Lucy and Todd

Archive for February, 2015|Monthly archive page

Owen Dudley Edwards – How David Cameron Saved Scotland

In Reviews by Lucy and Todd on February 26, 2015 at 6:56 pm

Ahh – irony. That heady bourne from which no reader, or voter, may return unscathed or uneducated. And what was the natural home of irony, the modern fountainhead whence it sprang and continues to sweetly nurture us, if we will but open our minds and our hearts to its rich and scalding lessons? Why, the eighteenth century, of course, and, one might equally answer, Edinburgh. Edinburgh: the seat of the Scottish Enlightenment, which gave rise to the American and French Revolutions and a new freedom of political thought throughout the ‘civilized’ world; the home of Hume and Henry Cockburn. Curious that in the eighteenth century men like Joseph Knight were granted their freedom by other men like Dundas and Monboddo and both Boswells, and stranger still that in that same eighteenth century Scotland lost its independence and freedom to a ‘ruthless conqueror’, as Jane Porter put it.

How David Cameron Saved Scotland, and May Yet Save Us All is a brilliant feuilleton ostensibly addressing ‘our’ Prime Minister in the only language in which he really deserves to spoken to, since he, or his office, acceded to power in the eighteenth century, when Scotland lost its real identity and became just another part of the bland, struggling little corporation that is the United Kingdom. To address the Prime Minister in the language of the eighteenth century is apt – taking the debate back to the last time of serious ruction between the two nations. The book is a series of essays on the various stages of the Prime Minister’s ‘education’, all addressed to David Cameron in the language of a wily, flattering courtier. The larger question being examined is: who are these people who rise to power? What is someone who becomes a Prime Minister really aware of? What does he know?

The crucial, most daring and amusing chapter concerns itself with what David Cameron knows of Scotland. What does he know, for instance, about Cameron of Lochiel? What does he know of Keir Hardie and Cunninghame Graham? And what the hell does he know about the ancient and inalienable concept of political power in Scotland, specifically that it is given by the people to the monarch or the government, and not the other way around? Dudley Edwards goes into this fully, carefully, and cruelly, and the answer would appear to be that Cameron knows doodly squat. Is a Bullingdon Club-educated man, no matter what claims he can make for his Scots ancestry, is a Tory, qualified to be the leader of Scotland? No. He isn’t. Whatever he may ‘Vow’.

Satire can be scary. It’s a risky, almost unbelievable thing to assert that David Cameron is very intelligent, and that he is deliberately hiding it from us in order to accomplish his questionable ends. Edwards presents Cameron, on evidence, as something of a scholar of politics, guided as he was by some smart teachers at Eton and Oxford (Andrew Gailey and Vernon Bogdanor), although at several crucial junctures in his career he stopped listening to these men and went his own weird, obtuse and flabby way. It’s pretty amusing to think of Cameron as a guy who has the time to sit around reading books, although some modern leaders have done just that. Richard Nixon was one of the most astute pupils of modern political history, from all accounts. But that did not stop him from screwing up entirely and it didn’t show he was ‘intelligent’, whatever that means, and it certainly didn’t mean he wasn’t evil.

This book is full of hugely enjoyable, rageful insights which are beautiful and true: at one point Dudley Edwards asserts that Margaret Thatcher got the whole of her conception of Scotland from the seaside postcards of Donald McGill. There is little doubt that How David Cameron Saved Scotland is, and will be, the definitive, robust and necessary book on what happened to us all – or, to put it in a Freudian and more accurate way, what we did to ourselves – September last. Dudley Edwards kicks, as they would say in America, some serious Tory butt. And belabours Labour arse, too. This is the political book of the year, if we the people (apologies to Thomas Jefferson) will deign to read it in its properly cantankerous, hell-for-leather ornateness. Will it be read in England? Of course not. They don’t deserve it.


