The big Gray man


© Canongate


Much has been written about Alasdair Gray, the Scottish novelist, poet, playwright, artist, illustrator, academic and polemicist who passed away at the end of 2019.  I doubt if my own reflections on Gray will offer anything new, but he was a huge influence on me and I’m going to write about him anyway.


To a youth like me in 1980s Scotland, in love with books and writing, Gray seemed a titanic cultural presence.  Actually, ‘titanic’ is an ironic adjective to use in connection with him as physically he was anything but.  Bearded and often dishevelled, Gray resembled an eccentric scientist from the supporting cast of a 1950s science-fiction B movie and he once memorably described himself as ‘a fat, spectacled, balding, increasingly old Glaswegian pedestrian’.


He was also a presence that seemed to suddenly loom up out of nowhere.  The moment when Gray became famous was in 1981 when his first novel Lanark was published.  I remember being in high school that year when my English teacher Ian Jenkins urged me to get hold of a copy and read it.  I still hadn’t read Lanark by 1983 when I started college in Aberdeen, but I remember joining the campus Creative Writing Society and hearing its members enthuse about it.  These included a young Kenny Farquharson (now a columnist with the Scottish edition of the Times) describing to someone the novel’s admirably weird structure, whereby it consisted of four ‘books’ but with Book Three coming first, then Books One and Two and finally Book Four.  And an equally young Ali Smith recalling meeting Gray and speaking fondly of how eccentric he was.


In fact, I didn’t read Lanark until the following summer when I’d secured a three-month job as a night-porter in a hotel high up in the Swiss Alps.  In the early hours of the morning, after I’d done my rounds and done my chores and all the guests had gone to bed, I’d sit behind the reception desk and read.  It took me about a week of those nightshifts to get through Lanark.  I lapped up its tale of Duncan Thaw, the young doomed protagonist of what was basically a 1950s Glaswegian version of Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, which constituted Books One and Two; and similarly lapped up its alternating tale of the title character (mysteriously linked to Thaw) in the grimly fabulist city of Unthank, which constituted Books Three and Four.  A quote by sci-fi author Brian Aldiss on the cover neatly described Unthank as ‘a city where reality is about as reliable as a Salvador Dali watch’.


© Canongate


That same summer I read The Penguin Complete Short Stories of Franz Kafka (1983) and the fantastical half of Lanark struck me as very reminiscent of Kafka.  Gray himself acknowledged that Kafka’s The Trial (1925), The Castle (1926) and Amerika (1927) had inspired him: “The cities in them seemed very like 1950s Glasgow, an old industrial city with a smoke-laden grey sky that often seemed to rest like a lid on the north and south ranges of hills and shut out the stars at night.”


The result was an astonishing book that combines gritty autobiographical realism with fanciful magical realism – fanciful and magical in a sombre, Scottish sense, obviously.


With hindsight, Lanark was the most important book in Scottish literature since Lewis Grassic Gibbon’s A Scots Quair trilogy (1932-34).  By an odd coincidence I read A Scots Quair four years later when I was working – again – as a night-porter in a hotel in the Swiss Alps.  So my encounters with the greatest two works of 20th century Scottish literature are indelibly linked in my mind with nightshifts in hotels decorated with Alpine horns and antique ski equipment and surrounded by soaring, jagged mountains.


Lanark also appeared at a significant time.  Three years before its publication, the referendum on establishing a Scottish parliament had ended in an undemocratic farce.  Two years before it, Margaret Thatcher had started her reign as British prime minister – a reign during which Scotland would be governed unsympathetically, like a colonial property, a testing ground, an afterthought.  So Lanark was important in that it helped give Scotland a cultural identity at a time when politically it was allowed no identity at all.


Whilst telling me about Lanark, Ian Jenkins mentioned ruefully that he didn’t think Gray would ever produce anything as spectacular again.  Not only did it seem a once-in-a-lifetime achievement but it’d taken up half of a lifetime, for Gray had been beavering away at it since the 1950s.  He once mused of the undertaking: “Spending half a lifetime turning your soul into printer’s ink is a queer way to live… but I would have done more harm if I’d been a banker, broker, advertising agent, arms manufacturer or drug dealer.”


However, two books he produced afterwards, 1982, Janine (1984) and Poor Things (1992), are excellent works in their own rights even if they didn’t create the buzz that Lanark did.


© Canongate


Janine takes place inside the head of a lonely middle-aged man while he reflects on a life of emotional, professional and political disappointments, and masturbates, and finally attempts suicide whilst staying in a hotel room in a Scottish country town that’s either Selkirk or my hometown, Peebles.  (Yes, Peebles’ two claims to literary fame are that John Buchan once practised law there and the guy in 1982, Janine might have had a wank there.)  The protagonist’s musings include some elaborate sadomasochistic fantasies, which put many people off – Anthony Burgess, who’d thought highly of Lanark, was less enthusiastic about Janine – but it seems to me a bold meditation on Scotland in general and on the strained, often hopeless relationship between traditional, Presbyterian-conditioned Scottish males and the opposite sex in particular.


Poor Things, a retelling of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein (1818) set in Victorian Glasgow, initially seems very different from Janine but in fact it tackles similar themes.  The narrator, Archibald McCandless, relates how his scientist colleague Godwin Baxter creates a young woman, Bella, out of dead flesh just as Frankenstein did.  McCandless soon falls in love with her.  There follows an engrossing mishmash of sci-fi story, horror story, adventure, romance and comedy, but near the end things are turned on their heads for Bella takes over as storyteller.  She denounces McCandless’s version of events as witless fantasy and portrays herself not as a Frankenstein-type creation but a normal woman, albeit one ahead of her time in her views about feminism and social justice.  Again, the book is a rebuke to the attitudes of men – particularly insecure Scottish ones – towards women, partly possessive, partly madly over-romanticised.


