Thank You: The Man Who Loved Islands by David F Ross – Blog Tour

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If David F Ross played the church halls and small clubs in The Last Days of Disco and the major venues in The Rise and Fall of the Miraculous Vespas, then The Man Who Loved Islands is very much the stadium tour. This time the canvas is as far flung as China, Ibiza, Ailsa Craig…

In the prologue we have opening epigraphs from The Jam and Shakespeare (we get Mark Twain at the end of the book). David F Ross is a man who knows his literature; and his architecture; and his music (boy, does he know his music); and, in a sequence that could act as a great primer for anyone who wants to set up a fraudulent company, his contract law. A Renaissance writer, then. Or, if you prefer, a writer who would probably have told the Renaissance to get tae Falkirk and set up a legendary mandolin orchestra instead.

You can see it, can’t you? The rewriting of the mandolin orchestra repertoire, the opium sessions, the stashed Spanish gold, the escape of the orchestra’s clerk with all the takings, the last minute avoidance of the Spanish Inquisition, the lead mandolin ending his days under the name of Brother Grandolo in a remote monastery…

Sorry, got a bit carried away there (by the way, I’m sure a mandolin orchestra is a wonderful thing but never try to do a dress rehearsal for a new play when one of them’s rehearsing next door, that’s all I’m saying). Actually that’s a good example of what David’s writing does to me, it sets me off on imaginative flights of fancy. In fact, that’s probably one of the best things I can say about this book, and about David’s work generally. It lifts you up, it wakes up your imagination, it gives you ideas (and I’m not talking about the fraud, not at all, no way). Sure, he deals with serious topics: life; death; love; family. But he captures the underlying absurdity of life, the stupidity that typifies the human race, the innate humour that’s just there beneath the surface. So that somehow even the sad parts manage to be joyful at the same time. It’s feel-good fiction, but it’s make-you-think fiction at the same time. Mind you, if the image of a middle-aged man in a wheelchair being rescued from the sea by a man in an emerald green suit and a motorcycle helmet in a storm off Ailsa Craig doesn’t make you joyful and make you think, the copies of The Joy of Spreadsheets are on the shelf just over there…

The unfolding of David’s trilogy of Ayrshire novels (he’s going to need a collective title for the omnibus edition, by the way) has been an annual pleasure for the past three years (what on earth I’m going to read next March is already worrying me). The Man Who Loved Islands brings together the strands from the previous novels as the stories of the Disco Boys and The Miraculous Vespas converge through the unpredictable and scatalogical agency of Max Mojo (surely one of the funniest creations of modern comic fiction). The book moves back and forward in time to show us how Bobby and Joey have staggered into middle age with shattered families, stalled careers and monumental mid-life crises. On the way we get a potted history of the development of the club scene in Ibiza and Chinese urban development, combined with some pertinent observations of the hotel business.

There are some wonderful comic sequences such as Bobby and Hammy’s escape from Ibiza, and some moving descriptions of age, illness and post-traumatic stress. We also take in some iconic musical events such as Live Aid which are woven seamlessly into the fabric of the novel. Not everyone makes it to the end, but those that do seem to have rebuilt the relationships that matter and found a degree of peace, but in a way that doesn’t ignore the fact that none of us are going to get a happily ever after ending (as we’re helpfully reminded by the quoting of a certain Malcolm Middleton song early in the book).

Other reviewers on the blog tour are covering the plot in more detail so I’m not going to dwell on it, save to say that I love the way David weaves the strands together and keeps you turning the pages. His ear for dialogue remains as acute as ever and these books are just made for a film treatment. Actually I’d hold out for a TV series as the wealth of detail deserves more space than a film would give it. This isn’t another Tutti Frutti, there’s so much more to this story than that.

It’s been a real privilege to see David’s writing career take off and to see his wonderful creativity get the platform and the recognition it deserves. A big part of that is the amazing support of Karen Sullivan and Orenda Books, and it’s great to see their success growing in pace with David’s. Sincere thanks to both of them, and here’s to many more great reads.

David’s books are so much richer for the music than runs through them, and the addition of the playlist at the end of the book is truly inspired. I may be the same generation but I was never into music to the level that many people were and are, and David’s books are a journey of discovery into a world I sort of missed out on. It’s never to late to discover new sounds, so thanks for that, David.

Finally, to get the full impact of this book, try reading the final chapter while listening to Linden’s ‘Thank You’ from the ‘Bleached Highlights’ album. I know you won’t want to admit you cried but I know you will, and, between us, you’ll feel better for it.

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Turning up the volume

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Reading revelations are always exciting. Sometimes it’s reading an author you thought you wouldn’t/didn’t like. Sometimes it’s a type of writing you thought you wouldn’t enjoy. Sometimes it’s the realisation that a different style of writing is possible, that there’s a different way of approaching things. The revelations are something you remember all your reading life, and perhaps the early revelations are the most memorable.

I had some great English teachers. Thanks to them I ended up doing a degree in English literature. I loved the things I read at school. There was a fair range, from Shelley and Shakespeare to Hardy and on to Joyce. But it’s the discoveries I made myself, armed with a book token and access to W H Smith in Plymouth, scanning the shelves for something eye-catching, that had the biggest impact.

The poetry we were reading at school was Hardy and later Shelley. Beautiful poems, expressive language, but quite formal and old fashioned to a teenager. Then, on one of my book token-laden trips to W H Smith a paperback with a snazzy design caught my eye.

It was called ‘New Volume’ and had some strange looking people on the front cover, three names I hadn’t heard of.

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It was poetry, though it didn’t say that on the cover. The first part of the book was by someone called Adrian Henri. The first poem was called ‘Death in the Suburbs’ and it opened ‘The end of the world will surely come/in Bromley South or Orpington’. The rest of the poem looked odd. It didn’t have any capital letters. It didn’t rhyme or have a regular metre. Some lines only had one word on them. It mentioned a lot of everyday things, often in the same breath as the flowers and nature images I was more used to. Oh yes, and it was about a nuclear attack wiping us all out. It was poetry as I’d never seen it before, and it was brand new. It was, quite frankly, mind-blowing to someone who’d just been reading Hardy talking about the ‘beetling Beeny Cliff’ and ‘no more summer for Molly and me’. There were love poems, football poems, and Brian Patten writing about fondling the remains of Emily Dickinson.

