Monday, April 30, 2018

Sky Hooks by Neil Campbell

Readers familiar with Neil Campbell's sharp, short stories will find much that is familiar in "Sky Hooks", the first part of a trilogy of Manchester novels that came out in 2016, with the next instalment, "Zero Hours", launching in a fortnight at Waterstones.  The novel's real time narrator lives in Lamport Court, an actual council block just inside the Mancunian Way, and it is that urban proximity that permeates much of the story. A bildungsroman about the boy who could have made it; on the books at City - the old City, before all the Gulf money transformed this local team into a world name - before a knee injury put paid to that ambition, the narrator begins in that unusual location for contemporary fiction, on the floor of a warehouse. The warehouse provides brackets and other parts for larger companies, and our protagonist ends up in the job because the dole has tightened up, and its a ten minute walk from his flat.

Much of the first part of the novel takes place in the warehouse, and Campbell is unflinching, but wryly funny, in his description of this most mundane of settings. The "sky hooks" of the title are the imaginary parts that a newcomer to the warehouse is sent off to get on his first day, but also acts as a sort of metaphor for the life the narrator now tries to make for himself - looking up into the Mancunian sky and being surprised and delighted to see the peregrine falcons that are nesting above the town hall.

The older fellers in the warehouse have been there donkey's years, and have no ambition other than to get through the day. Campbell's character is evocative about this life - the thirst of the working man after a long day of physical labour; the going to bed at ten o'clock at night to just get the day over; and the desire to obliterate the memory of the week on a weekend. In the warehouse nobody is interested that he once was on the books at City, and throughout the novel, this one achievement is one he can't quite decide whether to let go or to share - like Harry Angstrom in Updike's "Rabbit, Run", there's a sense that the best is behind him. Unlike Rabbit, however, the opportunities for someone in 21st century without an education are massively constrained. Minimum wage jobs, a small flat that is in a tower home to drug dealers, prostitutes and alcoholics. Each walk home is the running of an urban gauntlet. Prostitutes are his neighbours, and at least one of his colleagues on the warehouse floor regularly uses them.

His own sexual experiences are equally futile - paid for sex, one night stands, or lusting after unobtainable girls, his libido fixating on large breasted women, and yet being tongue tied whenever he comes into conversation with them. It a young man's story, and the women pass through the novel as occasional characters.

For the warehouse - though it defines him to some extent - is something that he wants to get out of. First by going on two trips, to a beloved mythical America - first to New York, or, as big Springsteen fan, the grim industrial town of New Jersey; and then to San Francisco where just crossing the Golden Gate Bridge makes the trip worth while. These moments of epiphany are hard won - and going back to the warehouse makes the distance between the dream and the reality even harder to bear. Yet the narrator is not a starry eyed Jude, betrayed by the big city, or a waster content with an unexamined life. What is particularly strong about the book is its resistance to glamourising a new story arc - success is always tiny, and always tinged with failure. I recall reading a couple of episodes in some of his earlier short stories, and the episodic nature of the novel, highlights his strength as a short story writer - yet whereas a short story tends to be a single unit, here, the longer form (albeit in a short novel) provides something else. The best parts are those where there's hardly a narrative bone, in particular - and interestingly, for an urban novel - those scenes where he heads off with just a tent and a backpack, not to exotic places, but to Arran or the lake district. The contrast between nature and the urban city is a palpable one - yet he always has to come back - to work, to earn money.

His progress is a faltering one, through a job in a bookshop, to one in a University library. There are few British writers who write unfailingly well about work, in its various forms, and Campbell does this brilliantly - not just because they are experiences he has had, but because he has a good eye for picking out the absurdities. At the same time, like its author, the narrator is working on a collection of short stories. On launching it, what should have been a moment of having "made it" feels anything but. Whereas Ben Lerner's blocked writer in "10:04" finds out he has a massive advance for his new novel, (like Ben Lerner), Campbell's writer finds himself selling hardly any copies, and being ignored at his own reading.

Though other coming of age novels like "Rabbit, Run" and Trocchi's "Young Adam" come to mind, and Bukowski's working class writer is never far from the scene, there's a tightness to the editing, and a flow to the narrative which brings out the poetry in Campbell's prose. Unusually for a writer whose subject is very much "the street" and "the city" he rarely resorts to slang, and the elegance of the writing, though plain and matter-of-fact, is its real strength.

