'Harlem 69: The Future of Soul' by Stuart Cosgrove (2018)
Last month, I spent a day painting the fence in the back garden while the children were away for the weekend. That might sound like time misspent, given the circumstances, but it was the realisation of an ambition held for the past four summers. It was a cloudy day. The sun appeared intermittently for a combined time of about 10 minutes, but that was enough for me to take on a new colour as well, such is my skin's pathetic resistance to even a modest showering of rays. I faded quickly, but the fence still shines a handsome brown and a modest part of me is satisfied.
The new challenge is to find reasons to be in its company, to bask in its medium oak glory. This summer, I think I'll try to read 'Harlem 69', the last of Stuart Cosgrove's impressive run of books about soul and politics in late 1960s America. I'd rate the trilogy as one of the most ambitious literary projects undertaken by a Scottish writer over the past few years. He came to town last year – I think it was last year, maybe it was earlier this
year – and I went along to hear him talk about the book at the Canal Tea Rooms, a venue far-removed from 1960s Harlem in every conceivable sense. We're lucky in having an excellent local bookshop that organises events like that on a regular basis.
So that's the plan: 'Harlem 69', with the fence serving humbly as backdrop. Or maybe, now that it's finally painted, I really should be turning to the hundreds of other jobs that need doing. But who am I kidding? I probably won't have time for any of it.
I like to take both a 'heavy' book and something more lightsome. Neuroscientist and polymath Iain McGilchrist's masterpiece, 'The Master and his Emissary' (2009), has rightly received rave reviews. Hilary Mantel's exquisite memoir, 'Giving Up The Ghost' (2003), is well worth reading and re-reading, and Howard Jacobson's 'Kalooki Nights' (2006) is a laugh-out-loud outrageous delight.
I can never travel anywhere without at least one book. I don't like guide books. They are invariably inaccurate. I only need to read those that purport to describe my home island of Easdale to know this for sure. I find the older books are generally better; Martin Martin for sure; Sam Johnson taken with a large pinch of salt; R L Stevenson travelling on his donkey, Laurie Lee; the younger Bill Bryson, travelling just about anywhere; and Paul Theroux, anxiously and disarmingly quizzical and all the while slightly puzzled.
Herodotus is a good companion. Tacitus is another. Homer provides food for thought and for the imagination. Go on that great journey with Odysseus. For all I know, he came up this west coast of Scotland. We certainly have our deep-dwelling monsters and our sirens, and more than our fair share of goddesses. Above all, travel hopefully with eyes and ears wide open. Read while you go. You will be all the better for it when you arrive.
The editor prefers something from the last five years or so, which is a little hard on those of us with untidy libraries full of neglected treasures. But I think that still lets me squeeze in the unfinished sagas of Alexander McCall Smith – especially the Edinburgh and Botswana ones. (I'm not so taken with the more tiresome people of Pimlico.) I don't pick out particular books, for these are really great serial stories, the best I've read – though on a superlatively higher plane – since the 'Hotspur' and 'Rover' of my youth.
But can they meet the editor's inclination for 'essential' reads? I hope so. For I fear that the true literary mirrors of life – 'social commentary' if you like – are not to be found in the kind of fiction that wins highbrow literary prizes but in more enjoyable reading. That is why I also stretch a point to mourn, honour, and devour P D James and Ruth Rendell, who died within the last five years, even if their best work was done long before. I have tried some of their successors, but for a rainy summer day read I prefer my murders with good prose, riches of quotation or allusion, and the better class of detective.
R D Kernohan
'Selected Poems' by John Burnside (2006)
One of the difficulties of writing fiction 'around' a full-time job is that, ironically enough, it leaves you very little time in which to read properly. Big novels have a scary and increasingly reproachful look. I have a list in my wallet of all the books I'll get round to reading 'some time'.
But this time-poverty can have unexpected benefits. On my shortish journey to and from the office, I have been reading modern Scottish poetry – by Don Patterson, Kathleen Jamie, John Burnside, David Kinloch, Robin Robertson and others. It seems to me that, in spite of periodic hyping of the Scottish novel, it's our poets who have embodied a genuine golden age of Scottish writing in recent years. My top pick would be John Burnside's 'Selected Poems'. Apart from its many other virtues of accessibility and deeply-felt emotion, I love its vivid nature descriptions. We live in a beautiful country, but this fact seems to have gone missing in much Scottish fiction. We need a novelist as influential as Irvine Welsh who isn't predominantly urban.
'Bluff 'by Jane Stanton Hitchcock
This is a really good thriller involving poker playing by someone surprisingly intimate with the game.
'To the Lighthouse' by Virginia Woolf (1927)
Most know that feeling of arriving at a holiday house, exploring the rooms, opening all the cupboards and drawers. That muddle of excitement and disappointment. It's not as big as we thought but it's got a wood burning stove. What are we doing here? We must think of something to do tomorrow and going to the lighthouse is the most desired activity for one of Mrs Ramsay's eight children. Through the fractious discussion that follows between husband and son – father and son – we enter the consciousness of a great matriarch who at once sees the flaws and value in all, and our uselessness at understanding each other.
Mrs Ramsay is not the only consciousness we are to enter. Moments of déjà vu occur before we realise we are witnessing the same event from inside another head. The inevitable trip to the local shop to buy groceries is very trippy indeed – it is mentioned that one of an odd assortment of friends, invited or possibly not, is secretly getting stoned and one can't help but wonder who else is? It's more the Land of Oz than the Isle of Skye when we meet a one-armed man tottering at the top of a ladder trying to paste up an advert for a circus. A surrealist painting waiting to be executed or a horrible piece of realism.
Written when it had just been discovered that the previously independent components of the universe: energy, mass, space and time, are not independent at all but are related and interchangeable, and that the Sun does not pull on the Earth like a magnet as thought, but makes a bowl-shaped depression in space around which the planets race like marbles in a dish, we are presented with a de-centred relativistic picture of reality in stunningly beautiful high definition. It would insult the aim to give it a single meaning but one which becomes clear, after a bit of time travel, is that even the most average holiday – a not quite right, tormented by thoughts of work and loss and inadequacy holiday – often remains the most valuable time we have together. Treasure it.
Juliet Stevenson's brilliant 2008 reading is hypnotically perfect and the text is available free online in various eBook formats.
for Part 1 of essential reads
for Part 2 of essential reads
for Part 3 of essential reads