(This review first appeared in the National, February 23, 2015)

Anne Tyler—A Spool of Blue Thread

In Reviews by Lucy and Todd on February 10, 2015 at 3:33 pm

At dawn I went out on the porch with the new Anne Tyler novel, an ancient dog by my side and a cardinal squawking in a bush. I sat down on the porch swing, and started it going with my toes. A car whispered by. Then I heard the phone ring. I got up, left the book on the swing, scooted around the dog dozing on the nicely varnished boards of the porch – a porch so wide it covered the whole front of the house, and so deep you could sit there in a thunderstorm and not get wet – and went inside to answer the phone. It was one of those people that tries to sell you stuff. At seven in the morning! If I’d had Caller ID I would have known it was a stranger and not answered, but Caller ID always seems to me a bit like cheating. So I had a short conversation with this person, stilted at first on my part, but rising eventually to a characteristic, if implausible, flight of fancy. Afterwards, I put the receiver back in its cradle and walked across the floor to the porch and sat down on the porch swing again, when I suffered one of my frequent flashbacks.

I remembered a previous time when I’d been reading an Anne Tyler book, and had wondered, just as now, what the heck it was really about. I was halfway through this one and still had no idea. I often find myself reading Tyler when I’m ailing: I think of her as comfort reading, is why. Tyler’s subdued, unchallenging domestic scenarios usually involve a central male character (men have homes too, after all), surrounded by banal females. They all live in a nice calm leafy part of Baltimore and think about nothing but family from one year to the next. This time though, I didn’t give a hoot for any of the characters and the plot kept jumping around like a grasshopper in a smokehouse.

There’s a man in it, a ‘prodigal son’ (though he comes home pretty regular, to tell you the truth, and only ever strayed as far as New Jersey to begin with). But, I thought on the porch swing with the cardinal muttering in the dogwood beyond, there’s nobody in this novel to get a hold on, just a bunch of people who leave or cling, and keep secrets, like any family. There’s more said about the house they occupy, and the food they eat, than about them. (To make fried okra, cut the okra into bite-size star-shaped slices, soak them in milk, dip them in cornmeal, deep fry, and you’ve got yourself one big unhealthy Southern dish.)

The Whitshanks’ house was built by the grandfather, when he was working his way up in the construction business. He climbed a few social ladders too, while he was at it. But Tyler focuses more on his social worker daughter-in-law, Abby, who used to smoke pot, picket the White House, and take in waifs and strays. Years back, she permanently alienated her four-year-old (and later, wayward) son by unofficially adopting a toddler. Now she unrepentantly annoys her dreary family by inviting foreign exiles to Thanksgiving, adding a welcome note of comic relief: one called Atta pitches up, hating all Americans and declaring she won’t eat American meat, because of all the ‘khormones’ that have been pumped into it. But Tyler, who can be funny, mystifyingly restrains herself most of the time.

Like all families seen from outside, the Whitshanks are smug. Despite the okra, no one in an Anne Tyler book is ever fat. So Atta is there to be disliked, since she’s overweight, and one grandchild sticks out like a sore thumb: ‘Alexander was It, which was painful to watch because he was the first Whitshank in known history to show a tendency toward pudginess. When he ran, he cast his legs out clumsily and paddled the air with both hands.’ This sounds more than a plumpness problem – it’s Kafka’s Metamorphosis, and needlessly cruel. The Whitshanks are not only hard to take (them and their nice house and their annual beach holidays!) but characterless, and often snide. And they all speak in the same way.

Gramps turns out to have had a rather sorry past, for which he’s duly sorry. His life was none too happy, and this streak of melancholy has passed down the generations, like the title’s blue thread. The house stands firm though, throughout the ups and downs of its occupants and, unlike them, is much admired. Estate agents call it ‘the porch house’, and long to get their mitts on it – making this perhaps Tyler’s first venture into property porn.

Her fiction can seem like a Patricia Highsmith novel gone wrong. Both writers amass a whole load of quiet, repetitive, mundane experience at a trudging pace. In Highsmith, this lethargy or stagnation fills you with dread. With Tyler, the sinister element is absent: this is it, this is the story (even when there isn’t one). So, naturally it nearly flipped me off my porch swing when I hit a vein of sex and violence in A Spool of Blue Thread. There’s not a lot of either, but they sure do perk things up some. As always with Tyler, there’s a better novel trying to get out.