The blurb said it was the sequel to a book the three writers had published in the 1960s called ‘The Mersey Sound’, which had also been reissued at the same time. Cue another trip to W H Smith…

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The first thing I read in The Mersey Sound was Adrian Henri’s ‘Tonight at Noon’ and Thomas Hardy was dead to me. I’d found poems that spoke to me. I’d discovered that there are many ways of writing, that there’s something for everyone, and that poetry doesn’t have to be ‘difficult’. I was hooked. I bought Henri’s collected poems, everything I could find by Brian Patten, though for some reason Roger McGough, while probably the most famous of the three, never quite did it for me in the same way.

Later on, at University, I began to find the Liverpool poets a little one-dimensional, perhaps here and there a little trite, as my wonderful tutors began to introduce me to the poets I still love today, like John Berryman, Hart Crane, Anne Sexton and William Carlos Williams. The Liverpool poets were of their time, contemporaries of the Beatles, part of that amazing explosion of popular culture from an iconic city. I was getting what I’m sure I thought was more sophisticated. Maybe ‘difficult’ wasn’t such a bad thing, maybe that made the reading more rewarding. But then again, maybe without New Volume I wouldn’t be reading any of it, maybe I’d still think that poetry was all Shelley and Hardy, all Mont Blanc and the ghosts of dead wives.

Today, when I tend to dwell on a poem I like and re-read it to extract as much as possible rather than devouring it and moving on, the Liverpool poets do seem a little light on meaning and depth. But they opened up a whole world of reading, and I still remember the thrill of that 35 years later. Not only that, but I still re-read Brian Patten telling us what poetry is supposed to do, and find myself nodding in agreement:

When in public poetry should take off its clothes and wave to the nearest person in sight; it should be seen in the company of thieves and lovers rather than that of journalists and publishers. On sighting mathematicians it should unhook the algebra from their minds and replace it with poetry; on sighting poets it should unhook the poetry from their minds and replace it with algebra…

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Book Gifts and Reading Journeys

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There’s something special about being given a book as a gift. The giver has clearly thought about it. To give a book can mean that you think the recipient will enjoy reading it; or should read it; or will benefit from reading it; or, perhaps, will have their horizons widened by reading it. Then there is the book as an object. This is not a gift that is no longer there after it has been consumed. It’s not a gift you look at and then place in a cupboard. It’s a gift you spend time with; that tells you something memorable; that becomes for a short (or perhaps long) time a part of your mental landscape, a part of your day.

The best book gifts are those that open up a new avenue of exploration. Perhaps a new author, a new genre, a new period, a new country, or a combination of those things. Just as books as gifts are special, so are the recommendations of friends and acquaintances. These are to be followed-up or discarded as you think fit of course, but on occasion they, too, open up new directions and enthusiasms. A chance remark about an area of reading can result in ‘have you read…’ and the pleasure that comes from a single recommendation spawning a whole strand of reading stretching out for years to come, as one book can sometimes be the key that unlocks scores of others.

One of the working practices of my Fellow Librarian boss in Cambridge when an academic suggested a book for the library was, once it was acquired, to trawl through it and order all the key texts referenced in it, so that a single recommendation became the basis for the development of a new area of collecting. Frustrating though this could be when the bulk of the works required were long out of print, it was a perfectly sensible way of collection-building, based on the premise that a key text identified by one of our tutors would be likely to be the key to that area of study.

As an example, a Christmas gift of Italo Calvino’s ‘Collection of Sand’, a late book of essays on historical and artistic subjects, is providing a small revelation this January. Like most literature students, a reading of ‘If on a Winter’s night a traveller…’ was part of my education, but I would never have thought of picking up anything else by Calvino. Until now. This is the Penguin Modern Classics edition, elegantly translated by Martin McLaughlin, and it fits in the hand as only a Penguin paperback can, with suitably soft spine and that iconic clear and easy-to-read page layout (set in 10.5/13pt Dante MT Std if you’re interested). It’s a perfect design and a joy to read. Other paperback imprints are available. None of them read like a Penguin.

Calvino’s essays are a revelation because he writes so accessibly about some difficult concepts, which is a boon for someone who would love to have the intellectual equipment to understand some of the great writers and artists but is very happy to have a guide with passion and clarity to spare. Highlights so far (I’m half way through) have been his description of the narrative recorded by Trajan’s Column and the story inside Delacroix’s painting of ‘Liberty Leading the People’. Two things I wouldn’t otherwise have thought of reading about brilliantly described by an author I wouldn’t have thought of reading. My potential reading for 2017 has just changed direction a bit, all thanks to a thoughtful gift. This was, of course, a gift from my brother. The books we give each other will sometimes have this effect and sometimes not, I suspect, but the choices are always imaginative on both sides. Which is where I came in.

There are other directions I’m planning to take in my reading this year, thanks to a pointer or two from my former tutor. Landscape is now being joined with poetry from 1950s and 1960s Britain, and the plan is to read around this and do a bit of blogging on it this year. My track record in updating this blog isn’t great, but I’ll give it a go, because it’s good to share, and maybe set someone else off on a reading journey they weren’t expecting.

Jack Clemo and the Map of Clay

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Anyone bought up in Cornwall has an awareness of the Clay Country. A mysterious lunar landscape of white peaks dominating the skyline in the centre of the country. Even without knowing much about how it came to be there, or why, its brooding presence has an impact on the imagination. Explore a little further and the narrow lanes reveal a fabric of bleak villages, isolated chapels, and the ever-encroaching pits and tips that have been gradually obliterating the natural landscape for well over a century. It’s a harsh and entirely man-made environment in the heart of one of the most beautiful parts of the UK.

Jack Clemo was born into this landscape in 1916, ‘dwarfed under Bloomdale clay-dump, solitary, grim-looking, with no drainage, no water or electricity supply, and no back door’ as he wrote in Confession of a Rebel. He considered it a ‘fitting birthplace’. He would not leave until 1984 when he and his wife Ruth moved to Weymouth, finally leaving behind ‘the rubble-wreckage of defiled meadows’ and ‘the iron teeth of an outgrown rejected cradle’.