Gray’s other post-Lanark novels are entertaining, if less ambitious.  Also, they’re never about what you expect them to be about.  The Fall of Kelvin Walker (1985) looks like it’s going to be a comic tale of a Scottish lad-o’-pairts on his way up and then his way down in London – but it turns into a caustic commentary on the loveless nature of Scottish Calvinism.  Something Leather (1990), which is actually a series of connected short stories and again features copious sadomasochism, isn’t so much about kinkiness as about Gray’s disgust at the politicians and officials who oversaw Glasgow being European City of Culture 1990 – something he regarded as a huge missed opportunity.  A History Maker (1994), a science-fiction novel described by the Daily Telegraph as ‘Sir Walter Scott meets Rollerball’, isn’t an absurdist sci-fi romp at all but a pessimistic account of how humanity can never achieve perfect, peaceful harmony with nature.  And Old Men in Love (2007) promises to be a geriatric version of 1982, Janine, but is really an oddity whose ingredients include, among other things, ancient Athens, Fra Lippo Lippi and the Agapemonites.


Gray was also a prolific short-story writer.  He produced three collections of them, Unlikely Stories, Mostly (1983), Ten Tales Tall and True (1993) and The Ends of out Tethers: 13 Sorry Stories (2003) and had several more stories published in Lean Tales (1985), alongside contributions from James Kelman and Agnes Owens.  I find his short fiction variable in quality, with some items a bit too anecdotal or oblique for my tastes.  But many are excellent and Ten Tales Tall and True is one of my favourite short-story collections ever.


The fact that Gray was an artist as well meant he also designed his books’ covers and provided the illustrations inside them.  Indeed, I suspect a few non-readers bought his works for their glorious visual qualities alone, for they enlivened the look of any bookshelf they sat on.  The Gray illustration I like best by the way is probably this one he did for his story The Star in Unlikely Stories, Mostly.


© Canongate


He also liked to make mischief with the conventions of how books are organised – with their back-cover blurbs and review quotes, prefaces, dedications, footnotes, appendices and so on.  For example, he wasn’t averse to adorning his books with negative reviews (Victoria Glendinning describing Something Leather as ‘a confection of self-indulgent tripe’) or imaginary ones (an organ called Private Nose applauding Poor Things for its ‘gallery of believably grotesque foreigners – Scottish, Russian, American and French.’)


As an artist, Gray was good enough to be made Glasgow’s official artist-recorder in the late 1970s and to enjoy a retrospective exhibition, Alasdair Gray: From the Personal to the Universal, at the Kelvingrove Art Gallery and Museum in 2014-15.  His artwork included a number of murals on the walls of Glasgow and it’s a tragedy that some have been lost over the years.  Among those that survive, perhaps the most famous is at Hillhead Underground Station.  It contains the memorable and salient verse: “Do not let daily to-ing and fro-ing / To earn what we need to keep going / Prevent what you once felt when wee / Hopeful and free.”  Also worth seeing is the mural he painted, Michelangelo-style, on the ceiling of the Òran Mór restaurant, bar and music venue on Glasgow’s Byres Road.  It looks gorgeous in the photos I’ve seen of it, although regrettably when I was there with my brother a few years ago I was already well-refreshed with several pints of beer and forgot to look up.


I never got to meet the great man, though I’m pretty sure I saw him one night in the late 1980s in Edinburgh’s Hebrides Bar, talking animatedly to a group of friends and admirers.  Being shy, alas, I couldn’t muster the courage to go over and introduce myself.


One Scottish writer in whose company I did end up during the late 1980s, though, was Iain Banks, whom I got to interview for a student publication and who then invited me on an afternoon pub crawl across central Edinburgh.  Banks was delighted when I told him that his recently published novel The Bridge (1986) reminded me a wee bit of Lanark.  “I think Lanark’s the best thing published in Scotland in years!” he gushed.  Come to think of it, maybe it was the favourable comparison to Alasdair Gray that prompted Banks to take me drinking that day.




Burgess gets his Kit off


© Vintage


I have to admit that when I first opened Anthony Burgess’s 1993 novel A Dead Man in Deptford, a fictionalised account of the life of Elizabethan playwright Christopher ‘Kit’ Marlowe, I knew next to nothing about its subject.


What did I know of Marlowe?  Well, I’d heard of his plays but never read them.  When I studied literature at university, I’d busied myself reading Shakespeare, and a little Ben Jonson, and even The Spanish Tragedy by Thomas Kyd, who plays a supporting role in Dead Man.  But I didn’t get around to reading any of Marlowe’s plays and my only experience of seeing one was Derek Jarman’s post-modern movie version of Edward II, with gratuitously added Annie Lennox, from 1991.


What else?  I knew he’d been killed in a pub brawl – stabbed in the eye – in Deptford in London in 1593.  I knew he was the topic of the only joke I can remember from 1998’s Shakespeare in Love, which comes when a Thames boatman remarks to Joseph Fiennes’ Shakespeare, “I had that Christopher Marlowe in my boat once.”  And I knew John Hurt played him as a 400-year-old vampire in Jim Jarmusch’s 2013 horror movie Only Lovers Left Alive.  Being an immortal bloodsucker evidently isn’t the glamorous, forever-youthful escapade it’s made out to be, because the real Marlowe was 29 when he died while in Only Lovers John Hurt looked all of his then 73 years.


© Recorded Picture Company / Pandora Film


No, the reason I started reading Dead Man wasn’t because of Marlowe, but because I wanted to see Anthony Burgess, an author famous for his rumbustious verbosity and love of language, tackle the minutiae of life in the Elizabethan era.  As you’d expect, Burgess doesn’t just dip a cautious literary toe into the 16th century milieu.  He strips off – gets his Kit off, so to speak – and dives into it headlong and takes to it like a duck to water.  Or to use a cruder simile, like a pig to shit.  Not that I’m comparing Burgess to a pig, of course, but there’s certainly plenty of shit present.


