Book review: A Little Touch of Cliff in the Evening: New Writing Scotland 30

Alasdair Gray and new faces come together in a 'democracy of openness'. Picture: Jayne Emsley
Alasdair Gray and new faces come together in a 'democracy of openness'. Picture: Jayne Emsley
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THERE are no grand themes, no presiding hierarchical values at the core of this latest collection of New Writing Scotland. But there are voices, a disparate horde of them firmly set in the Scottish tradition of writing intended to entertain, arrest and provoke.

A Little Touch of Cliff in the Evening: New Writing Scotland 30

Edited by Carl MacDougall and Zoe Strachan

Association for Scottish Literary Studies, 321pp, £9.95

Carl MacDougall and Zoe Strachan have braved the tinnitus of more than 1,100 contributions by almost 570 writers to make their selection: a jangling, discordant, joyously riotous choir of Babel, comprising just over 100 pieces by 82 writers making the cut.

During its stint of 30 years, NWS has spotted embryonic talents. Ian Rankin, Iain Banks and Janice Galloway hit its pages long before full-length publication. Irvine Welsh made the cut two years in advance of Trainspotting. The current collection features writers with starry gifts and a firm grasp of craft, some as yet unknown to the public gaze.

Look out for the advent of Mairi Murphy whose portrait of Glasgow in her poem “Second City”, signals a trumpet call of urgency and great promise, as does the anthology’s opening story by Jane Alexander, “Time-Keeping in Public Places”, at first a mizzle of prose which sifts insidiously from the writer’s imagination, leaving you dazzled, just as the poem. “The Only Way”, by Christie Williamson – the collection’s last hurrah – is the cry of a potent sensibility. Reader. Watch out!

MacDougall and Strachan, by running their playlist in strictly alphabetical order (by author’s name), have created a stream of serendipities. NWS expands its tradition by including a beautifully poignant, succinctly crafted graphic story. Stories and poems (some in Gaelic with English versions) are interspersed. There is a cartoon. And there’s a one-act stage play by Sylvia Dow, a novice playwright, which gives the anthology its gently whimsical title – do not be deceived, there is hurt at its heart.

Arguably, “Midgieburgers”, the story by Alasdair Gray is also a play – a voices and stage-directions creation which would work equally on radio. Dow and Gray have the gift of establishing their characters with a short-hand of telling remarks and simple gestures, a prelude to unsentimentally powerful, though sharply subtle, revelations of the dynamics of the marriages they portray.

Dow makes you smile at the balm and cruelties of fate, Gray makes you howl with helpless laughter until your six-pack aches, while his plot develops lunacy to the limits of credibility, then stops. Both have precedents. The fantastic plays for radio by Don Haworth and NF Simpson are sometimes echoed here, but not copied. Gray’s surreality has its own logic. Dow’s play is a poem as much as a drama. Both leave you marvelling.

Over the years the gender balance of contributors to New Writing Scotland has gradually shifted. Here, the majority of inclusions are by women, a coincidence, nothing to do with responding to diktat or expectation, reflecting the quality of the work, which is of a high order across the collection.

Established names – Gray, Agnes Owens, Ron Butlin, Stewart Conn, Neal Ascherson, Andrew Greig, Christopher Whyte, Lesley Glaister, Maoilios Caimbeul and Valerie Gillies – are steady presences. But the collection derives invaluable added strength from its democracy of openness, by accepting “all forms of writing” from “writers resident in Scotland or Scots by birth, upbringing or inclination” reminding readers that “Scotland is an attitude of mind”. Which produces a dividend of stories such as the beautifully told “In the City” by Rachelle Atalla, set in Egypt, a hammock of sorrows; or “Purple Martin”, one of the stand-outs of the collection, a tale of irreducible love, by Darci Bysouth from British Columbia.

Spectral politics make telling walk-ons, as in “The Sustainable Glasgow Initiative” (bracing images: “High above, stacked glasshouse trees/drop fruit in their shakers’ laps/lit by lamps from the turning turbines”) by Colin Begg, and also in Lynne Stanford’s “To Alex Salmond, RE Advice Sought, Independent Living”: (‘Should I do an Emperor Hadrian?/Build a high fence/of curling barbed wire..?’)

Is the England/Scotland partnership now moribund? Politics wanes in this collection (though “Anonymised” by Katie Webster makes pertinent points about patient care), yet moribund marriages and partnerships keep recurring as though the high octane of sexual bliss comes with its time clock. New Writing Scotland may be the antidote – something for couples to read in bed, aloud, to each another, while killing time. It also kills flies.