Clemo was, and is, the poet of the Clay Country. In such a grim environment with its strong nonconformist heritage, its poverty and grind, it’s perhaps not surprising that his work is highly religious, mystic and passionate. Add to this the fact that health problems beginning in childhood left him deaf and blind by middle age (the result of congenital syphilis) and the ingredients for a unique poetic vision were in place. His early focus on novel-writing gave way as his disabilities increased to poetry and to religious writings and while he moved gradually away from a focus on the Clay Country in his later work, his most powerful poetry remains the work of the forties and fifties when poems such as The Excavator and Christ in the Clay-Pit were written.

Clemo’s poetry was reaching a wider audience in the early sixties, at a time when the work of The Movement poets was well-established and the publication of The New Poetry was promoting a group of writers including Ted Hughes, Geoffrey Hill and Thom Gunn as well as (in its second edition) Sylvia Plath. All these writers came from a university-educated background and, different though they were in approach, were closely connected and fed off each other in their poetic development. Sealed in his physical and geographical micro-climate, Clemo was refining his approach through religious debate in local newspapers and identification with religious mystics such as T.F. Powys. His publication in the Penguin Modern Poets series in 1964 was alongside George MacBeth’s allegorical responses to the holocaust, war and human cruelty and Edward Lucie-Smith’s sophisticated cultural vision. In this context Clemo’s poems must have seemed to readers to be from a different world altogether, his vision uncluttered and unaffected by the cultural shift of the sixties that was just beginning:

I shall see the flesh that is clay, the open-cast mine
Where men are not trapped but work with the wind on their faces
And the cold rain stings them away from the sterile swoon.
No pit-props there to sag with the weight of the ego;
No hot salacious smear on the white rib:
Only, when the vein is touched, the signal granted,
Comes the sharp snap of blast
As the agnostic rock is splintered and the barrier passed.

This is the final stanza from the poem Clay Phoenix, which also provides the title for Luke Thompson’s monumental biography of Clemo. Thompson has undertaken a significant work of scholarship in his forensic examination of Clemo’s papers and diaries, and his navigation of the damage done by the attempted sanitisation of them by his widow after his death. Like all good biographers, Thompson gives us Clemo warts and all, and unlike previous commentators does not duck the more disturbing aspects, such as his obsession with young girls which in a post-Operation Yewtree world is perhaps more of a concern than it might have appeared at the time (notwithstanding the village gossip it caused). Thompson is also the first to examine the roots of Clemo’s disabilities in detail and to consider the implications of congenital syphilis on his worldview as well as his physical and mental health.

Thompson charts a clear development of Clemo’s life and work and his apophenic impulse, which saw him seek patterns and connections in his life and that of his relatives and friends, feeding into his belief that God intended him to be cured when he reached the right point in his life, namely the point of marriage. The influence of his mother and latterly his wife on his life is critical and Thompson shows us this with a clarity of understanding that is the result of a deep immersion in Clemo’s diaries and other papers. Those who provided Clemo with support do not always come out of this well, though they undoubtedly devoted their lives to him and his promotion, a complexity that Thompson navigates well in his description of Clemo’s inner and outer lives.

Clemo is a significant poet who stands almost as a prophet in the wilderness looking in on the literature of the mid-twentieth century and declaiming a working-class industrial nonconformist and mystical vision of a world that is now distant from us and was distant even from many of his contemporaries. In some cases writers of this type are more important for what they represent than for the quality of their writing. Clemo however has given us some of the most accomplished and vivid poems of the period and deserves to be better known for that, and not for the peculiar circumstances of his life. Thompson’s excellent explication of Clemo’s work and his obvious love of the poetry make him an ideal guide to Clemo the man and the poet. This biography was needed and, superlatively written and researched, does both Clemo and poetry a great service. It can and should bring Clemo’s work to a new generation of readers.

The Clay Phoenix: A Biography of Jack Clemo by Luke Thompson is published by Ally.

The Living Land

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Reading Robert McFarlane’s Landscape left me with a list of titles noted for future investigation (which is I think one of the main points of his book). In looking for books to read on the loose subject of landscape I’m hoping for authors (from any age) who will prompt me to look at the land in different ways. Every year I walk the same set of cliffs in North Cornwall, for example, but every year they look different, partly because of the passing of the years but mainly because I’ve read some more since my last visit and having read some more look a little differently at the rocks, the plants and the sea. Not being a writer I can’t really put into words what I see, but there’s a deep joy in finding writers who can, and who can bring me to see differently.

Which brings me to Jacquetta Hawkes and her book A Land, published in 1951. For many, this will be an established classic that they’ve read and re-read, for me it’s a new discovery. When Collins published a new edition there was an excellent discussion of it in The Guardian by (who else) Robert McFarlane that’s well worth reading. He also contributes the introduction to the new edition and it’s an expanded version of that which made its way into ‘Landscape’.

In essence A Land is a kind of prose poem, a recounting of a dream of the creation of the British Isles. Hawkes describes it as ‘a memoir’ and that’s a clever description, because while it follows a historical trajectory it’s not a history, and while it provides much geological detail it’s not a textbook, and while it talks about the development of human society it’s not anthropology or sociology in any conventional sense. What it is, is a meditation on how the land came to be the way it is, and how we came to be the way we are. Hawkes describes the geological formation of the British Isles in an accessible way and then overlays the development of our society in terms of its impact on the land. Once we get to the Industrial Revolution onwards it’s not, as you might expect, a pretty picture. Having said that, Hawkes locates the shift from working with the landscape to breaking through it somewhere around the arrival of the Romans and their straight roads, which are contrasted with the original green lanes that wind through the contours of the landscape.

Hawkes also describes the shift from the use of local building materials to their transport across the country and the attendant breaking of the connection between the local landscape and human settlement. Hawkes was writing in 1951 and I can’t help seeing the extension of her description rolling forward sixty years and covering the building of houses in places that traditional builders would have avoided and other practices of today that mark our shift from working with the landscape to imposing ourselves on it and dealing with any implications by yet more interventions such as flood defences and so on. Having said that, climate change is also threatening ancient settlements where the builders were in harmony with the elements once, but not any more. Hawkes however would no doubt say that seeing change as a natural process our ancestors would have simply moved to safer ground rather than trying to hold back the tide (so to speak). The world, of course, isn’t that simple any more, and today A Land reads in part as a lament for that fact.

