to the past and forwards to the future. As we all always are.

 

Reference:  O’Hagan, Andrew (2000) Our Fathers   London: Faber and Faber

 

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Exotic blooms

 

The most interesting thing in Vanessa Thorpe’s report in The Observer about the growth of independent magazines was her conclusion, “ Since many readers of these niche titles are young, the boom must be fed by a feel for the exotic nature of print, rather than by nostalgia.”

I recognise the term “exotic”. My own purchase of many magazine titles during the 1980s was prompted by new adventures both intellectual and physical. An increasing interest in all the arts, in liberal/left wing political ideas and campaigns, plus the discovery of alluring shops in Glasgow and Edinburgh, like the Third Eye Centre  and the Fifth of May Bookshop, different to those available in my home town of Greenock.

A large part of my reading during that time was of Granta. The literary quarterly was a paperback book 250 pages long – as I reminded myself when seeking an excuse for the fact that another year had passed and certain essential classic writers remained unread. Granta gave me an acquaintance of many of the fashionable contemporary writers like Milan Kundera, Salman Rushdie, James Fenton, Nadine Gordimer, Primo Levi, Raymond Carver and Hanif Kureishi. It was also playing a key role in the coverage of the shifting boundaries of central Europe in those years before the fall of the Berlin Wall.

 

A couple of “Granta” issues from the distant past.

 

The now-defunct Scottish publications Cencrastus and Radical Scotland drew my attention to the idea that (left-wing) internationalism might be compatible with Scottish nationalism, a programme being offered from a different direction by the musician Dick Gaughan.

There were regular magazines of the two political organisations of which I was then an active member, Amnesty International’s Amnesty and the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament’s Sanity. In addition, New Statesman, New Internationalist and Marxism Today were other recommended reading for a lefty and arty type at that time.

Many of those 1980s titles have disappeared but it would wrong to feel that such sources of education and culture no longer exist. Reporting and analysis of the wilfully ignored Israel/Palestine conflict is provided by +972 magazine and Mondoweiss. Commonspace covers some of the ground once covered by Radical Scotland. The Quietus and The Skinny both cover music and culture and Gal-Dem writes from a black feminist viewpoint.

The Al-Jazeera website gives detailed news and analysis on the Middle East and other under-reported places. Dissent is a long-established American magazine. And New Statesman and New Internationalist continue to publish.

So sources are still available, which provide alternative and particular views of the modern world and apply old-fashioned values of independent thinking and decent quality journalism. The only possible cause for regret is that they are now accessed usually only via a computer screen rather than by a stapled collection of A4 pages. A bit inconvenient for an old man on a train although not really a convincing argument for doom and gloom.

You might also get around to reading some more of those essential books.

 

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Coming home

 

It was instructive to read the report by the great journalist Hugh McIlvanney of England’s World Cup victory in July 1966. Especially because it is written in the classic journalism style of the past of clear facts expressed concisely in stylish language – which we took for granted then and see rather less often now. “Moore took the ball coolly out of defence and lifted it upfield to Hurst 10 yards inside the German half. The referee was already looking at his watch and three England supporters had prematurely invaded the pitch as Hurst took the ball on his chest.”

In 1966 I was ten years old. The World Cup was one of my first big television experiences as well as one of my first big sports experiences. I knew then that live football on television was rare – although not that it would remain that way for 20 years more, well into my adulthood.

Of the competition, one match I clearly remember was North Korea scoring three goals against Portugal in the first 25 minutes of the quarter-final before being beaten 5-3. I recall one of Hungary’s wins (most likely, based on retrospective research, the 3-1 victory against Brazil) for the impressively alliterative Daily Express headline of “Magical Magyars” ). And yes, I do remember the final, with Geoff Hurst’s dramatic concluding goal – never guessing that Kenneth Wolstenholme’s commentary would become one of the most endlessly replayed and repeated phrases. Even as a Scottish child, I was supporting England, because this was a year before Celtic’s European Cup win, and many more years before we were presented regularly with a choice of preferring Scotland as a World Cup country over England.

So, 1974. Scotland had qualified and England hadn’t. I had just left school. The older men I worked beside were equally fascinated by the World Cup, as it was Scotland’s first qualification in 16 years and easily watchable because it was being played in Europe. So too the Scottish press. As mentioned above and elsewhere, I often find I can remember big news stories by the newspaper headlines which followed them. The Sunday Post came into our house at that time in common with the majority of Scottish households. The day after Scotland’s elimination at the group stages, its back page sports headline was the sober and irrefutable “Scotland go out without losing a game”, but the front page was filled with the inclusive and cheerleading “Out – but weren’t they all champions”.

