Book review: The Seven Wonders Of Scotland, edited by Gerry Hassan

Andrew Crumey. Picture: Sean Bell
Andrew Crumey. Picture: Sean Bell
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THE anthology is the ideal form with which to take the cultural temperature of a chosen field.

The Seven Wonders Of Scotland


Birlinn, 183 pp. £9.99

They can inform through defining a generation (as with Children Of Albion Rovers or, several decades beforehand, A Sense Of Belonging) or an aesthetic movement (such as the compendious and dazzling book The Weird edited by Jeff and Ann Vandermeer or the rather less successful All Hail The New Puritans). They are also particularly pliant in defining national concerns, from the ambitious annual anthologies published by Dalkey Archive, The Best European Fiction (again in 2013, Scotland fails to make the cut) or the intriguing Granta Best of Young Brazilian Novelists – in both these cases, articulating national concerns are almost subsidiary to allowing new voices to be heard in the still predominantly Anglophone world of publishing.

The Seven Wonders Of Scotland is both an intervention in how we might imagine the Scotland of the future and a welcome highlighting of new (or overlooked) voices in the Scottish literary landscape. It is not without flaws, but these are sometimes inherent in the anthology form, where diversity can be a greater strength than aesthetic cohesion. I know whereof I speak, having edited Headshook, an anthology of contemporary Scottish writing. Only one of the authors I invited for that – Andrew Crumey, the former literary editor of Scotland on Sunday – is in both: that, I feel, is a form of strength.

It is also particularly pleasing that the sole common author is Crumey, whom certain canon-formers and critics seems to find rather difficult to align with certain totems of that infinitely nebulous notion of “Scottishness”. His influences are more obviously continental, ranging from Borgesian metafictions to the sardonic wit of the French Enlightenment authors, and his concern with how science can be effectively encompassed by the novel (quantum physics in particular) makes him more akin to writers like China Miéville, Adolfo Bioy Casares and Scarlett Thomas. His entry in The Seven Wonders Of Scotland is typical: “The Burrows” imagines a subterranean Scotland, simultaneously a new frontier, an exploitable territory, and a metaphysical conundrum – countries, of course, shrink as you go further down. It also raises – as one might arch an eyebrow – certain issues associated with nationalism which are more problematic. What value do we give to “soil”? To “bedrock”? To the chthonic attachment to place? That Crumey manages to balance a certain nostalgia for these ideas (and what could be more echt-Scottish than the idea of miners and revolutionary diggers?) with scepticism (the story hints that a Scottish “wagon train to the stars” was far less successful) is what makes it both intellectually nimble and eminently re-readable.

The other six writers in the collection are – in the order in which they appear – Michael Gardiner, Gavin Inglis, Billy Letford, Maggie Mellon, Caroline von Schmalensee and Kirsti Wishart. Gardiner – a former runner-up of the Scotsman/Orange short story competition, author of the collection of short stories Escalator and a fine cultural critic – contributes a piece nuanced by critical theory without being overwhelmed by it, in which Scotland is a counterweight to an Anglo-American hegemomy. With shades of Huxley in the systematic categorising of people in the dystopia (there is a lovely pun of who the “generals” are), “New Paisley” is a subtle and menacing little piece. Although most reviewers found James Kelman’s Translated Accounts a piece of modernist estrangement too far, it seems to have inspired Gardiner’s short story, which is similarly grisaille and unsettling.

Far more rambunctious is Kirsti Wishart’s carnivalesque horror-comic “The Pleasure Palace”, which imagines Rannoch Moore transformed into a creepy capitalist version of Coleridge’s Xanadu; part Millennium Dome, part Alton Towers, part Trump golf-course (the protesters opposed to it call it “Disnaeland”, just one of the very felicitous and smart turns of phrase throughout an engaging and confident story). It both revels in and stands askance from very specific Scottish things: children’s games, confectionery, film references, suggesting, rather slyly, that overdosing on these iconic ephemera of Scottishness might be as dangerous as forgoing them for an transatlantic McCulture. It has the most shuddersome line in the collection, when the entrepreneur behind the Pleasure Palace insists “What people forget about that film, Brigadoon, is what a wonderful time people had there!”.

Gavin Inglis, with “The Sectarium”, offers the most politically vociferous piece, as a Swiss journalist comes to regret asking to see the experimental facility where Scots might finally be purged of sectarian thinking. It is both manically absurd and immediately 
relevant, offering Technicolor versions of bureaucratic banalities and paradoxes. I’d highly recommend his chapbook, Crap Ghosts, as well.

Gardiner, Wishart and Inglis are all writers at whom Scottish publishers ought to be waving contracts.

Billy Letford – as William Letford – is making his name as a poet able to deal with that sphere poetry so frequently eschews: work. “A Beginning” is the first prose piece I have read by him, and although it is fluent and imaginative, it is conspicuously paler than his poetry. There are flashes of his talent, but the whole feels tentative and undercooked. It also has a slight creep into the pulpit when things might be better left ambiguous.

Both Maggie Mellon and Caroline von Schmalensee, through choosing to write about utopian Scotlands (a Glasgow transformed by guerrilla gardening into an eco-wonderland that deals with poverty at the same time and a fantasia about salt-producing, global-warming-reducing towers) are compromised by that very utopianism. Firstly, it demands explanation of the conceit in detail too specific and vague to sustain any suspension of disbelief. Secondly, the polemical urge has a tendency to fall back on cliché – such as the end of von Schmalensee’s story, which concludes “On her way back to the car Janet broke off a piece of salt from a silvered branch of driftwood. It still just tasted of salt but this morning the taste was one of hope”. Or in Mellon’s piece, “Fish in the river. Food in the ground. On both sides of the river and from north to south, east to west, Glasgow is flourishing, a dear green place again”. Such statements are the unwelcome sensation of the writer elbowing the reader in the ribs.

The whole book is prefaced by an introduction by Gerry Hassan, which says very little about the stories and rehearses again some platitudinous statements on accreted Scottish myths about the democratic intellect. I would rather have seen a thinker like Neil Davidson take on the challenge of teasing out what these visions actually do tell us about Scotland. There are numerous infelicities in the introduction – when Hassan writes “abstractions such as “globalisation”, “free market values”, “inequality” and “poverty” – mean little to most people” I was, frankly, aghast. They may technically be abstract nouns, but I don’t believe that poverty is an abstraction when you’re deciding whether the gas bill or the empty fridge is the more pressing priority, or when, like many people recently, you choose not to drink Starbucks coffee. There is also a section on “The Languages Of The Future Scotlands”, and it would have been welcome to see some inclusion of either Scots (Letford, for example, writes Scots which is rich on the ear and complex in the mind) or Gaelic. It also seems to me to be profoundly unwise to plead for the “the emotional, the subjective and the subconscious” as alternate “intelligences” – every believer in capital punishment or restricting the rights of homosexual couples relies on exactly those forms of thinking. That the writers prove to be, on the whole, more engaging and subtle than the “public intellectual” is a worry for any future Scotland.