Hawkes describes a point of balance between humans and the land and then shows us passing through it and pushing on into the age of concrete and the covering of our fields and hillsides with industry, pollution and waste. It’s a depressing picture at the end of an uplifting meditation on the forming, folding and eroding of the rocks that make up our country and it’s Hawkes’ wonder at this process and the picture of her lying in her garden in London feeling the living earth stretching out around her that I want to hold on to after reading this book. The science may no longer be current and society may be very different now (although that just makes Hawkes look prophetic) but the beauty of the prose and the magic of her vision of a living land make this an absolute classic and a must for anyone who wants to see the country through fresh eyes.

Ailsa Craig Island Discs with David F. Ross (The Rise & Fall of the Miraculous Vespas Blog Tour)

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For my contribution to the blog tour of The Rise & Fall of the Miraculous Vespas I asked David F Ross to indulge me in a bit of a thought experiment in the style of a famous radio programme. The results were pretty fantastic. Read on…

Gordon Hunt: So here’s the deal: you’re stranded on Ailsa Craig, and you can have eight records and a luxury item, plus one book in addition to the complete works of Burns and the Evening Times Wee Red Book for 1984.

So the first question: What’s your earliest musical memory and what does it mean to you now?

David Ross: There’s nothing else quite like a piece of music to pin-point a significant memory. From first days at school, to loss of virginity (one of these days I’ll finally remember where I left it…) to the birth of my children; all of the vivid moments in my life – good and bad – have had an associated soundtrack.

My mum died when I was seven years old. From the eight years before 1972 that I knew her, my only remaining recollections of her involve music. Although not through the beat groups of the early and mid-sixties, surprisingly. My dad was a country and western fan, particularly of Johnny Cash and Merle Haggard. Their subliminal influence has left me with a natural tendency towards songs with a darkly descriptive background story. Glen Campbell was also a favourite of both my parents, as were the crooners. Sinatra, Crosby, Como and Martin were all regularly played on the big mahogany Marconi radiogram that competed for their attention in the opposite corner of the living room from its main rival, the black and white television set. Their records were the backdrop to my early years in the small fourth floor, brownstone top corner tenement flat where we lived, near Hampden Park on Glasgow’s Southside.

My dad, especially, acquired lots of diverse records from various sources. The LP and singles covers for many of them are as vivid to me now as they were then. Old Blue Eyes, smiling, hair receding, calm and confident from the sleeve of ‘My Way’.  ‘Little Old Wine Drinker Me’ with its Reprise logo in black on a black and white portrait of Dean below the heading ‘File Under Easy Listening’. Johnny’s gravity defying, Brylcreem-supported quiff with an attitude all of its own, live from ‘Folsom Prison’. The big red lipstick kiss on the cover of Connie Francis’ most famous record. Don and Phil Everly’s pearly white teeth and matching checked Arthur Montford jackets concealing the then little known fact that they despised each other. The Zombies brilliant and beautiful ‘Odyssey & Oracle’, which remains one of my all-time favourite LPs. These records were the foundation for my interest in music and for this legacy at least, I am thankful to my dad. I loved these songs and still do but I inherited them. They’re not really mine and with the passing if time, the recollections that they prompt now often seem to belong to someone else.

For most of his adult life, my dad worked in the vast network of tunnels that ran under the railway station. My mum worked in a secretarial office at the back of the hotel overlooking the concourse. They met at a Railwayman’s Dance in the Hotel’s function room on Hogmanay 1960. He was 25; she was 20. They got engaged a year later. Before she died in 1972, I visited her at work on a few occasions and I still recall the labyrinthine nature of the corridors and routes in the building that led to her office and that expansive view of all those Lowry-like people moving purposefully around the station. One of my last memories I have of her is of watching her dancing at her desk as ‘I Want You Back’ played on a tiny transistor radio.

My dad was a widower at 37 years old. He had a week of compassionate leave after the funeral and then returned to his job. At his funeral, his brother told me that my dad could never escape her memory at work because there were so many places in and around the hotel and the concourse where they spent time with each other.

So, for those associative reasons – and the fact that it’s simply a phenomenal record – my first choice is ‘I Want You Back’ by The Jackson 5.

GH: So, moving to books for a second, were you a big reader as a child, and what sort of books did you read?

DR: I didn’t actually read a lot as a child and, to a certain extent, I still don’t. I get bored easily and I’m also quite impatient. Books that lack immediacy or any discernible pace probably won’t last the distance with me. I have too many half-read novels – and half-written ones, come to that – lying around the house already. I was probably around 16 or 17 when I started to become more interested in books. Unsurprisingly, that interest was inspired by the music I was absorbing at the time. Paul Weller, Joe Strummer, Elvis Costello etc. were writers who regularly referenced authors like George Orwell, whose books I had read while at school. But it was really Morrissey who opened up a whole spectrum of literature to me from 1983 onwards.

There was something immediately unique about Morrissey. He looked like an amalgam of Elvis Presley, James Dean and Albert Seaton. But he wore ordinary if slightly antiquated clothes like those that could be found (and subsequently altered) in your dad’s wardrobe. His words had an archaic sonority which hinted at more literary reference points. I didn’t appreciate it when I first heard it but the multitude of bookish northern influences was very much in line with my own developing interest in modern English literature.

A few years earlier in our school library, I’d come across an early book by Barry Hines entitled The Blinder. It was a typically northern story of a young footballer, Lennie Hawk, whom many believed to be something of a reincarnation of another flawed genius from his club’s past. Lennie Hawk had it all. He was handsome, charming, intelligent, quick-witted and a footballing genius. He was still only 17. As with the real life sixties icon on whom the story was obviously based, it would all end badly as he burned the candle at both ends. The book reflects the social values of the mid ‘60s when it was written. England had just won the World Cup and ‘Revolver’ was the LP of the year. The text remains fresh to me and is a fantastic reminder of those more straightforward times when the local sporting heroes still played for their local team and drank with the supporters in the local pubs after the game.