There are a couple of parts which seem to not quite gel as well as they could - some of the work scenes go on a little, but there's still much joy in the banter of it all, and there is such a cast of minor characters that it's hard to remember which ones matter. If women in the novel are merely there to be stared at, its never done gratuitously, more that the inarticulacy of the narrator around the opposite sex finds its language in how he talks about them honestly. When he does meet someone, Denise, its almost thrown away before it begins, so that one's not quite convinced by the narrator's regret that it is over.

It's interesting that this short novel - which works very much as a stand alone book - is now going to be followed up by "Zero Hours", and possibly a 3rd novel. It's narrator is more Generation Y than millennial, but acts as a lightning rod for the times. Hearing about the broken lifts, and non-existent heating within the tower block next to the Mancunian Way, it seems to presage real life calamities like 2017's Grenfell Tower disaster.

Not all short story writers make the transition to the longer form without losing what has made them strong in the former, but Campbell has succeeded, so that the episodes that form the story - like in David Mitchell's similarly episodic "Black Swan Green" - add to the whole.

Friday, April 20, 2018

The Album That Changed My Life

There's a meme going round Facebook at the moment to "post 10 album covers that meant a lot to you, don't explain why...." I've been tagged a few times - but, hey, life's too short etc. Also, quite a few people have ignored the last bit. After all, what's the point of being on Desert Island Discs and just playing the records.

I'm currently playing the Cure's 4th album, "Pornography" from 1982. Its the original vinyl copy I had at the time, so remarkably free of scratches given that I must have played this close to 200 times during that period. I had become aware of a music that existed beyond the top 40 the previous year with Joy Division's retrospective "Still", which I'd heard on the John Peel Show. But it was with "Pornography" that I really found a new album that I could love unequivocally.

I must have heard the Cure by that time - though only really "Primary" and "A Forest" had had any sort of success. Yet, I think there was a sense of expectation when "Pornography" came out. We got it home - me and my two friends, Dave and Dan all bought a copy, rather than let one buy it and the others tape it. It was the default record we'd play when we couldn't agree on another (I don't think we ever agreed on another record that we all three liked so unequivocally.)

"Pornography" is a concept album but not in the seventies sense of telling a story - here the concept is all mood. The first line on the album is "It doesn't matter if we all die" and the last line is "I must fight this sickness, find a cure." It's an album about depression and breakdown. The rouge cover with the three faces of the band members morphed into some kind of Munchian abstract; the stark lettering of the band name and title.

The Cure had begun as a punk/new wave band. "Boys Don't Cry" off their debut would be a longstanding indie disco favourite. Early single "Killing an Arab" showed a darker, but more literary side.  Their debut album was sort of Buzzcocks-like - spikey songs, thinly produced, shrill guitars. By "17 Seconds" they'd perfected a certain kind of brooding atmosphere, which was followed by "Faith" and culminated in the apparent dead end of "Pornography."

Goth - the music that dare not speak its name - was emerging out of the new decade - adding different textures to the post-punk and new wave landscape. Spikey hair and black eyeliner was an unavoidable fashion in 1982. Robert Smith had been touring with Siouxsie and the Banshees, but whereas there music would steadily get lighter after debut "The Scream" (Munch again!), the Cure's was still heading into a ditch.

What is astonishing still about "Pornography" is how unlike every other record - including every other record by the Cure - it still sounds. All three members of the band are credited with keyboards which gives the album a texture - but its Laurence Tolhurst's militaristic pounding drums that set the scene for the record's texture. This nihilistic hammering is relentless throughout the album. Smith's guitar meanwhile is as sharp and inventive as ever (he's one of the great underrated guitarists), that does occasionally stray into tropes and styles used by other post-punk and gothic bands. The chiming figures of the guitar swirl around enabling his single tone vocals to glide flatly over the top.

In some ways you can see why the album was critically maligned at the time.  This was the era of new pop, new wave funk, and new romanticism and yet "Pornography" might well be the least funky album ever recorded.  It seems to inhabit a tiny tradition of repetition focused electronica - think Suicide, Silver Apples - but its also relentless morbid. I used to know every line off the poem. Rather than Bowie/Burroughs still cut ups, these seem deliberate non-sequiturs, collections of haikus in every song, mimicing the music's repetition in a new non-linear song poetry.

Is there even a chorus on the whole album? Only "Hanging Garden" made an odd single; perhaps the vaguely melodic "Strange Day" would have made the better choice. Yet its the other tracks which really stand out. Opener "One Hundred Days", "The Figurehead", and particularly "Cold" inhabit a kind of European classical tradition, austere and monumental at the same time. Coming out of a teenager's stereo in the early 1980s, the somewhat simplistic soundscape would drape itself over everything in the room like a thick fog on the Pacific shoreline.