So, 1978? The Argentina adventure is a popular exercise in media nostalgia due to the famous optimism then of Scotland’s manager and fans, especially in this its 40th anniversary year.

It has created other cultural connections. In the 1980s TV drama The Justice Game, Scottish solicitor Dominic Rossi is familiar with the political situation in central America, because he visited there after travelling to the World Cup in Argentina. (In other words, showing that he understands the ordinary person’s values as well as international affairs.) William McIlvanney, brother of the aforementioned Hugh and a novelist-journalist with a great interest in football, centred one of the stories in his Walking Wounded collection around a young man who tries to borrow money from his employer to travel to Argentina.

I do actually have definite memories of that unexpected 3-2 win against Holland and of Archie Gemmill’s confident goal which seemed to suggest Scotland might yet qualify for the later stages. Of course, I have a more vivid one of the way Irvine Welsh and Danny Boyle in Trainspotting  presented Gemmill’s goal as one of orgasmic intensity.

The 1998 championships coincided with a holiday to Switzerland. The hotel in Wengen buzzed with several nationalities sharing an interest in the results. A pub near the hotel in Lucerne was a base for Holland fans cheering their team’s journey to the semi-finals. The first finals to have used the Golden Goals rule, I recall.

 

Two alternative sites of the 1998 World Cup. Wengen, and, below, Lucerne, in Switzerland.

 

Another multi-national experience in 2006. Throughout July I was doing a CELTA course in Glasgow to teach English as a second language. The adults who were our student guinea pigs were of various nationalities, so loyalties conflicted but interest was widely shared. My strongest memory of the matches: Zinedine Zidane’s scene-stealing headbutt in the last minutes of the final.

To this year. I was attracted to the unfeted and self-restrained England manager Gareth Southgate and his young squad, while still wondering whether the latter really was more genuinely emblematic of a new inclusive modern England. As the team progressed there must have been a few pro-Brexit journalists and politicians who suggested that their success beyond most expectations was built on a rediscovered strength in the national psyche. Fortunately that theory did not have to be put to the most advanced testing.

The team’s longer residence in the tournament gave further prominence to the song “Three Lions”. I’ve never been entirely sure about the phrase “football’s coming home” – surely the explicit and implicit meaning of the song is that it is the World Cup which is coming back to its rightful home? Despite the Cup having been also won by a number of other countries? However it is one of the best football songs of the pop/rock era with a strong melody by Ian Broudie so it is hard to grudge Broudie his success.

Nobody can yet be sure which of the UK football nations will qualify for the next World Cup finals during Christmas shopping and carol-singing time in Qatar in 2022, or whether Gareth Southgate will still be around to exert his quiet charisma on fans and media – but probably “Three Lions” will still get some airplay.

 

Reference:  McIlvanney, William (1992)  Walking Wounded   London : Sceptre

 

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Simple but effective

 

Although feminism has been a continuing powerful cultural theme in the 21st century, Hollywood’s earlier treatments of its ideas and values are often seen to be dated, and therefore nowadays rarely seen. Films such as those from the late 1970s and early 1980s such as An Unmarried Woman, Julia, The Turning Point, Norma Rae, Coalminer’s Daughter, Gloria, Places in the Heart, Country. Although Nine to Five is still popular…

One of those neglected films is The Rose, set in the world of rock music. The lead character – a confident and assertive woman on and off stage, a white performer of black R&B influenced music, vulnerable to drink and drugs – was already something of a stereotype at the time of its release in 1979. However, she would probably still be a recognised type today, in the light of the death of Amy Winehouse. She was always presumed to be based specifically on Janis Joplin, who died in 1970.

The lead role was one of the first for singer Bette Midler. In some ways, she was an unusual choice for the character as her own music experience had been at the jazz/cabaret/Broadway end of the spectrum, such as with covers of  “Boogie-Woogie Bugle Boy” and “The Big Noise from Winnetka”.

The most enduring part of the film is certainly its theme song. Written by someone who was and has remained relatively obscure, Amanda McBroom, it is in many ways a mainstream romantic ballad, played on piano and using familiar lyrical imagery. However, for me, it does its job with particular force and with a significant simplicity.

The first stanza offers four metaphors of love. Three of these suggest pain and difficulty and hardship: deep water, a sharp razor blade, the lack of food. The fourth, of a flower, offers potential and growth.