The book was very descriptive and the characters were realistically flawed. I could easily visualise the grime of the red brick back courts of Northern England and the small terraced house that Lennie and his mum lived in with its living room opening onto the street at the front and sharing the same tiny cramped space as the kitchen at the back. I loved this book and it led me to A Kestrel for A Knave by the same author, and the outstanding Billy Liar by Keith Waterhouse. The film of this book had a long lasting effect on me. It painted a monochromatic picture of a country struggling to come to terms with the end of Empirical power in the wake of two devastating wars. Everyone in Billy Fisher’s world is trapped by these circumstances, apart from Liz, the beatnik girl played by Julie Christie. She represents freedom; an escape from a life of pram-pushing drudgery or factory conditioning. Billy Liar’s influence on The Last Days of Disco isn’t very far from the surface.

Paul Weller captured much of that humdrum, everyday boredom of teenage life in Thatcher’s Britain in The Jam songs of the late 70s and early 80s. The pinnacle of this is ‘That’s Entertainment’: a song he claims was written in ten minutes after coming home pissed from the pub. It’s a brilliant evocation of those times, and I can identify absolutely with every line. I only hope I can write something which means half as much to other people as this song means to me. I’ll retire happy if I do.

My second song choice is ‘That’s Entertainment’ by The Jam.

GH: Since you’ve neatly moved us on to literary influences (not to mention the connection to cinema), what other authors would you say shaped your way of writing? Or, if you like, what other artists, of any kind?

DR: The influences on my writing are probably fairly easy to identify. Irvine Welsh and John Niven continue to be important reference points, especially in characterisation. I think Irvine Welsh especially has changed the way the Scottish literary voice is appreciated around the world. John Niven is also from an Ayrshire background and his books – specifically The Amateurs – demonstrated that small-town everyday life could be very funny. Roddy Doyle is an absolute master of this kind of writing and the believability of the characters and they way they speak to – and interact with – each other is just genius. Jonathan Coe also creates great characters and directly relates their multiple storylines to the cultural and political events of the time. The political subtext of The Last Days of Disco is really my attempt to write something approaching the social commentary backbone of The Rotters’ Club. In wider international terms, Paul Auster, John Irving and James Ellroy are firm favourites although their influence on my writing is probably subliminal.

In terms of other reference points, one relatively unknown songwriter has had a notable impact on The Rise & Fall of the Miraculous Vespas. His name is Michael Head and to my mind, he is a genius. Admittedly, not of the brand that self-proclaims it or that points to such fleeting indicators as sales for necessary reinforcement. Those types are ten-a-penny nowadays. No, Michael Head is a reluctant and hidden genius. The best kind. The kind that requires you to undertake a dedicated journey of self discovery, regardless of what you might discover, in order to reach such a conclusion.

I first became aware of Michael in 1982, a pivotal year in my life for a number of reasons. I left school; or to be more accurate, was invited to leave.  I drifted from YOP scheme to demeaning job and back again. I lived an ordinary suburban working-class existence punctuated only by weekend gigs, hangovers and ridiculous dreams of playing for Rangers or winning the pools. I also met the person with whom I’d share my life. And I heard two records which – in different ways – changed my hitherto narrow-minded outlook on music. Both originated from the same city streets, and to these ears at any rate, had similar DNA; the same sense of hope and optimism amidst the early 80s societal rubble. One was Wah!’s ‘The Story of the Blues’. The other was the less-eulogised ‘Thank You’ by the Pale Fountains. I’ll return to its ultimate significance later, but suffice it to say, ‘Thank You’ stopped me in my tracks. It was a song out of nowhere, Ill-fitting with the cultural context. It reminded me of songs my mother had loved. It was Glen Campbell and Bobbie Gentry; Jimmy Webb and Burt Bacharach. It sounded like a Eurovision Song but from a time when that was a good thing. A scheduled Top of the Pops appearance, which would have surely propelled them to the heights of the Radio 1 A-list, was scuppered by strike action, and its moment was gone.

A couple of years passed, and nothing followed  or at least nothing I was aware of. Was ‘Thank You’ simply a glorious one-off? A sylvan, pastoral summer breeze in the midst of the soulless solipsism of the New Romantics? And then the Pale Fountains resurfaced, supporting Echo & The Bunnymen. Two coruscating LPs emerged and the world that belonged to the Smiths was surely theirs for the inheriting. Michael wrote timeless songs that ached to be sung by the likes of Shirley Bassey or Dionne Warwick. But once again, it didn’t happen.

Ten years disappeared. A friend bought an LP called ‘Waterpistol’ and it circulated around our Glasgow office. My turn, and there’s something immediately familiar about that voice, those peerlessly melodic songs… that addictive mix of hope and yearning. Stories of common people; common people like me. And I’m back in love; totally fucking head over heels again. It’s a far better LP than ‘The Stone Roses’ in my opinion but, perhaps inevitably, the fates had conspired in ludicrous fashion and by the time it appeared, others less deserving had stolen the spotlight. De facto, it was largely lost. Lost genius.

More than any other, Michael’s next release, ‘The Magical World of the Strands’ was the record that prompted me to write. The night after I listened to it for the first time, I had a dream so vivid, I wrote it down thinking it would make an interesting novel: The central protagonist – a recovering addict – searches for something very personal and important to him which he has lost, or has had taken from him. His chaotic search forces him to confront the challenges and temptations that daily life as an addict throws up. The decisions he has made, the broken relationships, the places he somehow can’t leave. But also the joy and hope in older things taken too much for granted. It’s a necessary catharsis. The story is about transformation and seeing things – his relationships, his city, his life – with a new clarity, but not always with the positivity he thought that would bring. One of these days I’ll get it started.

My new book is about a Scottish indie band set in the early 80s. The Pale Fountains would’ve been their contemporaries. When I asked my friend Bobby Bluebell if he might write a new song for my fictional band, to feature in the book itself, the only brief I could give him was for it to feel like ‘Thank You’; the song that captured my imagination over thirty years ago and has never quite let go since.

However, my third song choice is the one which is now my favourite of Michael Head’s. It’s ‘Something Like You’ by Michael Head and the Strands.

GH: You’ve touched on the social commentary element of both your books. There are lots of novels where the setting is probably less important than the story but in your case Kilmarnock in the 80s, and the impact of the Thatcher government in particular, is fundamental. You’ve mentioned before that elements of The Last Days of Disco are drawn from things that actually happened to you, does the same apply to ‘Vespas’ and can you share with us what they are?