Yes, you can almost hear him smacking his lips with relish as his prose records the hurly-burly in all its glory and grottiness.   The bars, booze and burping (“Kit… drank deep and belched on the yeasty froth…”); the brothels (“…roars and screams and the rapture of dying…”); the food, both hearty (“…a baked pigeon with a forcemeat of saffron and dried rosemary…) and hideous (“Pickled herrings and mouldy bread…” and “…wormy cheese…”); the vagabonds (“…rufflers, abram-men, high-pads, buff-knappers, rattling mumpers, tat-mongers, wiping-drawers, kidlays and moon-cursers…”); the oaths (“By the six ballocks of the Trinity and the cheese of the milk of the Magdalen and the hundred prepuces of circumcised Jesus…”); the gore of the public executions (“…the prick and ballocks exposed then sliced away, the first blood healthily flowing, then the cross-cut along the belly so that the bowels gushed out…”); the gore of the stage (“…pig’s blood gushed from bladders hidden…”); the torture (“…a nail or two had been pincered out before the cracking of bone…”); the lack of dental hygiene (teeth that “showed their rotting waists…”); the fingernails (which “harboured the grease he scratched from his lousiness…”); the disease and plague (“…noxious urine spouting from mouth, nose and ears and all holes else…” and “…buboes… clear in his naked armpits…); the carcasses (“…a dead pied dog that lay with swollen belly ripe to burst…”); the snot (“…the hairs in his skewed nose had trapped scraps of dry mucus…”); the puke (“…in green and yellow coposity…”); the piss (“She sat in a pool of wet…”); and the general squalor (“…the dunghill that festered at the corner of Hog Lane…” and a nearby “…raintub on which flowers of filth were afloat…”).


In fact, Dead Man isn’t the first Anthony Burgess book I’ve read that’s set in Elizabethan times, for in 1964 he published a novel about Shakespeare called Nothing Like the Sun.  Will Shakespeare inevitably turns up in the later stages of Dead Man, though the Bard seems pragmatic and restrained compared to the incendiary and multi-layered Kit Marlowe (whose complexity is symbolised by the uncertainty and elasticity of his surname – he introduces himself as “Christopher,” but adds, “The other name is unsure.  Marlin, Merlin, Marley, Morley.  Marlowe will do.”)


Indeed, the contrast between the playwrights reminded me slightly of Burgess and his great contemporary, the novelist Graham Greene.  Both hung out in south-eastern France towards the ends of their lives but had little to do with each other.  Apparently, the ebullient, publicity-loving and self-mythologizing Burgess grated on the aloof, reserved and ascetic Greene, who disapproved of Burgess appearing on TV to “talk about his books.”


Actually, I enjoyed Dead Man much more than Nothing Like the Sun which, with a lengthy opening section in Stratford-upon-Avon before the action finally moved to London, took its time getting going.  In comparison, Dead Man doesn’t hang around.  After a brief preamble in which we meet the book’s narrator – who identifies himself as “a small actor and smaller play-butcher who observed him (Kit) intermittently though indeed knew him in a very palpable sense”, and muses philosophically about the impossibility and absurdity of telling the story of a man’s life without being present during every moment of that life, and even alludes to Schrödinger’s cat (“There was a philosopher who spoke of the cat that mews to be let out and then mews to be let in again.  In the interim, does it exist?”) – Burgess cuts to the chase.  We glimpse Kit as a student at Corpus Christi, Cambridge, before he crosses paths with poet Thomas Watson, who invites him to London and introduces him to Queen Elizabeth I’s spymaster Sir Francis Walsingham.


Walsingham immediately signs Kit into Her Majesty’s secret service and despatches him to the English College at Rheims in France on the pretence that he’s disillusioned with Protestantism and wants to explore the possibility of joining the priesthood.  His real purpose, though, is to spy on a cabal of English Catholics there who may be plotting to replace Queen Elizabeth with her Catholic cousin, Mary Queen of Scots.  At the same time that he’s recruited by Sir Francis, he encounters Sir Francis’s young relative Thomas Walsingham and immediately becomes smitten with him.




The remainder of Dead Man’s 270 pages is a stew of spying and political intrigue – determined to make the most of Kit’s services, the older Walsingham sends him to the Low Countries and then to Scotland, where the skulduggery involves King James VI, regarded by just about everyone as “a drunkard, a sodomite and a coward” – and Elizabethan men, mostly Kit and Thomas Walsingham, indulging in ‘the love that dare not speak its name’.  Oh, and there’s a fair bit of playwriting and versifying too.


Adding further kinks to the plot is Sir Walter Raleigh, who draws Kit into his clique of aristocrats, thinkers and hangers-on.  Sir Walter and his gang are dangerous to know because their opinions and musings run the risk of being considered atheistic and heretical which, with Queen Elizabeth I the head of the English church, translates into treason.  The sneaky Raleigh reels Kit in by getting him addicted to tobacco – of which Raleigh, “the keeper of many keys”, is London’s main supplier.  Burgess cleverly attributes feminine qualities to the plant.  The otherwise completely male-orientated Kit describes it as a “delicious nymph” and his smoking habit as “daily ravishing of the nymph”.  His lover Thomas Walsingham later complains, “Your body does not smell as it did.  There is a rankness…” and adds, both jealously and ominously, “Yes, you are one of Raleigh’s tribe.”


With grim inevitability, the story leads towards the fatal events of 1593.  Kit, now in serious trouble with the authorities, heads for Deptford on the south bank of the Thames with the intention of boarding a ship and fleeing England.  First, however, he has a rendezvous in a local tavern with some shady associates of the now-dead Sir Francis Walsingham and the now-married Thomas Walsingham, who’s clearly begun to see his relationship with Kit as an embarrassment and encumbrance.


With his arrogance, his predilection for boozing and brawling, and his spying activities that contribute to a number of people dying horrible deaths, Kit is no angel.  But Burgess imbues him too with qualities like loyalty, conscience and self-doubt that make him relatable and likeable.  Also, Burgess – who’d previously featured gay heroes in books like Earthly Powers (1980) and Honey for the Bears (1963) – treats Kit’s homosexuality with sympathy and avoids making it a source of shame or torment for him even though, by the beliefs of the time, it guarantees him eternal damnation.  Kit is unapologetic about it.  He sees his orientation as being nobler than the instinct-driven sexuality of men and women that causes reproduction: “Male and female are grossly conjoined following nature’s words that they breed.  There is an airier or more spiritual mode of conjunction.”  He also rejects heterosexuality on the grounds of his relationship with his sisters and mother: “To bed a woman, which I have never done, has a strong stench of incest.”


