Lucy and Todd

Posts Tagged ‘Edinburgh’

God Save Texas — Lawrence Wright

In Reviews by Lucy and Todd on July 2, 2018 at 6:03 pm

It’s Lawrence Wright’s contention that we must regard Texas as the very symptom, the future of the upcoming world we will all live in: ‘Because Texas is a part of almost everything in modern America—the South, the West, the plains, Hispanic and immigrant communities, the border, the divide between the rural areas and the cities—what happens here tends to disproportionately affect the rest of the nation.’

Well, yee-haw. At this very moment the Texas economy is overtaking that of California, and it’s not just about oil. These two monstrosities of the western US are opposed in every way. California is a complex, neurotic, highly regulated society, historically open to outsiders, whereas Texans have a horror of furriners and, at the same time, of messicans and redskins. They resist any kind of law-making that restricts the making of money. The costs of that, social and environmental, as detailed in God Save Texas, are staggering.

Just to read the chapter on Houston is mind-bending, in terms of the dirty potential of these ever-spreading cities – in their demands on electric power and infrastructure alone. Houston is only a little smaller than the entire state of Massachusetts – soon it will be the largest urban area in the US. And begging your pardon, ma’am, but it just don’t seem to have no limits.

Fracking, which Texas believes in as sure as barbecue, means that the United States is once again replete with black gold (Texas tea!). That makes it a colossal threat to us all. This is a pretty depressing side to this must-read book, but Wright handles it well, balancing Armageddon with tales of things that are good about Texas. A few things. There’s Willie Nelson for one, some of the most beautiful wildflowers in the world, a shedload of dinosaur bones, and all kinds of stuff to eat. There are also Alamo belt buckles and a whole heap of lingering Confederate racism.

The state animal of Texas could well be the grudge. Texans are super-defensive about their ‘image’. In 1952 the distinguished writer Edna Ferber published a novel about Texas: Giant. In it a Texas rancher marries a girl from Maryland. She takes an interest in her Mexican servants and gets the whites-only doctor to save an Indian baby. Over the years the rancher’s heart softens, as much as a cattleman’s can.

This novel drove Texans mad. They resented the perfectly accurate perception that they mistreated their minorities, found women invisible, birthed their laws in rooms full of cigar smoke, and hated Mexico so much that more than once in Texas history was mooted the idea of a Trumpish wall. Giant was published sixty-six years ago and they continue to fume about it, and as Lawrence Wright points out, they’re still acting that way, too.

The emptiness and aridity of Texas can be sobering. The Last Picture Show may have given you an idea, but it’s nothing compared to this: there’s a guy in this book who grew up in a tiny Texas town; his parents ran the dry-cleaning shop. There was nothing to do, nowhere to go for hundreds of miles from this place. So when the kids got really, maniacally bored, the parents gave them the keys to the shop, and they’d spend the afternoon trying on everybody’s clothes. That’s what you call rural entertainment.

Wright acknowledges that the womenfolk ain’t had much influence on the culture or politics of Texas, despite the fact that some of the most dynamic women in US history came from there: Barbara Jordan, the first black female member of the US House of Representatives from the South; Ann Richards, a shoot-from-the-hip-and-ask-questions-later feminist and the forty-fifth Governor of the state; the crusading reporters Molly Ivins and Linda Ellerbee.

To begin fixing the problems that face Texas, and therefore all of us, how about some kind of free-wheeling gender reversal? The women could make laws and deals (in Texas they’re kind of the same thing), open the borders, improve education (Texas is the worst state for this) and even introduce compassion. The men? There’s no need to understand ’em. Just ride ’n rope ’n brand ’em.

The author of The Looming Tower, a history of Al-Qaeda and 9/11 which won the Pulitzer Prize, Wright seems a political mixed bag. As a journalist he has to spend time with some very right-wing folks. He often eats breakfast with Karl Rove. He acquired a gun permit so he could enter the state capitol more easily. (Yes ma’am, you heard correct.)

The gun laws are nuts. Don’t-go-there nuts. They’re so nuts that you wonder why anybody in Texas bothers to get up in the morning. As a professional writer on terrorism, Wright professes a belief in ‘strong borders’, but he freely admits that the exigencies of the 21st century aren’t being addressed by Texas dialectic.

