Just over a year ago, I saw at first hand the bravery and dignity of the Norwegian nation. Susanne Sundfør, a young Norwegian singer, was performing in Wroclaw a matter of hours after her country had been rocked to its core by Anders Breivik’s cowardly attack on the children of its political classes. Despite having to sing songs that seemed so prescient of the horror that unfolded in Oslo and Utoya, she was restrained, elegant and proud, while at the same time in obvious pain. It was a humbling experience.
I think we’ve seen a scaled up version of that dignity in Norway’s treatment of the whole Breivik case, and it has shown the world how to respond to acts of terrorism that are designed to attack what we are and what we believe in. Breivik wanted to change the country, to make it turn away from openness and tolerance, to make it cower in fear and lash out against the forces of darkness he thought threatened it. The country’s reaction has been magnificent; they have responded by being even more open and tolerant, by refusing to cower or lash out or be afraid – of him.
Breivik is one of those delusional oddballs who believes in white supremacy because it allows him to bask in the myth of his own exceptionalism. Norway’s answer to him has been masterful in that it has refused to treat him any differently than any other criminal, no matter how petty. Thus, he has had exactly the same opportunity as anyone else to address the court, will have exactly the same restrictions and privileges as anyone else in a Norwegian prison, has received exactly the same maximum sentence that any other Norwegian criminal would receive. In effect, they have marginalised him, debased him, emasculated him by giving him the message that no matter how hard he strikes against their way of life, life will go on the same as if he were a pickpocket or a paedophile.
And what has been remarkable is the support this approach has had from the people. Even the families – those who I have seen or read interviews with – have been dignified and respectful and even grateful to the judicial system. There is no barking for revenge; just read the mature, sensible, rational but absolutely touching words of 19-year old Emma Martinovic, a survivor of that day:
“This means so much. Everyone has talked about how he would be judged insane, and I thought so too. But this confirms that he is sane and healthy, something we’ve known since day one. Finally someone who listens to us and understands us. It is absolutely amazing and feels very fair. This allows me to move on. He is doomed, and there is no one who can say otherwise. Now he is in the cell and I trust the police security. Now I do not need to worry about him anymore.”
That is the most eloquent one-finger salute that could ever be delivered to Breivik and his kind; you are done and dusted, and I will never think of you again, you little, little man.
Of course, posters on Huffington Post UK – which, unlike it’s generally liberal US counterpart, seems to have become a haven for Daily Mail readers and similar right-wing nutjob halfwits – went bananas with faux outrage. “21 years? That’s three and a half months per victim”, they chanted, as if justice can be reduced to a question of Primary school arithmetic. He’ll be out in ten years because of some go-gooder social worker. He’ll fool the psychiatrists. He’s be in his fifties at the end of his sentence. Insane. Norway should be ashamed of itself.
I wish fuckers like these didn’t annoy me as much as they do, but they do. Oh my word they do. Quite apart from the fact that Breivik received the maximum sentence allowed by law of 21 years, with the possibility of that being extended indefinitely by 5 years at a time if he is still considered a danger to the public – which ensures that he will undoubtedley spend the rest of his life behind bars - the depressingly predictable calls for the rope, firing squad or being roasted on a spit totally ignored the fact that Breivik himself would probably embrace martyrdom like a long-lost idiot brother, thereby ensuring his immortality in the racist, survivalist community worldwide.
This outrage, based as it is in fear, is tremendously useful to the corporate governments of the west, since it validates a whole host of intrusive measures designed to “protect” us. Masquerading as “antiterrorism”, the governments of the UK and US have brought in a whole range of strategies that are more useful to them not because they control subversives, but because they control us. Phone-tapping, e-mail gathering, rendition, extra-judicial imprisonment, even worldwide torture chambers in countries that belong in the pits of hell are all part of a system that can seamlessly be tweaked to suppress the general population. And so hackers like Gary McKinnon and Ryan Cleary, whistle-blowers like Bradley Manning and even Julian Assange himself all find themselves up against a finely-tuned bureaucratic structure whose tentacles can now grasp anyone, anywhere, and whose outposts are as shadowy as anything in Solzhenitsyn’s Gulag Archipelago.
And, as such, we have been complicit in the victory of the terrorists to force us to change our ways, change our lives, abandon any pretence we ever had to democratic principles. In terrorism, the military, the secret services, the governments and the global corporate structures have found their best ever ally in their battle to control and to manipulate we, the people. And every time we cry, “String him up” or “What’s wrong with water boarding?” we cast our vote in support.