That said, some might find a lack of subtlety in how Burgess seemingly juxtaposes Kit’s sexuality with the phallic imagery of knives and daggers.  When Dead Man isn’t getting excited about gay love scenes, it’s getting excited about blades.  Taking on a villain called George Orwell (who, Burgess claims in his postscript, was a real-life hoodlum in 16th century London), Kit “slashed Orwell’s daggering wrist, making Orwell howl and seek to drink the blood to stem its flow.”  Tangling with another villain called Cutting Ball, “his sword whistled as it dove to nick Ball’s wrist.”  Elsewhere, “his sword point pierced a fat buttock,” while his friend Thomas Watson gets caught “most bitterly in the brow with dagger”, leaving “a wound like a mouth that spoke blood.”  This imagery reaches its finale in the Deptford tavern when poor Kit receives a lethal eyeful: “The dagger point was too close to his eye for his eye to see it.”  Just to drive the association home, Burgess describes Kit’s first meeting with Thomas Walsingham as being “like the sharp knife of a sort of truth in the disguise of danger.”


Any other reservations about the book?  Well, the plot gets somewhat confusing with the number of characters called ‘Thomas’.  In addition to Thomas Kyd, Thomas Watson and Thomas Walsingham, there’s the playwright, poet and pamphleteer Thomas Nasche and the astronomer and mathematician Thomas Harriot.  Though of course the existence of so many Thomases in Marlowe’s life isn’t Burgess’s fault and at one point he has his narrator exclaim, “…“all these Toms, a world of toms like a night roof top…”  And talking of narrators, it feels a bit of a cop-out when on the very last page Burgess abandons his fictional narrator and reveals himself as the true chronicler of events: “Your true author speaks now…  I put off the ill-made disguise and, four hundred years after that death at Deptford, mourn as it all happened yesterday.”


But those are only quibbles.  On the whole, I found A Dead Man in Deptford a splendid book, a pleasure to read while Burgess’s exuberant prose captured both the complexities of Christopher Marlowe and the rough and tumble of the world around him, without – as I’ve occasionally found elsewhere with Burgess – becoming hard to follow.  Given that the book was the last thing Burgess had published in his lifetime, before his death the following year at the age of 76, it’s retrospectively cheering to note that the book showed no sign of decline in the great man’s abilities.


To use the unavoidable pun – he remained at the peak of his earthly powers.


© The International Anthony Burgess Foundation


A guy called Gerald




A few years ago, I wrote a piece on this blog about how the popularity, fame and acclaim won by many writers during their lifetimes seem to evaporate with, or soon after, their deaths.  Once they’re gone, they’re usually forgotten too.  I was inspired to write this after taking a wander in Dalry Cemetery in Edinburgh and discovering a tombstone for the novelist George Cupples, who died in 1891.  When I did some online research into Cupples, I found out that he’d written ‘dozens of nautical novels’ and his 1856 novel The Green Hand: A Sea Story (1856) was reckoned to be ‘one of the best sea stories ever written.’  But does anyone apart from a tiny handful of specialists know of Cupples and his work today?  I doubt it.


In the same entry I discussed the posthumous reputations of writers from the 1920s, 30s and 40s like Edgar Wallace, Hervey Allen, James Hilton and Dennis Wheatley – all massively popular in their day, but again, practically forgotten in the 21st century.  Indeed, names that were ubiquitous on the bestseller racks in bookshops and newsagents when I was a kid, like Harold Robbins, Morris West, Leon Uris and Alistair MacLean, seem to have disappeared into the mists too.  Everyone was reading their books in the 1970s but I can’t imagine many people reading them now.


To this list of forgotten writers we must add the British (later American) author Gerald Kersh, who was once prolific and popular – his Wikipedia entry credits him with 20 novels and 20 collections of short stories, plus ‘thousands of articles in different publications’, published between 1934 and his death in 1968 – but who seemed to drop off the radar the moment he died.  A few years ago I began to hear his name because a number of writers I admire, like Anthony Burgess, Angela Carter, Michael Moorcock, Ian Fleming and Harlan Ellison, thought highly of him.  But his work had apparently vanished without trace.  When I asked about him in bookshops, my inquiries would draw a blank.  Even in bookshops run by clearly knowledgeable people, like Whitie’s in my hometown of Peebles and Transreal Fiction in the Grassmarket area of Edinburgh, nobody had heard of him.


However, several of his works have now been republished by Valancourt Books, who’ve won praise from the Times Literary Supplement for their efforts to “resurrect some neglected works of literature… and make them available to a new readership”, and I was able to order copies of his 1958 novel Fowlers End and his 1968 collection Nightshade and Damnations while I was in the UK a few months ago.  I couldn’t find, though, a reasonably priced copy of his 1938 crime thriller Night and the City, the book that’s probably come closest to ensuring a legacy for Kersh – it was filmed in 1950 with Richard Widmark and again in 1992 with Robert De Niro.


It doesn’t surprise me that Anthony Burgess rated Fowlers End one of the great comic novels of the 20th century because it’s the sort of sprawling, baggy, rumbustious and verbose book that Burgess himself liked to write.  Set during the Great Depression and in the fictional and un-salubrious London district of the title – “Fowler’s End is a special kind of tundra that supports nothing gracious in the way of flora and fauna.  Plant a cabbage here in this soured, embitter, dyspeptic, ulcerated soil, and up comes a kind of bleached shillelagh with spikes on its knob.  Plant a family, a respectable working-class family, and in two generations it will turn out wolves” – it’s prefaced by a five-page glossary of Cockney slang to help readers decipher the dialogue.  Some of the terms I was familiar with, but others, like ‘flob your gob’ (vomit) and ‘north-and-south’ (mouth), were new to me.  The prominence given to the London vernacular was probably another reason why the language-loving Burgess enjoyed the book so much.


© Valancourt Books


It begins with a down-on-his-luck young man called Daniel Laverock being hired as the new manager of the Pantheon Cinema in Fowlers End.  Its owner is the alleged businessman and obvious fraudster Sam Yudenow.  Laverock then gets a tour of the premises from Yudenow, which hardly bodes well for his new career.  The Pantheon’s staff include a mutinous orchestra and an alcoholic pianist called Miss Noel (employed because the cinema persists in showing silent movies and has to treat its patrons to live music); a pair of Greek anarchists who run the adjoining café; a local juvenile delinquent called Tommy whom Yudenow employs to throw decaying animal carcasses into the properties of rival businesses; and the cinema’s handyman Copper Baldwin, who makes no effort to conceal his hatred for Yudenow.