The second stanza is still using abstract nouns but is also clearly addressing individuals, and how people are often too shy and cautious and unambitious, and so will never exploit their full potential. Lack of effort and lack of courage, it bluntly states, will lead to failure.

The third and final stanza begins with more metaphors of physical suffering and difficulty – the long journey, the lonely night, the winter snow – to summarise life’s challenges, but then becomes more sympathetic and more encouraging that these difficulties can be overcome. It ends by repeating the first stanza’s metaphor of hope and potential, a flower, and now makes it more particular, a rose.

As the song progresses, the piano is supplemented , inevitably if not really necessarily, by other instruments and other voices. But it is a strong melody and in the last couplet it is again allowed to be on its own with solo piano and quieter vocals.

The song was a big hit in the USA but not at all in Britain, and my acquaintance and fondness for it was built solely on my then regular listens to the US Charts programme on BBC Radio 1 presented by Paul Gambaccini.

The song has been covered by many artistes, and I can well imagine some performances may have used primary colours rather than subtlety. Its lyrical ideas are not entirely radical or adventurous, but I found (and still find) the song powerful because of how the writer applies those ideas sparingly and simply and clearly. About happiness gained, preferably through intimate and compassionate partnership, but certainly through individual effort, resilience and courage. Many more famous songwriters have done less well.

 

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Out of the ashes

 

The old town of Ålesund, in Norway, was substantially destroyed in a fire in 1904. The earlier wooden-framed houses were replaced within a few years by many new buildings in the Jugendstil style, the regional variation of Art Nouveau. This lends its modern town centre a particularly consistent and attractive look.

 

 

The above photograph shows the Jugendstil Senteret, the Art Nouveau Museum, a former pharmacy. The others following show a range of residential and commercial buildings.

 

 

 

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Some causes and consequences of gambling

 

D.H. Lawrence’s The Rocking-Horse Winner, first published in 1925, is an intriguing short story, not least because it has elements of form and content which might not be expected from the celebrated analyst of social class and sexual and emotional intimacy.

For instance, Lawrence used several of the tropes of fairy-tale, or perhaps parable, in his narrative. He opens with, “There was a woman who was beautiful” and continues “there was a boy and two little girls”. The boy appears to have magical, or supernatural powers, which allow him to gain great financial riches, albeit not through classic devices of physical combat or exploration, but through the more prosaic 20th century practice of betting on the results of horse races. The family lives in a house which itself seems to be alive, frequently whispering to all its residents for more money. More personal details about his characters are revealed only slowly.

A story by D.H. Lawrence seems an unlikely source for a horror film, but Anthony Pelissier’s 1949 film version does bear similarities with a couple of classics from the genre of that period. First, with the Ealing Studios compendium Dead of Night, where one story features rooms in a family home which are haunted by a dead child, another where a malevolent mirror transfers the evils of its previous home to its new modern sophisticated owner, and, more peripherally, two others have sports backgrounds! Second, with Victor Fleming’s version of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde, where some of its rather Freudian scenes representing Hyde’s animal appetites seem to have influenced Pelissier in his depictions of Paul’s adolescent physical efforts to bring to mind the name of a money-winning horse.

Lawrence is critical of the materialism of Paul’s middle-class parents and, in general, of people living beyond their means. This couple “lived in style” but “there was never enough money”. The desire for wealth and possessions and status saturates the home – so that “the children could hear it all the time though nobody said it aloud”. The mother’s greed psychologically damages her young son who is determined to gain money (through luck, not work) in order to help his parents.

Paul makes an astonishing amount of money by predicting successfully the winners of horse races. Half-way through the story Lawrence mentions winnings of £10,000, the equivalent of half a million pounds in today’s money. Where does Paul’s success come from? Perhaps he has inherited it: his Uncle Oscar is clearly very interested in horse racing and bets frequently, his mother says hers was “a gambling family” which suggests the habit goes back at least to her own father. Paul says only that God has told him he is lucky.

So Lawrence seems to hint that Paul’s success in gambling is some kind of spiritual gift. Possibly to underline how the selfish materialism of parents like his leads them to fail to notice or understand their children’s qualities and interests and talents. Religious imagery is frequently used. When Paul’s ally, the young gardener Bassett, talks about the boy’s betting practice, he “was serious as a church…as if he were speaking of religious matters” and explains that Paul gets his betting tips “as if he had it from heaven”. When Paul dies prematurely, Uncle Oscar seems to acknowledge he has gifts from God which have been abused: “a poor devil… (who’s) best gone out of a life where he rides his rocking-horse to find a winner.”