What "Pornography" also does is show that you can make a record that is on the surface totally unadorned with the things that are supposed to make music palatable, and yet still create something that is immediate, timeless and challenging - and more than that - highly successful. It was a top 10 album, and the uncompromising "Hanging Garden" went higher than the previous year's "Charlotte Sometimes", a much more melodic single.

The single tone of "Pornography" is what appealed at the time - we were listening to some dark symphony - when you put it on, apart from turning over at the half way mark - that was it - forty minutes of unadulterated horror and loathing. If ever an album could seem to be instilled with demons its surely this one - whatever was happening with the band at the time, drugs, breakdown, etc. - was played out in its grooves. That so many people of my age not only heard it, but were obsessed with it, makes me wonder at the zeitgeist we were going through. Yet, for the three of us in my band who had copies, and listened to it on rotate, nobody else in our class at school had any kind of interest in it all. It would only be with a lighter version of the Cure - "The Walk", "Lovecats" and In Between Days" - that they'd become a student disco favourite.

I still love this album, every single sonic moment of it. I bought the CD deluxe a few years back, and it benefits sonically from being remastered. Live, these tracks would take on an entirely different grandeur, so that "A Figurehead" or "One Hundred Years" become anthems - a gothic template that Sisters of Mercy would perfect on mock heroic tracks like "This Corrosion."

Sunday, April 08, 2018

Canon, class and critical culture

When poetry makes it onto the news, its never about the poetry, despite Pound's assertion that it is "news that stays news." I refrained from commenting at the time on the article in P.N. Review where Rebecca Watts, on being asked to review a poetry collection by Holly McNish, from Picador, decides instead to question poetry's broad church and the poetry world's unwillingness to embrace both excellence and access. I broadly agreed with Watts' article, and didn't really notice, to be honest, that she had been a little impolite to McNish, and had singled out a group of young female poets for her approbation. These two things: the sense of an attack on McNish, and the female-target became central to the kerfuffle that had followed. Poets, though they might disagree amongst themselves and in private, are almost apologetically polite in print, particularly when a new collection comes out. After all, you never know who might review yours further down the line.

Yet, a couple of months on, it seems that the thrust of Watts' argument - that poetry should not be apologetic about being an artform; that the imprimatur of prestigious presses and editors and prizes supporting poetry that (perhaps only on the page) falls short of this (in some people's opinion); and the unwillingness to accept that critical culture requires not just to like, but to dislike, are things that should have been debated. It has been interesting as well that the poets and commentators I've spoke to defending Holly McNish or Kate Tempest's work have also been annoyed that Watts lumped them in with Rupi Kaur, the popular "instagram" poet. It has always seemed to me - from themed national poetry days, to poetry for all - that "dumbing down" will always lead to this kind of thing. There have been plenty of writers of light verse over the years who have never been taken seriously as poets, but have given much joy, from Rod McKeun to Pam Ayres. As for the cluster of female poets (being looked at by a female writer), that seems a bit of bad luck; but to be fair to McNish, one wonders whether a new collection by Lemn Sissay or Luke Wright would have been at least given the veneer of a serious review?

Somehow this debate spilled over into a "high art vs low art" debate, and that this was an attack on "working class poets". Despite McNish having a pretty high-end education of her own. McNish is a successful performer who makes a living from her writing. and probably came out of this the better, in the short term, however disappointing it can be for any writer to have their work dismissed out of hand. In the past, of course, there was an easy response to this: write better, write more seriously. It's interesting how snobbish the poetry world has been in the past about incomers - compared to those grown under its own networks and imprints. Mark Haddon, who had one of the most successful novels of recent years, released a book of his poetry to indifference from the poetry world; Felix Dennis, the publisher, and not a million miles from Michael Horowitz and other late beats in world view and style, paid for his own books and tours, before his death - cheerfully telling audiences that the wine was free, if they only turned up; Iain Banks' posthumous collection was received with a respectful silence (and Banks was published alongside his friend Ken Macleod, well aware that an occasional poet who is already a well known novelist could face plenty of ridicule from the once meticulous poetry establishment.) Money talks of course, and just as Faber has benefited from Lloyd Webber's astonishingly successful "Cats", most big publishers with a poetry list can benefit from any unexpected poetry "hits".