What follows doesn’t involve much of a storyline.  Yudenow does something that proves he’s not a larger-than-life, loveable rogue but an out-and-out shit, and such is Laverock’s disgust that he joins forces with Baldwin to give Yudenow his comeuppance.  But that comeuppance doesn’t really materialise and by the book’s end Yudenow remains unbowed.  Instead, the plot takes an unexpected swerve and climaxes with Laverock having to defend Yudenow’s fleapit against a gang of thugs led by a villain who was only briefly mentioned in the book’s opening pages.  I have to say, though, that the climactic confrontation is hilariously written.


Clearly, Kersh isn’t that interested in constructing a balanced, joined-up plot.  He’s far more interested in, firstly, conveying the glorious grottiness and squalor of Fowler’s End and, secondly, conveying the riotous grotesqueness of Sam Yudenow, who’s presented as a Cockney-Jewish cross between Sir John Falstaff and one of those expansive, exuberant eccentrics Charles Dickens was so fond of.  Yudenow’s initial advice to Laverock ranges from how to follow the Pantheon’s fire regulations, which keep the number of customers allowed in at a very precise 629 – “Six hundred twenty-nine audience is okay.  Six hundred thirty is suicide.  Six hundred twenty-eight I die o’ starvation an’ you’re out of a job” – to how to handle the miscreant local schoolkids who frequent the place – “…they get a great big potato and stick it all over miv old razor blades; a bit of string they tie it onto, and right in the face they let you ’ave it.  Discourage ‘em.  Threaten to tell their teacher.  Lay one finger on ’em and the N.S.P.C.C. is after us for cruelty to children…”


I suppose Kersh’s depiction of Yudenow lays him open to accusations of anti-Semitism, for peddling a negative stereotype of a grasping and dishonest Jewish businessman.  But Kersh was Jewish himself, his very first book published was an autobiographical one called Jews without Jehovah (1934), and he lost a number of French relatives in the concentration camps during World War II.  Incidentally, readers from the UK of my age and older may find it hard to read Kersh’s descriptions of Yudenow without imagining the features, voice and mannerisms of the late, great Cockney-Jewish character actor Alfie Bass.  If Fowlers End had been filmed a few decades ago, Bass would surely have been first pick for the role.


For my part, while I found Yudenow an amusing character, I would have preferred smaller doses of him than the hefty doses that Kersh serves up.  Happily, the book features a host of other entertaining characters.  As the book’s hero, Daniel Laverock might have been a little dull, but Kersh gives him a funny if unfortunate backstory – in his childhood he tried and catastrophically failed to fly off his family’s roof in a homemade airplane (fashioned from planks, perambulator wheels and a biscuit-tin lid), with the result that he ended up with a face “not unlike that ancient pugilist Buckhorse who, in his old age, having no face left to spoil, let anyone knock him down for a shilling.”  His facial disfigurements giving him a villainous look, he has recently been adopted by a young woman called June Whistler, from a well-to-do and sheltered background and with aspirations to be a novelist, who believes he will show her the shady underbelly of society and give her writing some much-needed authenticity.  “The depths!  I want to explore the depths…!” she exclaims.  “Would you like to crush me in your arms and bite me?”  To which the fearsome-looking but gentlemanly Laverock replies: “Madam, you are good enough to eat but you look so much better in one piece.”


Incidentally, Kersh spent time working as a cinema manager – as a young man he had a colourful, Jack London-esque CV that also included stints as a debt collector, fish-and-chip-shop cook, bodyguard and professional wrestler – so Fowlers End obviously draws on his personal experiences.  And the book is a hell of a lot funnier than a more celebrated English comic novel from the 1950s that I read not so long ago, Kingsley Amis’s Lucky Jim (1954).


© Valancourt Books


Nightshades and Damnations, which appeared in 1968 shortly before Kersh’s death, contains eleven of his short stories chosen and introduced by the American science fiction and fantasy writer Harlan Ellison.  Some of the items in this volume are brilliant – they show Kersh at his best as a storyteller, pushing his imagination to the limit and writing with both precision and style.  Among them are horror stories like Voices in the Dust of Annan and The Brighton Monster, which end with science-fictional twists – a tragic and chillingly contemporary (despite most of the story being set in the 18th century) twist in the case of The Brighton Monster.  Another horror story is Men Without Bones, wherein Kersh depicts the nightmarish creatures of the title with impressively icky gusto.


Bone for Debunkers is a tale of forgery that’s worthy of Roald Dahl, while The Ape and the Mystery and The King Who Collected Clocks are elegant historical fantasies incorporating Leonardo Da Vinci and clockwork automata respectively.  And The Queen of Pig Island is a surreal and ultimately tragic tale of what happens to the human exhibits of a carnival sideshow when they survive a shipwreck and try to establish their own society on a desert island.


Perhaps best of all is Whatever Happened to Corporal Cuckoo, which is about immortality and its potential pitfalls.  It explores the unhappy and grisly consequences when the person who’s immortal doesn’t have the intelligence or imagination to make the most of his situation; and also has a body that doesn’t fully regenerate from all the physical damage it inevitably suffers during the centuries.  The same bleak approach to the subject was later used in Robert Zemeckis’s 1992 movie Death Becomes Her.


While many other writers have vanished from popular consciousness because their writing, frankly, wasn’t very good and wasn’t designed to stand the test of time, Kersh’s prose remains admirably sharp and his stories, though obviously of their time, don’t feel that dated.  He seems to have been forgotten for the sad and simple reason that his books fell out of print for a long period.  Let’s hope that the good work done by Valancourt Books helps bring Gerald Kersh’s artistry back into the limelight.