DR: Yes, context is vitally important to me in writing. I’m not really drawn to books or stories where the context is clearly a sort of fictional amalgamation of real places. My writing considers the context as a character in its own right and if I could achieve a fraction of the identity association for Ayrshire that Irvine Welsh has with Leith, or John Irving has with New Hampshire then I’d be really proud of that. (Notable exception: Roddy Doyle, but since Dublin was briefly renamed Barrytown in recognition of his novels, I reckon he knew exactly what he was doing.) The places that are a vital part of The Last Days of Disco are well known to people in Ayrshire and Kilmarnock people especially. Like many towns of its size, it has had a difficult time of it over the last few decades but it’s a place of defiantly resilient people with an astonishingly creative and optimistic outlook. One of the motivations for writing the books was to try and put something positive and identifiable back into the community; to try and redress a balance but without sugar-coating the stories. An association that in future people from the area might be proud of.

The Last Days of Disco does have a few sequences that are drawn more from direct experience than from an overactive imagination. The Rise & Fall of the Miraculous Vespas is much more of a satire on the music industry of that time. I’m friendly with a number of musicians who were part of that uniquely Scottish scene at the beginning of the 1980s and their input has been really important. However, there’s a fine balance between satirical fiction and a ‘Spinal-Tap’ type documentary. Much as I love Spinal Tap, I didn’t want the book to appear too ‘knowing’ where a lot of the detail would only really resonate with people who were in bands at that time. The balance has to be struck by the human relationships that are all going on at the same time as the music story develops. The band’s progress is simply a vehicle for the characters’ hopes and dreams to emerge and for their interaction with each other if that makes sense.

Talent notwithstanding, everyone I knew growing up in Ayrshire wanted to be in a band. The Rise & Fall of the Miraculous Vespas is a tribute to those kids and in particular the many and varied amateur ‘garage’ bands who thought they had a real chance at stardom and immortality. The fictional Miraculous Vespas are an amalgamation of many of these bands. One of them in particular stands out. They were a young local band with a pretty limited repertoire, but their appearances at local schools and small, sweaty community halls were great. There was a real sense of belonging within the group of kids who loyally followed the band. In those days gigs by popular, well-known bands were generally few and far between and almost always restricted to the bigger cities. Watching a mod tribute band comprised of people you knew and liked, and in a small venue that you could stagger home drunk from was a pretty good stop-gap.

When it emerged that The Jam were coming to a provincial Ayrshire seaside town, the singer of Ayrshire’s next big thing wrote to The Jam’s manager, John Weller, asking for his band to be considered for a support slot. Amazingly, he got a reply and even more unbelievably, it was a positive one. The singer went around with John Weller’s letter pinned to his t-shirt for almost a fortnight after its receipt. I’ve never forgotten that palpable feeling of admiration and envy at his opportunism and, although The Miraculous Vespas manager Max Mojo is often prompted by darker and more malign forces, he has inherited this relentlessly positive enthusiasm and drive from the teenage singer in local band Ayrshire band from more than thirty years ago.

Music has changed so much since those days, and not necessarily for the better. It’s virtually inconceivable that a young, enterprising band from a less than privileged background would succeed on their own terms at a national level yet back in the 80s, they were everywhere. One exception to this is the Arctic Monkeys. Elaine and I have seen them live a few times and they are one of my favourite bands in music today. Alex Turner’s lyrics are just brilliant.

My fourth song choice is ‘Suck It And See’ by the Arctic Monkeys, almost solely for the line ‘You’re rarer than a can of Dandelion & Burdock, but those other girls are just postmix lemonade.’

GH: I really liked the idea in The Rise & Fall of the Miraculous Vespas that they’d done the hard bit and come up with a classic instant hit and then effectively authored their own destruction for very human reasons. That must ring true for a lot of people, and not just about music.

Anyway, I’d like to ask about another core element of the book, the gang wars and the strange redemption of Fat Franny Duncan. Were crews like Fat Franny’s and the others something you were aware of growing up? Did you know a real Fat Franny?

DR: Growing up in Onthank in North-west Kilmarnock was great, on the whole. There were uniquely colourful characters around and life as a teenager there was never boring. My memories of the area are more in line with Shameless than The Scheme though. The latter was a very negative depiction of the extreme margins presented as a lazy stereotypical tabloid representation of the whole community. From my perspective, it ignored the basic humanity that always existed in much of Onthank. Both of my books attempt to illustrate the community in the way I actually recall it; flawed, opportunistic and law-breaking admittedly, but also human, imaginatively creative and incredibly funny.

I knew a few people with characteristics that helped form the more criminally-minded characters but those individuals were mainly formed from various stories and urban myths I’d either heard or witnessed at first hand. It could be menacing at times, but in all honesty I was more afraid of the countless Alsatian dogs that roamed free as if it was a domestic Safari Park. Some incidents did go straight into the books. The reference to Joey Miller being asked by local headcase Barry Baird if he knew him, and suspecting that – as a trick question – it didn’t matter how he answered, a punch in the face was inevitable … that really happened. But generally, I loved growing up there. I was good at football and playing in youth and school teams was always a bit of a social leveller.

I love Fat Franny Duncan the most out of all of my characters. He isn’t based on anyone specific but there were a number of hard guys around back then who lacked a certain self-awareness. It was always my intention for him to have something of a conversion though, and for him find salvation. There had to be a pivotal human catalyst for this though; something lost that he cared about more than himself or money. He doesn’t reappear in The Man Who Loved Islands though, but he will feature in a separate future story where he has to hide out in a bizarre local religious community on a form of witness protection just as his own mind and memory start failing him.

The new book utilises the famously brutal Glasgow Ice Cream Wars of 1984 as key plot line. I’m not attempting to trivialise those events in any way, but I did remember being surprised at that story when it first broke. I honestly thought it was about families arguing over the type of Ice Cream they sold in their vans and shops. It became a very big story though, and as the Miraculous Vespas’ focus moves gradually to the city I thought it would be interesting to have some of the wider criminal story head in the other direction. I think it makes an interesting counterpoint.

