Tag Archives: My Latest Novel

Alpha at different times

 

 

     

 

In art wolves may be dangerous predators to be feared or symbols of personal strength and power. Angela Carter employs both motifs in three stories in The Bloody Chamber.

In “The Company of Wolves”, the wolves are terrifying. They have eyes “like wraiths”, their howl is “an aria of fear made audible”. They are “grey as famine, as unkind as plague”. Children have to carry sharp knives to defend themselves. A confident young girl sets out like Red Riding Hood to visit her grandmother. Later, she undresses in front of the handsome young werewolf, and, unconcerned about the gory death her grandmother has just endured, ends the story happily being in bed with him.

In “The Werewolf”, another child is visiting her sick grandmother through a dangerous neighbourhood. She too carries a knife, and, when a wolf attacks, she retaliates and cuts off the animal’s right forepaw. This time the grandmother is not innocent. The wolf’s paw has changed into a human hand and her grandmother is ill with fever because her hand has been cut off. She is a witch and the child unsentimentally leads her execution by the villagers.

“Wolf-Alice” is different: the main character is a girl who was adopted by a wolf as a baby and later rescued by humans. She has responded to human kindness but her wolf qualities are seen as signs of strength: she has “spiky canines” and “bold nakedness”, she is “wild, impatient of restraint “ and “sleeps in the soft warm ashes of the hearth”. The story describes her growing up and developing a maturity which is still animal as much as human. She lives in the castle of a duke who is an actual werewolf whom she tries to help when he is shot.

The idea of humans adopted by wolves possibly originates from the legend of Romulus and Remus and spread through later fictional inventions like The Jungle Book. Caitlin Moran clearly saw it as a heroic and exciting image when she chose Raised by Wolves as the title of the TV series based on her own unconventional childhood, part of a large family sharing infrequent school attendance.

Emily Fridlund’s History of Wolves places a similar unusual childhood within a spartan American habitat. Her teenage lead character, Linda, lives in rural Minnesota, in a landscape not dissimilar from “The Company of Wolves”; sparsely populated, full of lakes and forests and a few cabins, many hours’ drive from the nearest big town of Duluth, short of material comfort and entertainment, enduring a harsh winter. She feels isolated from her parents who once lived as part of a commune and spends a lot of time baby-sitting for (and with) a young mother whose older husband is often away from home. A brief but significant meeting is with a teacher Mr Grierson. He encourages her to take part in an inter-school History Odyssey at which she chooses the topic of a History of Wolves. Linda’s story is not a Carter-esque fantasy but is certainly presented as taking place in an isolated and eerie and unusual world.

 

   

 

Lupine characters of a less ferocious kind featured in the early work of two other Scottish arts practitioners. The Wolves in the Walls was one of the first shows staged by the National Theatre of Scotland which also toured to England and the USA. These wolves, created by Neil Gaiman, are hidden within the house walls of the ordinary (if usually preoccupied) suburban family of Lucy.

Wolves was the title of the first album of the band My Latest Novel which featured a song called “When We Were Wolves”. Its lines both hint at a conventional domestic setting, and also detail an escape from it : “When we were wolves… we ran…and we hide in lightless rooms and we banged on our pianos”.

A final wolf in this artistic pack is Company of Wolves, a small Glasgow-based theatre group. Their work certainly tends to be physical and non-verbal. “Raw” and “uncivilised” are two other qualities which they say they aim to create. However I was somewhat disappointed to be told directly by the group’s co-founder Ewan Downie at a post-performance discussion that the name of the group is unconnected to Angela Carter and is simply a phrase which suggests strength and mystery.

Wolves. Although extinct in most countries over recent centuries, still a powerful motif. Often protective rather than savage and aggressive and predatory. As Angela Carter writes in “Wolf- Alice”, “ (they inhabit) only the present tense…a world of sensual immediacy as without hope as it is without despair”. As Linda says in her History of Wolves project, “alpha only at certain times and for a specific reason.” And she adds, “Those words” – which are taken from a real-life book called Of Wolves and Men by one Barry Lopez – “always made me feel I was drinking something cool and sweet, something forbidden.”
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References : Carter, Angela (1984)  The Bloody Chamber    Harmondsworth: Penguin
Fridlund, Emily (2017)  History of Wolves    London: Weidenfeld and Nicolson

 

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Small towns, bigger sounds

 

All small towns have their local pop and rock musicians, varying in talent and ambition. Of the smaller towns in Scotland, possibly only Bellshill has ever produced more than its fair share of successful bands with its 1980s/1990s harvest of Teenage Fanclub, the Soup Dragons , the BMX Bandits and Superstar. The time when David Belcher, then of The Herald ,wryly described Bellshill as “a bitch of a rock and roll town”.  Although perhaps we could also single out East Kilbride for its brief but glorious production line of Aztec Camera and the Jesus and Mary Chain.

While my own home town of Greenock has probably produced just as many musicians as the next place, few have impinged on the national consciousness. Before the millennium, the two or three years career of Whiteout during the mid 1990s Britpop era was possibly the most discernible. They signed to a big label, released two albums and appeared on national TV.

Then, during the last decade, I suddenly spotted UK-wide press coverage for My Latest Novel. A bigger outfit numerically, and with a bigger and more varied sound than many, following the now established pattern of singing in their Scottish accents.

To date, they have released two albums, Wolves and Deaths and Entrances. Their musical template – mixing acoustic and electric guitars, keyboards, violin and varied percussion with gritty but sympathetic harmony singing – has certainly been used before, but I like their version particularly because it sounds different to the way I expected a Greenock band to sound.

I don’t pay such close regard to lyrics as in my youthful days of regular listens to Joni Mitchell or Jackson Browne, so  what has made more impression on me is their overall rough but splendid indie range and the Scottish-accented vocal delivery. Those lyrics which I have noted have subtly recalled other elements of contemporary Scottish culture, for example the male characters from the paintings of Peter Howson or Alexander Millar in “The Reputation of Ross Francis” or the National Theatre of Scotland  production The Wolves in the Walls in “When We Were Wolves”.

To be frank, what press reviews of My Latest Novel I have found on the internet have been distinctly varied in their assessment. Kevin Jagernauth on Pop Matters  heard little in the music which hadn’t already been covered by Belle and Sebastian or Arcade Fire. He described the first album  as “unfulfilling” and “uninteresting”  and “forgettable”  because “ there is no danger, chances, or forward thinking”.   Ben Patashnik  of the New Musical Express described the second album as “over-zealous” and “self-indulgent”. Roque Strew of Pitchfork was a bit more complimentary, referring to the band’s “symphony-to-God harmonies, and poetic, double-edged oratory”.

To my taste, My Latest Novel have been a worthy addition to that list of fine Scottish bands of the past 20 years which has included Belle and Sebastian, Mogwai, Arab Strap, The Delgados, Glasvegas, Sons and Daughters, Popup, Uncle John and Whitelock and Honeyblood. However, it does look like their era might have come to an end. Three of the band members are now recording under the name Alphabetical Order Orchestra, keeping the acoustic and light electric side of the previous sound and dropping the rougher, denser, multilayered  parts.

 

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