Burgess, Bond… and birds


(c) MGM / UA


As I’ve said in previous posts, I’m a fan both of the writer Anthony Burgess and of the James Bond novels and films, so my curiosity was naturally piqued by a recent article in the New Statesman entitled Anthony Burgess’s 007 Obsession (


The article’s author Andrew Biswell admits that Burgess and 007-creator Ian Fleming were as different as chalk and cheese.  There’s no evidence that Fleming, who died in 1964 – by which time Burgess had penned, among other things, his Malaysia-set The Long Day Wanes trilogy, The Wanting Seed, Honey for the Bears, the first volume in the Enderby series and in 1962 A Clockwork Orange – took any interest in Burgess’s work.  Indeed, it’s possible that the famously snobbish Fleming would’ve looked down upon the Manchester-born, working-class-Catholic Burgess as a bit of an oik.


That, however, didn’t stop Burgess from taking a strong interest in Fleming and the Bond novels.  He saw the opulent escapism of the books, written immediately after World War II, as a commentary on the drab, depressed Britain of that post-war period, when the economy was in ruins and Britons still struggled with rationing.


Later in his life, aware that the context of the Bond books was lost on a younger generation who only knew the character through the Broccoli / Salzman film series, Burgess wrote that “Bond belongs to history and these are historical novels.”


A while back I posted a review of Burgess’s 1966 spy novel Tremor of Intent, which at times comes across as a pastiche of the Bond novels.  At other times, though, it draws its influences from the less glamorous and more realistic espionage fiction of John le Carre, Len Deighton and Graham Greene, which means the result is uneven – Burgess’s show-off prose style doesn’t help, either.  Nonetheless, Tremor provides the clearest evidence of Burgess’s preoccupation with Commander Bond.


What I hadn’t known before I read Biswell’s article was that in 1975 Cubby Broccoli commissioned Burgess to write a film-script for The Spy Who Loved Me, which made it to cinema screens two years later.  (The Spy Who Loved Me was the shortest, most low-key and least typical of Fleming’s 007 novels – Bond himself only appears during its final third – and it was deemed unfilmable, so the filmmakers were free to make up a new story.  Mind you, admirers of Fleming’s books would argue that making the stories up was pretty much what the filmmakers had been doing all along.)


Burgess’s completed script features an organisation called CHAOS (Consortium for Hastening the Annihilation of Organised Society), which places miniature nuclear bombs inside the bodies of unsuspecting victims while they are anaesthetised at a private clinic.  It also involves a plot whereby one of these walking bombs will blow up the Queen while she’s visiting Sydney Opera House.  Bond, who’s lately trained as an acupuncturist, saves the day by using his acupuncture skills to defuse the human bomb.  However, Broccoli binned Burgess’s script, assuming that the author was taking the piss, and the script that was finally used for the film was procured from Richard Maibaum and Christopher Wood instead.


By a coincidence, at almost the same time that Biswell’s piece appeared in the New Statesman, the Independent published an interview with one of the The Spy Who Loved Me’s eventual scriptwriters, Christopher Wood:


Stanley Kubrick’s 1971 film adaptation of A Clockwork Orange – starring Malcolm McDowell as Alex the Droog, the embodiment of every British adult’s fears about juvenile delinquency in the early 1970s – ensured that Anthony Burgess’s name appeared on plenty of film posters at the time.  Meanwhile, Christopher Wood’s name appeared on many film posters of the era too.  These were for films portraying another form of adolescent bad behaviour.  Not violence, but sex.


(c) Warner Brothers 


Christopher Wood, you see, scripted the tacky British sex-comedy film Confessions of a Window Cleaner in 1974.  (The adjective ‘tacky’ invariably comes to mind when you attempt to describe any British film that involves comedy and sex.)  This was based on Wood’s own novel, which he’d written under the pseudonym Timothy Lea, and it was the first in a series of Confessions movies that were made until 1978 — further entries included Confessions of a Pop Performer, Confessions of a Driving Instructor and Confessions from a Holiday Camp.  All starred Robin Askwith in the lead role, playing a gormless 1970s British young ‘bloke’, desperate to get his end away with a succession of busty, lovely ‘birds’.  Also appearing in those films was Liverpudlian actor Tony Booth, who is better known these days as the father of Cherie Booth / Blair and the father-in-law of the not-much-missed former Prime Minister Tony Blair.


British film connoisseurs may hate to admit it, but the shag-happy Askwith, with his wide lapels, flared trousers and hairy sideburns, is as much of an icon of British cinema as Malcolm McDowell’s psychotic, bowler-hatted and spider-lashed  Alex in A Clockwork Orange — or indeed James Bond.  After all, Confessions of a Window Cleaner was the biggest-grossing British film of 1974.  And even when the film series died a death in the late 1970s, Wood continued to write sex-comedy novels using the Timothy Lea pseudonym and using the Confessions of… prefix.  The books were popular enough to eventually run to a total of 27 volumes.


(c) Columbia Pictures 


The Independent interviewed Wood recently because the publisher HarperCollins has now decided to re-release his Confessions novels as ebooks.  Christ knows why, I have to say.  As the film critic David McGillivray once said about the British sex-comedy genre, the one thing that all those films, including the Confessions ones, had in common was that they weren’t at all sexy.


In Christopher Wood’s defence, though, I should add that The Spy Who Loved Me is easily the best of the James Bond movies with Roger Moore in the lead role.  (That’s despite the fact that Roger Moore is about as convincing playing a licenced-to-kill secret agent as Robin Askwith is playing a sex stud.)  Unfortunately, Wood maintained his association with Cubby Broccoli and contributed the script for the next Bond film, 1980’s Moonraker, which many aficionados would identify as the series’ all-time worst entry.


Featuring a plot to rain a deadly nerve gas down on earth from an orbiting space station, and containing a gondola that turns into a speedboat and then into a hovercraft, and using as comedy relief an indestructible henchman with steel teeth, Moonraker makes Anthony Burgess’s script about human nuclear bombs, the Sydney Opera House and acupuncture sound almost sensible.


Another Burgess defects: book review / Tremor of Intent by Anthony Burgess


This is the second time that I’ve posted this review of Anthony Burgess’s 1966 spy novel.  The first time, it was immediately bombarded with hundreds of spam messages, most of them emanating from – rather appropriately – Russia.  Such was the intensity of the spam that I took the post down after a couple of days.  I am now reposting it, under a slightly different title.  Let’s see what happens this time…


(c) Penguin Books


For someone considered a major figure in late-twentieth-century British letters, Anthony Burgess always seemed like an outsider to me.  Unlike many of his literary peers, who were from privileged backgrounds and were Oxbridge-educated, Burgess had a lower middle-class upbringing in Manchester – his dad was a bookkeeper and pub-pianist who later acquired a few tobacconist and off-licence shops – and he attended university in the same city.  By the time he’d become a full-time writer, which wasn’t until he was in his forties, he’d held a number of proper jobs, in the army, in teaching and in the colonial service.