My fifth song choice isn’t related to the answer above though. It’s a brilliant recording of ‘Don’t Look Back’ by the great Bettye Swann. This version is the rehearsal demo with Betty and just a guitar accompanying her. It’s absolutely spine-tingling.

GH: So, growing up in Onthank, football and bands, invited to leave school… where does architecture come in? And how does your profession relate to your writing?

DR: In early 1982, when I left school, there really were no jobs to speak of. Unemployment levels had broken through the 3 million level and the riots in Toxteth and Brixton were still fresh in the memory. I had no desire to go to University then, so the options were pretty limited. I drifted through a series of fairly ludicrous and demeaning jobs – three weeks in a funeral parlour, two in an ice cream one… a summer as a tennis club groundsman – before an equally ridiculous interview to get into the RAF. I was DJ-ing and generally having a great time but the impact of that on life at home led to my mum insisting I get a real job (one that required a National Insurance number) or that I leave home. In the event, I did both. The job wasn’t a real one. It was Thatcher’s Britain after all. It was a position on a Youth Opportunities Scheme as a junior in an architect’s office. The only other position available at that time was in the Accountants Department of the local Council. Anyone who knows me will know that numbers are definitely not my thing, so since I was quite artistic, the architecture gig seemed like a far more realistic proposition. That was my entry into the world of Architecture and Design, although it was a few years before I appreciated that I was actually good at it, and that it was such a fantastic profession.

I’m asked more about the seemingly unusual connection between architecture and writing more than any other question. It’s one that I find quite unusual as I think they are very similar. Genius Loci is a Latin phrase that architects understand well. It refers to the protective spirit of a place; the unique, distinctive and cherished aspects of it. It’s soul, in other terms. When I first started to write The Last Days of Disco, I desperately wanted to harness the identity of the place in which it would be set. In that sense, writing the book followed a fairly similar process to the one that many architects go through in trying to understand and empathise with the context that they are working in. The Last Days of Disco is fundamentally about people, and so is architecture. I think I’ve learned to focus on people’s dreams, their hopes and fears, their concerns and their failings. And I think that comes partly from my approach to architecture. But the book is also about how they respond to the environment around them. Whether they feel trapped by its economic and social constraints or freed by the often subtle – and not always legal – opportunities that it nurtures. I think these are all important adjuncts to a socially responsible architecture which is more than just about the aesthetics of form, but that actually strives to make a difference to people’s lives.

My sixth record choice is ‘Please Please Please Let Me Get What I Want’, by The Smiths. Maybe more than any other, this beautifully brief song sums up the songwriting genius of Morrissey and Marr. There’s a famous story of it being played to Rough Trade company executives and them repeatedly asking ‘Where’s the rest of it?’ But there’s really nothing you could add – or take away – from this song to make it any more perfect. It’s like the Mona Lisa. Beguiling, intriguing and absolutely timeless.

GH: So how do you think you would cope being marooned on Ailsa Craig? Writing is a solitary business but you clearly draw inspiration from a wide range of friends and acquaintances, not least in the music business. What’s your approach to writing?

DR: It’s a strange paradox, writing. You need the solitude and the self-discipline to undertake what most people would imagine being a singularly mammoth task. But you also really need to be regularly among other people in order to understand fully how some of your characters would react to given situations. That old maxim of ‘if you want to write, read’ I find interesting and it’s obviously true but only up to a point. It is just as important to be a student of human behaviour. I was giving a talk last year on an approach to writing, along with another, much younger person with a background that was almost exclusively academic. I could sense the novel being described would have been grammatically perfect, in a way in which my writing would never be, but I also sensed it lacked a bit of humanity; possibly because there had been a bit too much remote speculation as opposed to direct observation. I’m not really interested in reading someone’s thesis presented as fiction. In the same way as I can appreciate the perfection of a Mozart symphony but it doesn’t move me in the same way as The Ramones first LP or ‘Be My Baby’ by The Ronettes. I’m not trying to make any qualitative judgements on one approach over another but I think in writing fiction it’s vital to start with the characters and let them drive the plot. With great characters, full of depth and flawed humanity, your freedom as a writer is limitless.

Island life definitely appeals, although I’m not as sure about becoming a modern-day Robinson Crusoe. I like the company of other people and crave the stimulation that interaction brings. Ailsa Craig has always really fascinated me though and that fascination was adapted to Gary Cassidy’s connection with it in The Last Days of Disco. I think he yearns for peace and solitude but desperately wants to be valued and feel that he’s a part of something; in his case it’s his family. He imagines life on the western side of Ailsa Craig to be a contrast to the isolation of the mainland side. The island is a wee bet of a metaphor for his life, really. And of course the significance that a different set of islands play is hopefully surprising to the reader, but might then seem inevitable by the time they reach the end of the book. If I am to be marooned, my only hope is that such a contrasting context actually does exist.

My seventh song is ‘Ice Hockey Hair’ by the Super Furry Animals (but it must be the long version). The Super Furry Animals are one of my favourite bands of all time. Gruff Rhys is criminally underrated as a songwriter, and if I was to describe him to anyone I’d said he was Lennon AND McCartney. I was trying to think of what might connect these eight songs, even if it was subliminal, and I think their connection lies in a sort of yearning optimism. I suppose I’m just an optimistic dreamer, which – for an architect/writer – isn’t a bad place to find myself at 51.

GH: So, final question and final record – you’ve mentioned the next book already, can you say any more about that and also where David F Ross the novelist goes from here? Does being an exciting new voice in Scottish fiction bring any pressure, or are you just riding the wave?

DR: The final part of this particular series is called The Man Who Loved Islands. It’s a sort of middle-aged comedown from the reckless euphoria of the previous two. It’s essentially set in the present day and begins in Shanghai where a 50 year-old Joseph Miller is on something of a forced sabbatical. It’s a reflection on loneliness and loss, as viewed through the prism of the lives of the Cassidy family members. I liked the idea of three books with distinct moods and I’d like to try and test myself a bit more with this one… emotionally and in terms of the book’s locations. There’s a contrast between this and the first two books where a large number of characters occupy a relatively tight context. In this one, the setting is more expansive and culturally diverse, yet the characters are fewer. I find that a really interesting metaphor for solitude as people age.