Paul introduces the idea of money and luck to his mother “vaguely” and “timidly”, but his behaviour in putting his vision into practice is, in contrast, intense and driven and disturbing. He is described as “in agony” when trying to identify the winner of the Lincoln Handicap, presumably akin to Christ’s agony in Gethsemane. He rides his wooden rocking-horse “madly” and “wildly” and in “a frenzy”; his eyes show a “strange glare” as he slashes at it with a whip, a gesture which hints at capacity for violence and an incipient sexual energy. His mother observes the incongruity anxiously: “You’re not a very little boy any longer, you know”.

Other sexual undertones could be interpreted in a description like “his sturdy long legs straddling apart” or in Paul’s statement “I got there…where I wanted to go”. Pelissier’s film certainly follows this line, through close ups, sweeping camera, low angle shots, dark shadows, staring eyes and clashing music. In Paul’s final night-time encounter with the rocking-horse which helps him identify the winner of the Derby, his hair is damp against his forehead, his pyjama jacket is open and his chest is bare.

Pelissier characterises Uncle Oscar, as played by Ronald Squire, as pleasant and supportive but roguish, and inherently as selfish as his sister and brother-in-law. Lawrence’s minor character of Bassett is aged and expanded in the film to exploit the casting of John Mills. Mills usually played characters of integrity and he does so here, as a disabled working-class war veteran who looks after Paul’s winnings and is never tempted to steal any. However, at the end, he shares guilt and regret for Paul’s death. Paul’s mother wants Bassett to burn the banknotes which she sees as “blood money” but Bassett determines to take it to the family solicitor so that the money which “cost (a life) …might (now) be able to save a few lives”.

Although Lawrence’s narrative method is spare, he does include some period domestic details. The father’s workplace is described dismissively as “some office” (probably the character’s view of his work rather than Lawrence’s). The mother does show enterprise and initiative on occasions, such as her venture as a commercial artist. Each parent earns or has inherited some money “but not nearly enough for the social position which they had to keep up”, which is perhaps why the employment of servants has to be “discreet”, since they might have to be dismissed prematurely. The film adds some additional scenes: a debt collector visits unexpectedly so Paul’s mother has to rush off to a pawn broker in a shabby part of the nearest town to raise some money by selling her things.

The film’s closing image of the “funeral pyre” of the burning rocking horse seems to want to leave the audience with the idea that the toy has been the primary cause of the disruption in the family, rather like the haunted mirror in Dead of Night. Lawrence’s story makes clear that “the shining modern rocking-horse” is just one of “the expensive and splendid toys” which has absorbed the parents’ money and distracted them from their obligation to care properly for their children. It has been a device to ignite energy and ideas which were already building just below the surface in Paul’s personality. He is aware of the flaws in his parents’ marriage and therefore in the instability of his family life; he is reaching out to make things better and find his mother’s love through her aloof selfish materialism.

Most online analyses of Lawrence’s story seem to concentrate on the mother’s greed and its consequences for her son. Both the story and Pelissier’s film could also be seen as highly relevant to our present-day concern about the reasons for gambling and the psychological damage it can cause.

 

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Dazzling

 

That heyday of punk and indie music from 1976 into the mid-1980s was a growth period both of small record labels like Postcard, Stiff and Rough Trade and of fanzines, small independent magazines. Whenever you read and admired a publication about literature or music, you were frequently inspired to set up one of your own which would be equally good if not better. Nowadays people might set up websites and on-line magazines, but then they typed and photocopied them and distributed them at concerts and shops.

Chris Davidson was one such person, producing the Slow Dazzle music fanzine in Greenock, Renfrewshire, in the 1980s. Named after the album by music maverick John Cale, it reviewed and interviewed new and established names from the music scene of the time. The four issues which I still have feature, for instance, conversations with Billy Bragg, the Bluebells, the Pastels, Pete Shelley, Marc Riley and the Creepers, John Peel, footballer/music aficionado Pat Nevin, Tommy Smith, Alan McGee and the Jesus and Mary Chain. In addition, articles on Miles Davis, Frank Zappa, Neil Young, Frank Sinatra, African music, apartheid, the Glastonbury Festival, Kurt Vonnegut and scooters.

 

 

In common with many freelance music writers, Davidson was also a keen music promoter, and organised many concerts in the Greenock area in the same period.