An enthusiastic composer and an accomplished linguist as well as an author, Burgess saw himself as a renaissance man and didn’t shrink from showing off his multifarious talents.  I suspect this led to him being frowned upon in some corners of the literary establishment for committing that most British of crimes, of ‘being too clever for his own good’.  He was also an incorrigible self-publicist in an era when it was still considered good form for British writers to be read and not heard.  Rarely did he seem to be absent from the newspapers and television.  A disdainful Graham Greene was known to have marvelled of him: “He talks about his books.”  Of course, were he alive today, when writers are encouraged to be visible and vocal and to miss no opportunity to sell themselves, Burgess would be in his element.  He’d be blogging, tweeting and Facebook-posting like mad.


One thing that Burgess was not, however, was a book snob.  Unlike the Gore Vidals, Howard Jacobsons and James Kelmans of this world, he didn’t regard genre writing as being unworthy of literary consideration.  Indeed, in Ninety-Nine Novels, his round-up of the best English-language novels written between 1939 and 1984, he championed works by several writers usually associated with the crime, espionage, science fiction and fantasy genres, including Brian Aldiss, J.G. Ballard, Raymond Chandler, Len Deighton, Mervyn Peake, Keith Roberts, T.H. White and (pertinently for this review) Ian Fleming.  And he tried his hand at a number of genres himself.  Though his Dickensian love for eccentric characters meant that all his books contained humour, a few were out-and-out comedies, most notably the Enderby novels.  Meanwhile, his best-remembered work, A Clockwork Orange, could be classed as science fiction, as could the lesser-known The Wanting Seed and 1985.  And then there’s his 1966 novel Tremor of Intent, where he tackled a genre enjoying immense popularity at the time: the spy thriller.


Though Tremor of Intent, if it’s remembered at all these days, is probably thought of as ‘the one where the Clockwork Orange man did a Bond pastiche’, Burgess actually drew on two sources for his inspiration.  One source was indeed Ian Fleming’s James Bond novels, which had less to do with the genuine espionage world of the 1950s and 1960s and had more to do with the adventure stories of earlier decades — real-life adventure stories from World War II (when Fleming had worked in naval intelligence and known various military types who’d done heroic things behind enemy lines) and fictional adventure stories from the 1920s and 1930s, like John Buchan’s books about Richard Hannay and Herman Cyril McNeile’s ones about Bulldog Drummond.


Accordingly, Tremor of Intent, like the Bond novels and their predecessors, abounds with exotic locations, beautiful ladies, and larger-than-life villains.  Villains don’t come much larger than the book’s Mr Theodorescu, a man “of a noble fatness; the fat of his face was part of its essential structure, not a mean gross accretion, and the vast shapely nose needed those cheek-pads and firm jowls for a proper balance.”


The other inspiration for Tremor of Intent was the less sensational, more ‘realistic’ spy novel dealing with moles and double-agents, with betrayal and defection – themes that inform such classics of the genre as John le Carre’s Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy, Len Deighton’s Berlin Game and Graham Greene’s The Human Factor.  These works take their cue from real events – the defections to Moscow of Guy Burgess and Donald Maclean in 1951 and of Kim Philby in 1963.  Educated at expensive boarding schools and at Cambridge University, Philby, Burgess and Maclean belonged to the upper strata of the class system that was supposed to give Britain its continuity and stability.  Yet, once they’d strolled into jobs in British Intelligence and the British Foreign Office, they started feeding secret information to the Soviets.  The people who were selling Britain out to the communist enemy weren’t working-class militants and revolutionaries at the bottom of the pile – the real traitors were snobs and elitists at the top.


(It must’ve been galling for Anthony Burgess in the early 1980s when a survey was conducted to find out how familiar the British public were with their major authors.  When they heard his name, most people identified him as the guy, or Guy, who’d fled across the Iron Curtain in the 1950s.)


Tremor of Intent deals with a British traitor, a scientist called Roper, who in the manner of Philby, Burgess and Maclean has defected to the Soviet Union; and a British agent called Hilliard who is assigned the task of abducting Roper back home again while he attends a conference in the Balkans. The twist is that Roper and Hilliard are old friends.  Their relationship dates back to a boyhood spent in a strict Catholic school, staffed by fanatical priests with a predilection for ranting and raving about the sins of the flesh: “This damnable sex, boys – ah, you do well to writhe in your beds at the very mention of the word.  All the evil of our modern times springs from unholy lust, the act of the dog and the bitch on the bouncing bed, limbs going like traction engines, the divine gift of articulate speech diminished to squeals and groans and pantings.”


If Burgess’s evocation of Hilliard and Roper’s schooldays brings to mind James Joyce’s Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man and its passages describing the terrors of Stephen Dedalus’s Catholic education, it’s unsurprising.  Burgess was a big Joyce fan.  He once wrote an introduction to the language-bending Irishman called Here Comes Everybody and Joyce was obviously an influence on his writing style.


The young Roper stands up to the priests by bamboozling them with his scientific knowledge, but that’s about the last noble thing he does in the book.  Thereafter, he becomes increasingly wretched.  By the end of World War II he’s spouting pro-Nazi sympathies and soon his loyalties shift further eastwards.  He finally falls into a communist honey-trap involving an attractive but duplicitous East German woman, which seals his fate as a traitor and defector.


Hilliard, whom we first meet on a cruise ship heading towards the site of the now-defected Roper’s conference, is a more admirable character.  However, he’s noticeably inept as an undercover spy.  For his mission, he’s assumed the identity of a typewriter technician – a typical flourish from Burgess, who once published a book of essays called Homage to QWERTYUIOP – but he’s soon rumbled by a precocious schoolboy on board the ship called Alan Walters, who knows more about typewriters than Hilliard does.  Alan, in fact, knows a great deal about many subjects and I suspect he resembles the know-all brat that Burgess probably was himself at the same age.  At least, as the novel develops, Alan’s allowed some character development and he ends up as a definite good guy.