Yet the sense prevails that there is not so much a critical culture in British letters, that is interested in identifying, encouraging and perhaps even being surprised by excellence, but an old boy's (and increasingly old girl's) network of interconnections fostered through the BBC, small presses and the like. It would seem somewhat astonishing that McNish would be asked to be the judge on the "Golden Booker" for books that won this decade until you remember that, yes, she has a good education, is an experienced broadcaster, and so is probably capable of commentating meaningful on recent novels and that one of the other judges is the "broadcaster and novelist" Simon Mayo. (I didn't know, but Mayo has published three novels for young adults.) It strikes me that McNish has the easier task of the two - as the Booker winners since 2010 haven't really been that outstanding - with the exception of Marlon James' highly original "A Brief History in Seven Killings." Mayo has "The Life of Pi", "Vernon God Little", "The Line of Beauty", "Wolf Hall" and "The White Tiger" to play with. The Mantel seems the supreme work of literary art of the era, to my mind so it will be interesting to see.

Which brings us neatly(-ish) to this week's TLS. Alex Clark has a three page spread on what they are calling "the new Elizabethans" - i.e. what is the contemporary canon. It attempts to do two things. To list those writers who are currently writing at the top of their game; and to identify those writers who have written the best work since the turn of the century. Its not mentioned explicitly, but these rules are surely to discount the Amis, Barnes, McEwan, Rushdie generation without actually saying so. That said, the list of the "top ten" includes such young bucks as Kazuo Ishiguro, Hilary Mantel and Alan Hollinghurst.

When we talk about "canon" we run into so much historical precedence. We have the "Harvard Classics" - where fiction was originally excluded in favour of philosophy letters and the like at the start of the last century, but was eventually added to - a canon aimed squarely at the aspiring working class or middle class reader who hadn't been to university but wanted to understand the New York papers' culture pages. This list stands up reasonably well, with its mix of American, British and European classics.  If most literary scenes and movements have a tendency to kick the cultural can down the road a bit, simply echoing previous models but in a different way, Modernism crushed the can underfoot and insisted on a new can, that may or may not be much use as can in the expected way. F.R. Leavis and other critics had something to say about a new canon. I think it is interesting that the TLS didn't even go near poetry or drama or non-fiction in its attempt to see what a new "canon" might look like. Yet this seems a mistake: for a literary or cultural landscape needs more than fields of barley, it requires some unloved clumps of bushes, some awkward hills, some wayward streams. More recently, borne on his enthusiasm and reacting against the theorists, we had Harold Bloom, a Casaubon of the reviewing world, who in "The Western Canon" tried to knit everything together in a way that only the massively read Bloom could have done.

Alex Clark writes about this being the start of the conversation - so I guess think of this blog as being part of that. An aside; a few years ago on the list of cultural commentators invited to speak about something you'd have been surprised not to have found a blogger or two. I'd imagine they might still be there; but more likely also writing for this or that paper. The blog community offered a chance to write and talk about books in a different way. It seemed to offer both a push-button publishing platform and a collective conversation. The former is still true: it still is the easiest way to get things online; but the latter has been overtaken by the closed networks of commentariat that you find on Facebook and elsewhere. Comments on this blog have slowed to a trickle, even if I hope it still has a small readership.

Clark mentions a few of the submitters to the TLS list - and there is some interesting detail in the article. The title - "the new Elizabethans" - seems bizarre, even insulting. It's not only Heaney who would grunt that his "passport's green" - particularly on a list that has bit of a new Irish renaissance feel to it. Surely a Queen who is coming towards the end of her long reign is not the right way to define this group of 21st century writers who are all formed by the 20th century? Like all lists you wonder about the omissions. The most glaring to me would be David Mitchell, whose work since "Ghostwritten" has been the most refreshing and inventive of English novelists. It strikes me that there are writers on the list who haven't actually written a standout novel. Mitchell seems to have written at least two: "Cloud Atlas" and "The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet". They would sit alongside "Wolf Hall", "If Nobody Speaks of Remarkable Things", "The Carhullan Army", "Day", "Five Miles from Outer Hope", "Three to See the King", "Vault", "The Damned United". "The City and the City" , "The Book of Dave",  "First Novel", "A Long, Long Way", "Life after Life" and " A Girl is a Half Formed Thing" as standout British and Irish novels of the last few years. Some of these books are undoubtedly personal rather than universal favourites: at the same time there are writers I like (Zadie Smith) where there's not a stand out novel for me and acclaimed writers I can't get on with (Ali Smith, Colm Toibin).