But hopefully there will be another book first. I’ve finished a trilogy of connected comedy stories about Glasgow which has a working title of Glaswegian Rhapsody. The three stories are all essentially about crime but the timelines overlap and you learn more about the various inter-relationships sequentially. The first story features an optimistic dreamer called Archie Blunt who lands a chauffeuring job driving the UK’s top light-entertainment personality around various dubious nocturnal establishments in Glasgow’s mid-70s underbelly. The second story is a present day confession from a man who has the body of a controversial Glaswegian politician in the boot of his car. And the third sees the return of a character called Boaby Souness; a gormless East End waster from Shettleston who decides to become a private investigator because he’s watched The Rockford Files too many times and thinks it would be a pretty easy way to make money.

As well as the interconnection of the storylines, a recurrent theme is that everyone in the book hates ‘Bohemian Rhapsody’ by Queen.

I’m not sure about pressure in writing. What I’m doing now still seems like a bit of a laugh really. I’m very fortunate that I don’t have to ‘write for food’, so to speak, so pressure isn’t really something that I’ve felt. There has been plenty of that trying to help steer a large design practice through the worse recession the industry has ever faced, and I think my initial desire to write was prompted by a need to find a different type of outlet to help cope with those pressures. But I’ve been very lucky to have met interesting and enthusiastic people like Karen Sullivan who have seen something in the writing style that maybe I didn’t initially. That has been incredibly liberating and it’s given me a substantial amount of confidence.

As for the future, who knows? Naturally, I’d love to see the books adapted into other visual media because I think the characters are strong enough to support that, and frankly, the more indigenous Scottish films or television or radio, the better.

My final song choice is David Bowie’s ‘Life On Mars’. On the 9th January, I agreed to write a live review of the new Blackstar LP. It was a strange vibe that I got from that first listen. I couldn’t quite put my finger on it, and then two days later he was dead. The messages were right there in the lyrics and I – and many others – hadn’t appreciated exactly what he was saying. He’s the most imaginative and influential artist in music history and there most certainly won’t be anyone like him again. I absolutely love what he said about ‘Life On Mars’:

The song was so easy. Being young was easy. A really beautiful day in the park, sitting on the steps of the bandstand. ‘Sailors bap-bap-bap-bap-baaa-bap.’ An anomic heroine. Middle-class ecstasy. I took a walk to Beckenham High Street to catch a bus to Lewisham to buy some shoes and shirts but couldn’t get the riff out of my head. Jumped off two stops into the ride and more or less loped back to the house up on Southend Road. I started working it out on the piano and had the whole lyric and melody finished by late afternoon. Nice.

One of the greatest – if not THE greatest – songs in the English language, knocked off in an afternoon between trips to the shops. Genius.

GH: You also get one book and one luxury item (sorry, no boats or other floatation devices!) – so do tell me what you’d like and why. 

DR: Just like all of these records, the book I’d choose has to be one that I wouldn’t ever get tired of; that I continually return to. As you’d imagine, it’s tough to narrow that down but I’m going for ‘The Rotters’ Club’ by Jonathan Coe. It has moments in it that moved me in ways that I never really imagined possible by literature.

As for the luxury item, that would be Bobby Bluebell’s beautiful black Gretsch guitar. It’s my biggest regret that I lacked the patience or discipline to learn to play guitar but enforced isolation on Ailsa Craig would give me the space and motivation to get on with it. There would be no more procrastinating excuses left.

GH: Thanks David, and just one final question: if you could only take one of your eight records with you, which would it be?

DR: ‘That’s Entertainment’ by The Jam

GH: That’s brilliant, thanks for sharing your songs and your insights with us David, it’s been fascinating and inspiring.

The Rise and Fall of the Miraculous Vespas by David F Ross is published by Orenda Books and is also available as an e-book.

David has created a Spotify playlist for his song choices: click here to listen

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Telling it like it might have been…

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I’m not sure why Thomas Mallon‘s work isn’t better known the the UK. His books don’t have British editions although they’re published by Random House and are of course easily available via online bookshops. Maybe his subjects, American politics and small town American life, don’t strike a chord here. Whatever the reason, it’s a shame, because Mallon is a great writer.

I’m currently on my third Mallon book, Dewey Defeats Truman (and no, it’s not an alternative reality, Dewey loses in the book too, it’s a reference to the conviction of pretty much everyone in 1948 that Dewey was going to win and to possibly the world’s most famous incorrect newspaper headline). The book tells the story of the inhabitants of Dewey’s home town of Owosso, Michigan, during the 1948 Presidential election as they plan for his inevitable victory and the prosperity that will come to them as a result. Well, some of them. At least one of them is hoping an old secret won’t be revealed. But I won’t spoil the plot for you. Mallon weaves his fictional plot around the real events of the election and gives us the hopes, fears and loves of the townspeople. It’s gentle and affectionate and beautifully written.

My first Mallon book was Watergate, in which he fictionalises the events leading up to Nixon’s resignation. Most of the characters are real but he invents one or two figures to help drive the narrative. But on the whole he doesn’t need to make people and events up, the real thing was stranger than fiction. The key figure in the book is Pat Nixon, Nixon’s wife, and Mallon truly brings her to life as she watches her husband fall and holds on to her own personal tragedies.

The Nixons carry over into Mallon’s latest book, Finale, which picks up the Reagan years, principally Iran Contra and the Reykjavik summit. Mallon makes Nixon the eminence grise, sending messages via intermediaries to various key figures in Reagan’s administration. As with Pat Nixon in Watergate, Nancy Reagan is a key player in Finale, as she copes with her growing realisation of Reagan’s impending descent into dementia and organises his life with the help of astrology. Finale also brings back some characters from Dewey Defeats Truman and shows us where they’ve reached at the other end of their lives.

For anyone with even a passing interest in American history and politics, Mallon’s books are a fascinating fictional view of key events from the recent past. He writes elegant prose and tells a good story. His portrayal of the main historical figures make you wish that they really had been like that while leaving you with the suspicion that, as with all fiction, the reality was somehow less inspiring. Except in the case of Watergate perhaps.

As well as not being in print in the UK, Mallon’s books are for some reason not available in many e-book formats either. Don’t let that put you off – order them from the online bookshop of your choice, sit back and enjoy.