Inevitably, considering the fact that it uses elements from both the unpretentious Bond stories and from the more cerebral spy novels of le Carre and company, and considering all the additional baggage that Burgess brings along, such as Catholicism, humour and Joycean prose, Tremor of Intent is erratic.  Parts of it work well but other parts of it misfire.  The most effective scenes are those set on board the cruise ship, which is populated in the best Agatha Christie tradition by passengers with dishonourable motives and by crew-members who know more than they’re letting on.  Foremost among the passengers are Theodorescu, a man who makes his money by trading secrets between East and West, and his beautiful but lethal sidekick, Miss Devi.  Among his many bad points, Theodorescu happens to be a paedophile, which is a telling sign of the book’s vintage.  In the 1960s, paedophilia was just another character-trait that added colour to the bad guy in a spy story.  In our ultra-sensitive world today, it would be the defining, be-all-and-end-all trait that damns the character to evilness.


Possibly the novel’s best scene is the one where Hilliard and Theodorescu square up to each other for the first time, eager to test one another’s mettle but before hostilities have been openly declared.  In a Bond book or movie, this would usually happen in a casino, over a game of poker.  In Tremor of Intent, it takes place in the ship’s restaurant, when Theodorescu declares, “I will make a bargain with you.  Whoever eats the less shall pay for the wine.  Are you agreeable?”  There follows an epic contest of gluttony, as Hilliard and Theodorescu eat their way through the menu, verbally sparring whilst subjecting their digestive systems to increasing strain and pain.


Burgess has a field day describing the gastronomic duel and the dishes are served up relentlessly: “red mullet and artichoke hearts… fillets of sole Queen Elizabeth, with sauce blonde… soufflé au foie gras… avocado halves with caviar and a cold chiffon sauce… some lamb persillee and onions and gruyere casserole with green beans and celery julienne… pheasant with pecan stuffing… broccoli blossoms… some spinach and minced mushrooms… harlequin sherbert… peach mousse with sirop framboise… poires Helene with cold chocolate sauce… nectarine flan… frothing Blanquette… chocolate rum dessert, garnished with whipped cream and Kahlua… orange marmalade crème bavaroise, loud with Cointreau…”  The first Bond novels appeared immediately after World War II, when Britain’s economy had been wrecked and food-rationing was a fact of life, and it’s likely that the books’ initial readers lapped them up for their opulent escapism.  A few hours in the company of Commander Bond would transport you to a world of hedonistic consumerism, a world where the food, liquor, cigars, clothes and cars were lavishly expensive and never-ending.  Hilliard’s gluttonous and costly joust with Theodorescu in the restaurant seems to be Burgess’s sly acknowledgement of this.


In other places, however, Tremor of Intent goes astray.  Often this is because of Burgess’s writing style, with its Joycean pretensions, which just seems inappropriate for this particular genre.  Never one to shirk the charge of showing off, he pens flamboyant passages of fragmented sentences and disappearing punctuation, of word-puns and alliteration — when, for example, describing the effects of the drug, ‘B-type vellocet’, that Theodorescu uses to winkle information out of his victims.


There is also some torturous writing when Hilliard, inevitably, gets to do the dirty with Miss Devi: “With athletic swiftness he turned her to the primal position and then, whinnying like a whole herd of wild horses, shivering as if transformed to protoplasm save for that plunging sword, he released lava like a mountain in a single thrust of destruction, so that she screamed like a burning city.”  Yes, Burgess is taking the piss here, but that sentence would still make a worthy winner of the Literary Review’s Bad Sex in Writing Award.


Graham Greene once remarked that, in an adventure story, the action scenes can only be described in the plainest and most economical of prose – because violence happens simply and it happens fast.  Burgess, whose prose obviously isn’t plain or economical, or simple or fast, deals with this potential problem in Tremor of Intent by not having any traditional adventure-story action scenes.  Even the final showdown between Hilliard and Theodorescu, which involves an elevator, a syringe of B-type vellocet and a chase along a waterfront, is imbued with an unexpectedly slow, languid and ruminative quality.  And to be fair to Burgess, the sequence is actually disturbing because of that.


There are issues with the overall tone of the book too.  At times – for example, when he’s describing the hapless Roper’s ethical and psychological decline – Burgess seems close to believing that he’s writing a serious book.  At other times, though, he knows that he’s writing a pastiche, an exercise in a genre that has well-defined rules and limits, and he’s keen to transmit this knowingness to his readers, who are presumably in on the joke too.  Thus, when Hilliard starts blabbing secrets to Theodorescu, we get the jargon of hackneyed spy movies and cliched spy fiction: “Operation Aegir…  A pocket television transmitter called, for some reason, Nur-al-Hihar…  The Nero Caesar cryptogram…  The air exercise known as Britomart…  An atomiser-gun provisionally named Cacodemon…  The Thermidorian tumbrils…  Miniature nuclear submarines called Fomors…”


The book’s ending deserves mention, for it sees an unexpected switch-of-location to Dublin – not a city one normally associates with espionage stories – and it sees Hilliard, remorseful for all the bad things he’s done in life, abandon the Secret Service and take on a rather different vocation.  It’s an interesting twist, though not one I found convincing, judging by what I’d already read of Hilliard’s character and motivations.  I suspect this ending, set in the landscape of Burgess’s literary hero, James Joyce, is as much for Burgess’s benefit as it is for his main character.  I know I’d defected for a time into writing spy thrillers, he seems to be signalling, perhaps unconsciously; but don’t worry, now I’ve defected back – back to the land of proper literature!


Tremor of Intent, then, is a book with some serious problems.  It’s uneven, its prose-style is often inappropriate, and it doesn’t seem to know if it’s to be taken seriously or to be taken as a joke – sometimes it tries to be taken both ways.  However, if you like Anthony Burgess and if you like Ian Fleming’s Bond novels, you should get some enjoyment out of it.  I can happily tick both those boxes but I doubt if many other readers can.  And I suppose that’s why this odd, one-off novel, from a flawed but exuberantly talented writer, is almost forgotten today.