So, bless Norway for being the only Western country this century to truly stand up against terrorism, by mainaining its sanity and refusing to abandon its principles. They have ensured their democracy which was so cruelly attacked has survived not just intact, but immeasurably strengthened.
I can’t help comparing the hoo-ha over Julian Assange with that stain on the reputation of the Blair government, their failure to extradite General Augusto Pinochet in 2000 to Spain to face charges of torture.
I am as dubious as anyone about the case against Assange. The charges against him rest largely on him not using a condom during consensual sex with two women, one of whom threw a party for him after the event. Both women are linked to the US security services, apparently. But of course, charges of rape – even if that country’s definition of rape seems to be totally at odds with anything we would understand the term to mean – are hugely serious, and must be investigated. Assange must answer the charges, and has offered to do so if Swedish officers will come to the UK or if they will guarantee him safety from extradition to the US. They have refused.
But it’s nonsense to say it’s just about that: it is absolutely clear that the US has some stake in this, and will apply for Assange’s extradition when he is in Sweden. We’ve already seen that, while refusing to acknowledge international law in a whole raft of ways, such as the criminal court in the Hague, the US believes its law can be exported to other judicial systems; hence their demand for the extradition of hackers from the UK. In effect, international law for the US consists of US law being applied to preserve US interests wherever it wishes.
William Hague’s horrible “there will be no escape” pronouncements, then, are all part of keeping the US happy. It has nothing to do with international law or extradition treaties; it’s all about what the US wants. It was exactly the same in 2000, when, despite the highest court in the land ruling that Pinochet should be extradited to Spain to face torture charges and despite a swathe of international courts and governments supporting that, Jack Straw delayed and delayed and delayed the extradition until doctors could concoct a case for him being too ill to go to Spain. Funny – he was too ill to go to Spain, but well enough to travel to Chile, which is a bit like me saying the journey to Edinburgh is a bit wearing, so I’ll go to Berlin instead.
But of course, Pinochet was a pal of George W. Bush, seen as a still influential US ally amongst the red threat in South America. There was a message to be sent out, since no dictator would ever cooperate with the US again if they were going to be held responsible for crimes condoned and actively supported by the US in the future. Meanwhile, Margaret Thatcher saw him as the man who was willing to turn his country into one of the first testbeds of the Friedman economics that has dominated the world since the 1970s. There was no way the politicians were going to accede to the demands of the law in that case; Pinochet had to be protected.
So: if it is permissible to let a torturer slip through the legal net, why is the government so vexed about the story of an albeit rather arrogant guy who might have slipped up with a burst prophylactic? Of course, it’s to do with the establishment. Pinochet was part of it, part of the global power elite who are prepared to repress and torture and kill to maintain the status quo; Assange threatens it by providing a mechanism by which their grubby secrets – great and small – can be washed in public.
And by playing up the charges against Assange, it obviously draws attention away from and discredits Wikileaks.
The messenger is being shot. Just what Pinochet would have wanted.
In August 2001, just after “Occasional Demons” was published, I was asked by The Herald to nominate my five favourite books. Of course, in hindsight, I got (some of) it wrong; at the time I was into Ellroy and Leonard, and chose one of Eddie Bunker’s tough guy novels; then there was “Cloudsplitter”, a lovely historical novel about John Brown and the start of the American Civil War that should have been replaced by Timothy Mo’s magisterial tale of the Opium Wars, “An Insular Possession”. There were some that would still be on the list – “The Casanova Papers”, probably, and “The Silver Darlings” – but it was dominated by recent reads. There are books I’ve read since – like Kazuo Ishiguro’s masterpiece, “The Unconsoled” – which would definitely be on the list now, and a few I’ve read in the past that, for some reason, I overlooked: I still remember vividly enjoying “Cats Cradle”, which made the list, but what decision making process made me choose that over Pynchon’s “The Crying of Lot 49” or, biggest of them all, Iain Banks’ “The Wasp Factory”?
I read it when it came out in 1984. I was 26. And yet now, I get the sense that I read it when I was in my mid-teens, such is the influence it has quietly had on me. In my teens, I was an avid consumer of big blockbusters – Leon Uris was my favourite writer at the time – and I had a distinctly prudish streak: I remember buying Blatty’s “The Exorcist”. On opening it randomly, I discovered the word “cunt”, then found the crucifix masturbation scene. I broke out in a cold sweat, convinced that my mother would find me reading filth and clip me round the ear. I taped in inside an empty cardboard box and hid the box in a little secret nook in a cupboard. It may still be there, for all I know; what on earth will the new house owners think if they find it?
