Thursday 4 May
In common with many readers, I enjoy crime fiction. It is a genre that comes in many varieties, including police procedurals, psychological thrillers, 'locked room' mysteries, courtroom dramas and forensic investigations. Over the years, I have found that my tastes have changed. There are writers whose work I enjoyed in the past but I no longer turn to when they release a new book. I will not name them because I have no wish to disparage people whose fiction was once a source of pleasure.
If I try to identify a common feature, it is that their work has become formulaic and they seem to have nothing new to say. The settings and plots may change but there are no fresh perspectives on the vagaries of human character. In a few cases, my diminished interest is because their central figure is someone whom I do not find sympathetic. There are just too many fictional detectives and private investigators with tortuous personal lives and a fondness for alcohol.
Against this background, it is a delight to come across an author who takes the genre in a new direction and whose prose is stylish and original. On impulse, I bought a copy of Noah Fawley's 'After the Fall', which is currently being promoted in many bookshops. I was greatly impressed not only by its narrative power, but also by its deep understanding of human character in its diverse forms. It is a 'literary thriller' in the sense that it makes demands on the reader and is much more than a routine 'whodunnit'.
I immediately went in search of more novels by the same author and have just finished 'The Good Father', first published in 2012. The book tells the story of an American doctor whose son is arrested for the assassination of a presidential candidate. It is not simply a personal account of one man's harrowing attempt to discover the truth and to fulfil his responsibilities as a parent. Hawley offers insights into the powerful gun lobby, the commercial interests which support it and the barbarities of the American criminal justice system. Once again, the writing style is cleverly distinctive. I now have two other Hawley books in my sight – 'The Punch' and 'A Conspiracy of Tall Men'.
Friday 5 May
Amid all the tributes to the Duke of Edinburgh, following his announcement that he would be giving up official duties later this year, there was one dissenting voice. Ken Maguire, associate editor of the Mirror newspaper, wrote a sharp little piece complaining about the 'stomach-churning mass grovel' which the news provoked.
While expressing respect for Prince Philip's war record and the Duke of Edinburgh award scheme, Maguire gave more attention to what he saw as 'a lifetime of snooty prejudice and racist insults'. He also castigated 'Phil' for his 'nauseating rudeness' and recalled the occasion when he found him 'a grumpy interviewee'. Other articles in the same issue of the newspaper were much more positive in their assessment: an editorial said that Prince Philip deserved a rest 'after a lifetime serving the nation with great distinction and humour'.
I have never had the pleasure of meeting any member of the royal family, though I once nearly bumped into Prince William as I was leaving, and he was entering, a newsagent's in St Andrews. For a fleeting moment, I considered venturing a merry quip but then I saw his security 'minder' a few paces behind and decided that silence would be a more prudent course. The Windsors strike me as an averagely dysfunctional family, with a familiar mix of pretension, resentment and rivalry. But I don't expect we are ever likely to see their conflicts aired on the Jeremy Kyle show.
Saturday 6 May
Thanks to the system of proportional representation, the local elections have produced 'no overall control' in nearly all Scottish councils. In Orkney, Shetland and the Western Isles, there is a majority of independent councillors. Elsewhere, the party with the most seats is faced with the choice of trying to form a minority administration (with the constant threat of being defeated if the opposition parties combine forces) or seeking to come to some agreement with one or more of the other groupings. One can imagine the discreet telephone calls and private meetings that will be taking place all over Scotland this weekend to see if 'accommodations' can be reached. The SNP has ruled out any possibility of forming a coalition with the Conservatives but, in Glasgow, an SNP/Green alliance has been mentioned as a possibility.
Although it will no doubt make carrying on the business of local government difficult, there is something to be said for a situation of 'no overall control'. For nearly 40 years, Labour enjoyed unchallenged authority in Glasgow and it is highly questionable whether that power operated to the benefit of ordinary citizens. Perhaps one of the reasons why the Conservatives managed to win a seat in the unpromising territory of Shettleston may have been that traditional Labour voters began to think that the main beneficiaries of the party's control of the City Chambers were councillors themselves. Similarly, at national level, the dominance of the SNP (albeit now with a little help from the Greens) has enabled the Scottish government to move in an increasingly centralist and authoritarian direction. And if Theresa May secures a large majority at the UK general election on 8 June, it is probable that the Conservatives would show similar tendencies.
A healthy democracy depends on the governing party never feeling so secure that it can get away with doing exactly as it likes. All parties hope for a 'strong mandate' but a measure of uncertainty and instability is perhaps a price worth paying to prevent the abuses of power that generally accompany large majorities.
Monday 8 May
Of those who went to the polls in the French presidential election, nearly 12% either spoiled their ballot papers or left them blank. For some, this was a means of expressing their disapproval of the personal rancour evident in the television debate between the two candidates, Marine le Pen and Emmanuel Macron, but for others it was a statement of overall disenchantment with the whole political process. Could we claim that the feelings of the public about politics and politicians in this country are any more positive?
In the run-up to the general election on 8 June, it is already evident that we will be faced with the usual mixture of boasting, blaming and bluster from all the main parties. The quality of political discourse is depressingly poor and owes more to the techniques of advertising and public relations than to careful analysis and thoughtful reflection. Shallow soundbites are trotted out again and again, as if voters are incapable of responding to anything more demanding. Manifestos will contain the usual mixture of windy rhetoric, vague promises and questionable statistics. Our traditional political culture seems to be in terminal decline.
Set this characterisation alongside next week's topic for the writers' group I attend. We are asked to write about the politician (past or present) we most admire. I won't be devoting my piece to any of the big names – Gladstone, Disraeli, Lloyd George or Churchill. My choice is Clement Attlee, the Labour prime minister from 1945 to 1951. He was utterly lacking in the media presence which is now regarded as essential. But his achievements in setting up the NHS and establishing the foundations of the welfare state, against a challenging background of post-war reconstruction, brought about a social transformation that helped to improve the lives of many. The current political class would do well to emulate his quiet, understated style.