Now, y’all listen to this: Mr Wright is a resident of Austin, Texas, the state capital and a city with a reputation for a certain intellectuality and tolerance. He is disturbed by the commercialization and homogenization of his town: ‘One can already sniff the artifice and inauthenticity that transforms these charming environments into amusement parks for conventioneers. The very places that made Austin so hip are being demolished for the hotels and office spaces needed to accommodate the flood of tourists who have come to enjoy what no longer exists.’ Edinburgh, the eyes of Texas are upon you.

 

TMcE

 

(This review appeared in the Herald on April 28, 2018)

Arthur & Sherlock: Conan Doyle and the Creation of Holmes–Michael Sims

In Reviews by Lucy and Todd, The Gloves Are Off : Thoughts on Literature on March 14, 2017 at 9:36 am

You can get too much Sherlock Holmes. I once met the editor of a magazine called The Holmesian Observer. I read the Complete Sherlock Holmes while growing up, so I took an interest. Holmesian Observer? Looks good, I remarked innocently. The guy said, Actually it’s pronounced Holmeeesian. What are you, kidding me? I said. But that’s what it’s like among the Irregulars.

I’m sitting in the Conan Doyle, a pub with a view of the statue of Mr Sherlock Holmes in Picardy Place. According to a Nicholson’s pub group leaflet, Holmes ‘stands in permanent contemplation of the death of his creator’. Pretty meta. It could be that it’s just a bronze statue of Sherlock Holmes … that’s a possibility, isn’t it? The figure is more Basil Rathbone than Jeremy Brett. Our man’s in a nice little piazza of smashed-up concrete, backed by a broken fence and some bushes with a lot of trash in them, so he’s not being treated any worse than most people in Edinburgh.

The pub features some models of scenes from the Holmes stories, an old medical bag with Doyle’s name painted on it, and some bound copies of the Lancet. There is a colour reproduction of a portrait of James Boswell – ‘born in Edinburgh in 1940’. Beyond that, nothing much mysterious going on at the moment. I decide to try Holmes’s methods on those here.

MY DEDUCTIONS.

  1. This is the closest bar to the bus station. Everyone’s so depressed, it has to be.
  1. Some meticulous character went to a lot of trouble to Sherlock this place up, probably for a sinister reason. Tourism?
  1. These eight women work at John Lewis. This is easy—they’re talking dress prices and all have those little cords attached to their spectacles.
  1. A bunch of extremely old people are going to eat a lot of chips today. I cannot answer for the consequences.
  1. A lady interrupts my cogitations by collapsing outside on the pavement, the devil take her. I then espy an elderly man with a curiously luxuriant moustache at the bar. He’s standing here in a strangely challenging way, as if he’s the only person in the Conan Doyle who is belligerently, self-consciously aware of its ‘heritage’. Could it have been he who dashed the poor woman to the ground?
  1. The beef and bone marrow pie is off. (It says so on the blackboard.)

::

In Arthur and Sherlock, the prolix American writer Michael Sims discusses the events leading up to the creation of Sherlock Holmes. It is not a biography, and ends just after the first Holmes stories appeared. There are titbits for those who have stamina. Not a lot of marrow.

Arthur Conan Doyle was born in Picardy Place in 1859. His father had a minor job in the Works office as a draughtsman. An alcoholic, he was unable to support the family; later he became completely demented. The Doyle children all went to work in one way or another and their mother took in lodgers. Arthur loved books and from an early age thought about writing.

He used to tell stories to other children, for which he received apples.

But as a young man he needed a more reliable way to make a living, and went into the doctoring line. Studying at Edinburgh, Doyle came under the influence of Dr Joseph Bell, a pioneer of diagnostics considered something of a ‘magician’. It’s said that Bell could tell the trade of any man merely by looking at his hands. It was Bell Doyle was thinking of later when he created Sherlock Holmes; he said that Holmes was a ‘bastard between Joe Bell and Poe’s Monsieur Dupin (much diluted).’

Doyle sounds a timid fellow who liked frightening himself by experimenting with drugs and poisons. He’s a recognisable type: a writer who lacks imagination but thinks it can be stimulated by stunts and adventures.

Doctors all want to write. What is it with them? But Doyle was no Rabelais or Chekhov or Céline. He was closer to Michael Crichton. When he began to send out articles, he had achieved a style that passed for factual: an American magazine took his short story on the mystery surrounding the ship Mary Celeste as straight reportage. After attempting one thing and another, he decided to slot himself into the growing field of detective fiction. The Doyle that emerges from Sims’s book is like Nigel Bruce’s Dr Watson: an indifferently-educated, bumbly fantasist.