I was acquainted with Chris Davidson around this time, and I nursed some literary ambitions. Although I was a music fan, I recognised that I didn’t have the depth of music knowledge and concert-going experience of Davidson and other Slow Dazzle contributors. However, the magazine welcomed wider cultural topics and I did get three theatre reviews included.

Slow Dazzle lasted for six issues during 1983 and 1984. It ended not because it was unsuccessful but because it was too successful. It was taking up too much of Davidson’s time and energy but of course not earning any money. He already had a full-time job plus a wife and family so there came a point where Slow Dazzle became too big to have all these parts of his life running concurrently.

However, Davidson’s fondness for and dedication to music did not wane. 20 years later he was co- running another live music night in Greenock called the Pineapple Club. Its website is now discontinued but its playlist and programme demonstrated that his voracious musical appetite had not dulled with time.

I had always intended to include a homage to Slow Dazzle in Leaf Collecting, but the timing was decided when I saw (belatedly) a proper press feature about Chris Davidson credited in a proper book – A Scene in Between by Sam Knee – about the indie music scene of the 1980s. Well done, Chris! Happy memories for all of us.

 

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Ensemble reading

 

It’s hard to be sure whether the fashion of book/reading groups has passed. Some evidence that it has: it was 15 years ago that the Glasgow-set comedy series The Book Group screened on Channel 4 and then for only a year, the much-publicised book strands of the TV programmes of each of Oprah Winfrey and Richard Madeley and Judy Finnegan have long gone and BBC Radio 2 has just ended the book club element of Simon Mayo’s programme. On the other hand, the Richard and Judy Book Club continues as a commercial website, the BBC Radio 4 monthly programme Bookclub presented by James Naughtie is still broadcasting after 20 years, and the Reading Agency charity feels that it is a strategy which is still worth supporting.

I too was once part of the book group phenomenon, for eight years between 2003 and 2010, based at my local library. My initial motivation was that it would give me the opportunity to become acquainted with some less known contemporary writers. In the event, I found myself reading only a small minority of the group’s choices, although I was never disappointed by the monthly discussions.

Book groups were sometimes ridiculed because the novels which were read were perceived to fit a stereotype. Their choices were often set in the past, not too literary in style, perhaps linked to a distinct social/political theme, certainly not too long – all of these features thus providing a sense of the books being educational as well as entertaining. My own experience was that there was some truth to this stereotype.

In addition, certain titles seemed to be recurringly popular, such as Sebastian Faulks’ Birdsong, Barbara Kingsolver’s The Poisonwood Bible, Toni Morrison’s Beloved, Marina Lewycka’s A Short History of Tractors in Ukrainian; books by Ian McEwan, Tracy Chevalier, Nick Hornby, Margaret Atwood. Publishers sometimes included book group questions in their editions, appearing to see ensemble discussion as more important than individual discovery.

In addition to the enjoyable social interactions, did I gain any literary satisfaction? Well, our group’s very first read was one of my most memorable: Under the Skin by Michel Faber about the extra-terrestrial visitor to Scotland was much more chilling and engrossing than the subsequent film. The other best one was Winter’s Bone by Daniel Woodrell, set in a hillbilly poor community in the USA – the meatiness of the dialogue recalled that the same person had written the source novel for Ang Lee’s film Ride with the Devil.

A few other memories? The Shadow of the Wind by Carlos Ruiz Zafón successfully wove its romantic spell partly because I had recently visited Barcelona; The Road Home by Rose Tremain gave a convincing picture of a refugee experience in modern London and Louise Welsh’s The Cutting Room an equally believable one of a Glasgow demi-monde; Dreams from my Father by Barack Obama provided more insight about the newly-arrived global cultural superstar. A more established book was Guiseppe Tomasi Di Lampedusa’s The Leopard whose complexities about 19th century Italian society I would definitely like to explore again one day.

One professional author visited us: Jonathan Falla, after we had read his Blue Poppies, set in Tibet. He talked engagingly about his work in progress, which drew on his experiences with the charity sector working in Africa, and which became Poor Mercy.

Popular books have been adapted into films since the early days of Hollywood. But it is noticeable how many book group favourites go on to be filmed, such as, from our group’s list, The Lovely Bones by Alice Sebold, The Time Traveller’s Wife by Audrey Niffeneger, Notes on a Scandal by Zoe Heller, Brick Lane by Monica Ali, I’m Not Scared by Niccolò Ammaniti, Never Let Me Go by Kazuo Ishigiro, Half of a Yellow Sun by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, On Chesil Beach by Ian McEwan, Suite Française by Irene Nemirovsky, The Ghost by Robert Harris, and The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society by Mary Ann Shaffer and Anne Barrows. (And there have even been films about fictional reading groups such as The Jane Austen Book Club and the current Book Club!) Are those aforementioned book club characteristics (set in the past, not too literary etc) especially alluring to movie producers? Or are these films just the latest examples of a long tradition?