On the other hand it does stand as a different way of looking at things than the Granta lists of "20 under 40". Writers are getting older. Success is coming later. In some ways, the novel as a cultural touchstone seems less important than before - yet this week sees a TV adaption of word of mouth classic "The City and the City" by China Mieville; Ishiguro's Nobel prize probably owed as much to his (flawed, but emotionally wrenching) "Never Let Me Go", as it did "Remains of the Day"; books like "The Girls", "Nocturnal Animals", "Fight Club",  "The God of Small Things", "We'd better talk about Kevin", "The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night Time" have had a resonance beyond the book pages.

Inevitably, in these discussions, that other "renaissance" - the short story - feels a little squeezed out. Very few shorts will have the cultural after life of "Cat Person", but with some of the best contemporary writing taking place in that medium, its good to see novelists who have also written great shorts (Zadie Smith, Jon McGregor, Hilary Mantel) on the list.

It's interesting though: because any conversation about canon immediately goes into what's good or what's bad. I have a first edition of Quiller-Couch's "Oxford Book of English  Poetry", and the canon is pretty set by 1900 or so when it appeared - up until 1850. But the last fifty years are full of sub-Tennyson, sub-Browning late Victorians that were - presumably, the most esteemed peers of that generation. We are yet to see Hopkins; Hardy's poetry; or the forthcoming Modernists. A revised edition at the turn of this century struggles with our own recent past. It seems that the crowd-sourced list here has its problems even whittling down to a "Top 20! novelists. Recent poetry surveys by Nathan Hamilton and Roddy Lumsden have been catholic in their choices: all must win prizes. We live it seems in an era of literary abundance, and yet sales are in crisis, writers livelihoods are precarious. Twas ever thus, of course, but it seems that there needs to be a critical culture that is in and of itself not just a gatekeeper, but can be a revolving watch - so that its not just the same old suspects.

Much of the interesting work in literature always happens at the margins, in small press magazines and in small run novels and collections. There are times when the "indies" are actually more conservative than the "majors" seeing that certain neglected writers have fallen out of fashion. At the moment there seems a general vibrancy. Yet a critical culture needs to reflect this. Ironically, it is book prizes, with their egalatarian judging that has levelled the playing field. McBride's "A Girl is a Half Formed Thing" is famously the novel that got away; until the small Galley Beggar press published it. It seems remarkable - here is a woman who can clearly write, on both a small scale in terms of subject but a grand scale in terms of her ambition - and yet the gatekeepers couldn't see that. These "feeder presses" only exist out of love and enthusiasm, and a little bit of funding. Readership is what keeps them going of course in a way that isn't really an issue for a major press that has so many "banker" brands.

As someone who has always loved literature, but also reading about literary life, I'm a sucker for lists, for canons. It's hard to identify, as I get older, writers that I look out for their next book from the new ones coming along. There have been a lot of over-hyped disappointments over the years. One still hopes that old favourites might have a late career masterpiece in them, like a hurdler winning their final race at Aintree. As someone who has always been primarily influenced and inspired by American fiction, I think the list of British and Irish books I posted above is a pretty good crop, comparable with any other period of British letters I can think of.  Of course, the middle class novel is still alive and well; and the ongoing complacency of those assumptions - both class and generational based - are frustrating. But I worry that the fast culture of social media, and of a generation of academics who are seeing culture (not just literature) through a lens of cultural and social theory remains antithetical to the kind of brave, consistent, outward facing writing I want to see and read. The TLS is clearly trying to start a debate: its likely to be quite a rarified one. I wonder how many of the 200 who responded to its call for suggestions were frustrated by the somewhat "usual suspects" nature of the list? Is a canon something that is - therefore - agreed on, collectively, or something that can be pushed through a particular lens, a particular perspective (such as Leavis, such as Bloom)?

I began talking about poetry as a way into this topic - but I think its somewhat the same thing.  There is nothing controversial in the art world about dismissal of the popular painter Jake Vettriano for instance. Had we got a critical culture of any worth, then there would be no need to diss McNish or whoever, but rather to review them within their own cultural frame; it is that reframing that puts people's backs up. I've seen it in the past when people have commented on YA fiction or detective fiction or similar. These are old, somewhat pointless debates. Yet there is a desire out there for good work; even if we sometimes don't see it. The bookshops - Waterstones, but also the indies - are doing better than they were; the e-book threat seems to have passed; publishers - small and big - are upping their game on design at least; writers, of which I am one, of which there are many, are finding ways to continue writing. At some point you hope that this coalesces into something that is less prone to stagnation or vested interests. For now, we have the conversation. Which is perhaps a start.