(This review appeared in the Herald, February 8, 2015)


The Emperor of Ice-Cream–Dan Gunn

In Reviews by Lucy and Todd on February 5, 2015 at 10:02 am

Mr and Mrs Pezzini live in Broughton Street, Edinburgh, in the 1920s. Signor Pezzini makes Nativity figurines for a living. Mamma keeps house, and there are four children: Lucia is bookish and the narrator of this novel. Emilio is trying to recover from polio. Giulio is a romantic, and Dario, the eldest, is a lusty bully, always of two minds. When Mussolini comes to power in 1922, Dario founds a Fascio, ostensibly a social club for Italian Scots, but supporting the new Italian state and beats the drum for ‘Fascismo’. Thanks to the Fascio’s funds, the Pezzinis can visit Italy. Dario and Giulio attend Fascist exercises in Rome, at which almost the entire Scottish delegation faints from the heat. Giulio runs for ice cream, which renders a few of them able to stand when their leader makes a sudden appearance. Taken by surprise, they salute him with dripping wooden ice cream spoons.

The next year, Lucia visits the family village and Rome. She wears a fetching Fascist tunic and marches with a little bow and arrow in a parade before Il Duce (the Pope had drawn the line with Mussolini about girls carrying rifles). Later Mussolini converses with Lucia about Scotland – he seems to know all about Robert Burns and Walter Scott. Someone snaps a photo of her with him; back home she spends precious money on a frame for it.

There’s a lot of journeying in The Emperor of Ice-Cream, mostly between Edinburgh and Italy, yet the story is also rooted, even to the point of feeling claustrophobic, in home and family, things held dear in both nations. Dario’s fate, as a Fascist demagogue, is, of course, disillusionment, but gets still worse: he’s crippled fighting for Il Duce in the Italian campaign in Abyssinia. Lucia falls in love with a dashing Roman and waits years for him at her desk at the Royal Bank in George Street, where she becomes savvy enough about money to help her brother Giulio realize his dream, which is to open the most wonderful ice cream shop in Scotland: the Ice Palace.

Situated in Annandale Street, just a few steps from what was thought of, and perhaps still is, the Italian heart of Edinburgh, the Ice Palace dazzles the people of Broughton and beyond. For Italians it’s a more familial place to meet than the male-only bars of the day, and the Fascio is rapidly becoming a contentious venue. Indeed Giulio planned his shop to be just this, as he publicly rejects the Fascio and Fascism too (we later learn another reason why he was destined not to fit in to the rise of Aryanism).

There is much here of the twentieth-century Italian experience in Scotland. There is also a lot about ice cream, a bit like the way in which Patrick Süskind’s novel Perfume linked political upheaval and the art of fragrance: what flavours tickled the 1930s palate, and the great dynasties of ices: Nardini, Luca. Your reviewer is, sadly, lactose intolerant, but he awoke in the night thinking of the exotic flavours and combinations concocted by Giulio after he visits the ultimate masters of his art, La Scimmia of Naples and Giolitti’s in Rome: ‘Bitter Cherry and Blood Orange so tart it sets the roof your mouth on fire’. Cinnamon sorbet! More than just a meeting place, the Ice Palace is the hub of several romances – love is the real subject of the book. Earthy Aunt Paola, so impressed by Giulio’s success and so depressed by Scottish cooking, also opens a shop on Annandale Street (which by now is referred to by locals as the ‘Via Pezzini’): ‘Paola’s Neapolitan Fry.’ Just in case you thought fish and chips (and deep-fried zucchini) weren’t going to get a mention.

When Mussolini abruptly signed his pact with Hitler, the British government started rounding up Italians, mostly male. ‘Collar the lot,’ Churchill said. There were vigilante outrages too, and Edinburgh was no exception: it took Giulio and Lucia almost two years of scraping and sacrifice to make the Ice Palace come true, and at the hands of frightened bigots it is ruined in one terribly sad, violent moment. ‘Who knows what will be released upon the children of us Italians?’ asks Giulio.

It’s often said that there is a fundamental sadness to Italian life. Perhaps that is another trait shared by the two countries of this story. As Lucia warms to her narrative, the prose, generally a little cautious and overly measured, can burst into affecting moments: The Emperor of Ice-Cream gets deeper and scarier as it progresses. Things don’t go well for the Pezzinis – in Edinburgh and in Italy there is primitive violence, horror and death. It’s a big family and a lot happens to them, all because of nationalism, love and gelato.

This review appeared in the Sunday Herald, February 1, 2015.