Of course, with willing participants, interest groups of any sort will thrive. The book group in the aforementioned TV comedy included several members who were not native Scots. By coincidence, the Gramnet research network into migration, asylum and refugees, based at Glasgow University, has a book group which regularly reads and discusses relevant novels on their areas of interest.

 

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Reaching the harbour

 

Portpatrick is a picturesque harbour town in the south-west of Scotland. In the past, as well as being a fishing port, it enjoyed a period as the ferry port to Ireland.

It features as a key location in the last section of the 1950s film Hunted, as a murderer, Chris Lloyd, played by Dirk Bogarde, escapes as far as possible from his crime in London.

The town is not actually named in the film, and we are not even told we are in Scotland: Lloyd says only that he is travelling “north” to where his brother lives. We see only a harbour crammed with fishing boats and hear Lloyd’s information that “the herring fleet’s in” so a boat might be commandeered for further escape. The film is sometimes compared to The 39 Steps , although, since Lloyd is accompanied by a young boy, I was also reminded of Kidnapped.

Seeing the film recently, I was struck how little Portpatrick has changed between its working heyday and its current life as a tourist destination.

 

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Colour enhancement

 

The Sunday Times was the first UK newspaper to produce a colour supplement in 1962, and The Observer followed soon afterwards.

When, some years after that, I started looking at the grown-up newspapers which came into our house each Sunday, those colour magazines were the first part I ventured into. They were welcomingly different from the other larger pages of dense black newsprint.

At that time colour photographs in newspapers came only in these separate glossy supplements. When I think back to them now, it is not so much as a significant technical innovation or because I have strong individual memories, but because in recent years all publishing has become like them.

Colour moved into mainstream sections of newspapers 20 or more years ago. This made the colour magazine undistinctive. Yet today all surviving newspapers seem to still have one.

The regular features of colour supplements in the 1970s and 1980s were the topics which worked particularly well in colour: fashion, food, celebrities, foreign countries – and advertisements. Sometimes the photo-journalism about war and poverty sat incongruously side by side with the advertising pictures of consumption and luxury – as pointed out effectively by John Berger in his famous 1972 TV series on art, Ways of Seeing.

Another popular feature of the colour supplements was visual art, the current gallery and museum exhibitions. An article about the Andrew Wyeth show at the Royal Academy in 1980 provided inspiration for my first ever visit to the cultural life of London that summer. Some articles which I recognised were, amazingly, among the pages which John Berger flipped through randomly in another part of Ways of Seeing. Content and advertisements were often blurred when the latter pastiched the characters or poses of famous individual paintings in their scenes of domestic wealth and comfort.

One of the last examples of magazine coverage of art which I do remember was a Claude Lorraine exhibition in the 1990s which earned a cover entitled “Trouble in Paradise” in The Independent Saturday magazine. That the genre scarcely features nowadays suggests editors have a low opinion of readers’ interests – plus a lack of confidence in their own knowledge and judgement. The current Picasso 1932 exhibition at the Tate Modern has gained a good deal of media attention – it is easy to imagine how it would have been treated by the colour supplements of previous decades!

The recent tabloid rebranding of The Observer has retained the magazine but it is now almost identical to the review section. Similar type of paper, similar colours. A few regular features stay in one place rather than the other but they share an overall likeness. Profiles of arts practitioners and personal memoirs can feature prominently in either section, and therefore on either cover.

Peter Jackson’s article for In Publishing about The Sunday Times magazine in 2012 suggests that its gradual deterioration was the inevitable result of lowered budgets. He also identifies Andrew Neil’s flamboyant editorship of the paper in the 1980s when it became divided into many short sections of specialised interest, which diluted the impact of the original design, including the colour supplement.

Jackson’s article includes a solution proposed by former editor of The Sunday Times magazine, Robin Morgan: “I’d put all of the sections back in the newspaper and have a 150-page magazine that had a clean sheet to tackle anything it liked.” An idea which is likely to stay only an enticing fantasy in these dying days of newspapers – and as likely as there being less personal memoir and more visual art!

 

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