Doyle could create a sense of adventure and place and sometimes slightly kinky mystery—‘as her beautiful head fell upon her chest, I saw the clear red weal of a whiplash across her neck.’ But he was never really a good writer. Take ‘The Hound of the Baskervilles’. Please. The denouement (demonic hound revealed to be actual hound, starved, face painted with phosphorous) is clearly an afterthought. Who would actually bother to do that? And all the faffing around about Sir Charles’s missing boot pretty much gives the game away. Dr Mortimer is a total blabbermouth who almost ruins everything. He should have his arse kicked with a new tan boot.

Still, there’s a kind of raw excitement about setting off on an adventure—in the late Victorian England of perfectly coordinated railway timetables and a lightning-fast, fully functioning post office. Think of it! There is, too, a stuffy comedy to the Holmes stories as narrated by Watson, the way all these men look each other over and sum each other up. It’s all about class, of course, but they accept each other as human. More or less. When there comes an interloper, he is readily identified as an urchin, a cabman, or a woman, and you don’t need to be a detective to do that.

You rarely fall over in admiration of one of Doyle’s paragraphs, but there is atmosphere:

Every minute that white woolly plain which covered one-half of the moor was drifting closer and closer to the house. Already the first thin wisps of it were curling across the golden square of the lighted window.

Watson says that Holmes likes to ‘dominate’ people by keeping everything to himself until the last moment. But what that really means is that Doyle has to keep us hanging around until he’s invented some ending, the opposite of what Holmes’s methods are supposed to be. There’s a lot of sham logic, induction and deduction. Doyle liked to give the illusion of high-flown thinking. He once said of the Holmes stories that ‘people think them more ingenious than they are.’

::

But now let us muster our facts over a pipeful of Baker Street shag and talk about what a bad book this is. It has the tedious qualities of a kind of American non-fiction which is not much known here, at least not yet. It is not scholarship and it is not solid journalism, but just splashing about in the shallows of some subject.

Each little chapter has its winsome title and epigram. Despite such gestures toward organisation, Sims hops around within a paragraph like a Mexican jumping bean. He’s incapable of forming a straightforward narrative. There is some suggestion hanging around the publicity for this book that this is intellectually adroit. It isn’t.

On page seven already, Sims portrays a patient at the Royal Infirmary describing his symptoms to Dr Bell ‘in a Scottish accent’. Well, what would you expect? Sims informs us that scholarship was revered in Edinburgh, but a little later he refers to ‘navel-gazing Scottish theologians’, a rather raspy remark on the capital’s intellectual history. He offers yet another American conception of what the ‘Scottish Enlightenment’ was, and then, amazingly, tells us what ‘bohemians’ were:

Arthur liked to think of himself as bohemian. The term derived not from inhabitants of the actual Kingdom of Bohemia – which, in 1867, had become part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire – but from bohémien, originally the French term for Romany people, often described in English with the word Gypsy.

Sims explains at length what a deerstalker cap is. Then he explains what deer stalking is. It’s not hunting, he will have you know, but later he returns to the goddam hat to tell us where it could and couldn’t be worn. He seems to trust us to know what deer are.

But if you don’t know what a deerstalker is, why the hell would you be reading this book?

When Doyle goes to Portsmouth to set up a medical practice, Sims says he arrived on a hot day carrying ‘only his ulster, probably a tin box for the top hat that was de rigueur for a young professional man, and a bulky leather portmanteau. The bag was heavy with photographic equipment and brass plates, clothing, books and a large brass sign that he had had made in Plymouth—dr. conan doyle, surgeon.’ “Only?”

Sims’s descriptive writing is awful. What are ‘marble relief columns’? He says the Water of Leith ‘bisects’ Edinburgh. I think we would be very surprised if we awoke tomorrow and found that to be the case. And how many times would you like to be told who Burke and Hare were?

Sims thinks everyone in the 19th century had three names. Thomas Babington Macaulay, among dozens of others, is always called that, just so you won’t confuse him with the other historian Thomas Macaulay. Or Macaulay. These names treble into an almost unbearable cacophony.

You would be more entertained and edified just to sit down and read Doyle. Michael Sims’s intimations about Sherlock Holmes are nothing less than the footprints of a gigantic bore.

TMcE

This article appeared in the Scottish Review of Books, March 4, 2017

Blizzard 2016. Edinburgh.

In Stuff We Like on January 24, 2016 at 3:58 pm

P1010092

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.

TMcE

(This review first appeared in the National, February 23, 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.

TMcE