Saturday, April 07, 2018

Cal by Bernard Maclaverty

Some writers you are aware of, but somehow pass you by, and then, for some reason, they come back into focus. A writer friend mentioned she was riveted by a novel by the Northern Irish writer Bernard Maclaverty, and I'd just picked up a copy of his "Cal", a 1983 novel about the Troubles, that was also made into a film featuring a young Helen Mirren.

The eponymous Cal is the son of the only Catholic man still staying on a particular street in the mid 1970s. His father has found him a job in the abatoir where he works himself, but Cal lasted a week. He is a typical troubled teen. Growing his hair long, interested in girls, subsisting on the dole, and strumming his guitar in his bedroom as he works out how he is going to get out. The Troubles are at a high point. There is a reference at one point to (the still unsolved) 1974 Birmingham pub bombings. The neo-Marxist struggle has become less political and more brutal. A bored or unlucky Cal has found himself the driver helping out a friend, and this has drawn him into to a local, somewhat incompetent terror cell. He stayed in the car whilst a man was killed in his own home.

Their family - him and his father only - are stubbornly resistant against the sectarianism of the time but it coming ever closer. Warnings are followed by the inevitable, a petrol bomb through the door burning their house down. Cal, meanwhile has encountered the new woman working in the library, a slightly older Catholic woman with a child. He finds out she is called Marcella, and freezes, for their can't be that many Marcellas around - that was the name of the widow of the man who was killed whilst he was driver. This secret - this stain - hangs over the novel. He has asked for an "out" from the cell he was drawn into, but of course, there is no way "out", once you are involved. He is hardly a man, and yet his life is virtually over.

In a short, but compelling tale, he shows he's willing to be a hard worker and ends up getting a job on a local farm. The woman who owns the farm and her husband are pretestants, they are also Marcella's step parents. In this claustrophobic world Cal begins to find himself, in a more rural area, away from the killings. Yet it is never that far away. Later in the novel, an explosiion in a field indicates where some local bombers have incompetently blown up a cow. Yet if these moments suggest comedy, there's little of that in the novel - rather there's a more compelling lyricism. A simple, perhaps contrived story, is told with wonderful constraint and stealth by Maclaverty. All the characters are morally compromised - by their faith, by their experience - yet there is a desire to live through even these terrible times, to live, and yes, to love. Marcella has an Italian background. Slowly Cal gets closer to her. But each step closer makes it worse for he cannot tell her that he was there when her husband got killed.

After their house is bombed his father goes to stay with a relative, and falls into a terrible decline, as if the house - the obstinacy of keeping it going despite everything - was the thing that remained for him. Whilst Cal starts living in an abandoned out house on the farm. When he is found out it almost loses him his job (and more importantly: his anonymity - as he has told nobody where he is). He is allowed to continue there and it provides a proximity to Marcella he had hoped for but couldn't expect. He makes a move on her that she hasn't expected, as she is still living a shadow of her former life, and both of them - outcasts in different ways - find love and companionship, but of a kind that is already doomed.

Towards the end of the book the impossibility of Cal's situation becomes clearer. He encounters his old pal and accomplice, and finds himself drawn back in withouth wanting to be. The choice is now his - to go along with the cause, or to betray it. He sees why once you are involved you can never not be. He makes his choice and waits for whatever fate will impact on him.

Maclaverty had moved from Ireland to Scotland in the mid-1970s, and its a book which combines experience with distance. If its a moral tale, like the Troubles themselves, its a tale without a moral absolutism, despite everyone's willingness to subscribe to one: the church, the cause, love. All are compromised by the guns, and by the mutual distrust and hatred. In amongst this, the old ways, where people of different faiths worked together if they had a personal connection, becomes harder and harder to sustain.

By coincidence I re-watched "The Long Good Friday" last weekend. This too also touches on the Troubles. A 1980 gangster movie, with Bob Hoskyns as the London Mr. Big who is trying to go legit by buying up the docklands and using American money to invest in plans for the 1988 Olympic site, the "Good Friday" of the title sees everything unravel because of a deal gone wrong which has seen one of his guys skim some money from the IRA and kill several of their men. A tale of local authority and police corruption at the end of the seventies, the Irish angles seems anachronistic now, but of course is part of those times.

Cal is a novel that deserves to stand as one of the key stories for that period - a subtly rendered love story against a developing  political backdrop, that like all good stories emphasises the impact of large events on ordinary lives. The writing is exquisite, and he's a writer I look forward to investigating further.