University brought the classics, and controversy was all very arty (Genet, Rochester) or scientific (“Homosexuality Studies” in Sociology) and so “The Wasp Factory” was a huge game changer. I think it’s the coolest, most influential Scottish novel ever written because of its determination to look anything in the face with a clear, amoral eye. That other great cultural event of the late Scottish 20th century, “Trainspotting” , never really did it for me, I’m afraid, because of the determination to glorify the unglorifiable; even Begbie is a character we are encouraged to revere. Not so with “The Wasp Factory”. Frank, Eric, their Mengele-like father, dwarves, pyrotechnic sheep and insect torture are all presented in the most deadpan of ways, and I think I learned that anything could be faced, anything lurking in the darkest corners of your imagination was story fodder. A girl who grows up believing she’s been castrated by a savage dog? Hell, why not?
I haven’t read much of Banks’ work since – his early novels up to “Crow Road”, the excellent “Transition” a couple of years ago – but I’ll always be grateful for “The Wasp Factory” because, I think, it may have had a big influence on how I write without me even knowing it.
Banks is a motormouth raconteur – I’m delighted to hear he lived in Gourock for many years, where I live now – and is humble about his own abilities and career, telling of his teenage novel attempts and his determination to write like Alistair Maclean but with lots of sex and violence. In the Q&A, he has little time for the literary / genre debate that rages at the moment – he is exactly the same writer whether he’s Iain Banks or Iain M. Banks, he says – and reveals that he is most probably proud of “The Bridge”, one I like too. Despite being an icon, he’s the most down to earth, nice bloke you could listen to. A real treat.
Weegie Wednesday is a social event for writers, publishers, editors and just about anyone who’s interested in networking in wordy circles. One of the leading lights is the smashing Liz Small who worked tirelessly on behalf of the 11:9 books when they were published. Nice too to see Alex Cox of the Glasgow Writers’ Group, and Weegie Wednesday organiser J. David Simons, who I am even more envious of now that I know he is a very good friend of my favourite writer, Kazuo Ishiguro. Wish I had a pal like that…
“Chelsea Station”, the New York literary magazine for gay writing, is out now. At over 110 pages of writing, it’s a bumper edition of fiction, memoir, travel writing and poetry. It’s available either as print or as downloadable pdf here.
It includes my story, “The Beauty that Brendan Sees”, which tells of the friendship between Brendan and Larry over twenty years. I don’t usually pass comment on my own work, but it feels to me one of the best short stories I’ve ever written: certainly, it’s one of the gentlest, and is as near as I’ve ever got to being uplifting.
Here’s an extract to give a flavour:
He met Larry at Elazio’s cigar emporium off Madison Avenue in the days when he was young and searching for props to make him seem older, more distinguished, more masculine. He’d been fussing over some cheap cigars when he felt the big man loom up behind him, put a hand on his shoulder. “Hey, Elazio,” a booming voice said to the little wizened man behind the counter who resembled a nut-brown tobacco leaf, “looks like the young gentleman’s a beginner. Show him the good ones so he gets a real taste.” He winked at Brendan and shooed Elazio away to bring out some of the contrabands he’d got by a roundabout route through Canada from his wife’s cousin’s neighbour’s business in Havana. “No point not having the best, son,” he said, “and this place has the best, if you know how to look for it. Hell, the only thing this shop don’t have is a sweaty set of mulatto girl’s thighs. Not that I’d have much use else for them.” He smacked his lips in the lascivious way that Brendan soon discovered made everyone say, “Oh, Laurence!”
He rolls the cigar as he lights it, puff, puff, puff. It relaxes him and he realises he is looking forward to the end game. In the background, Amalia Rodriguez sings; he and Larry saw her once, long before that time she came to New York to kill herself and couldn’t do it. They watched her wring herself empty, and Larry said anyone that miserable had to be a dyke, but he was joking and he’d enjoyed it because he was content to wait with Brendan amongst a small knot of common people outside the stage door to get her autograph. She is singing a happy tune, light; Brendan doesn’t understand Portuguese, but he knows for sure it is about orange groves and beaches with little fishing boats dragged up on to the sand. Hearts are broken in fado, and hearts are mended; this is one of the mending songs.
“Hey, Brendan, you ever realise smoking cigars gave Cuba its name?” Larry once asked him.
“What do you mean?”
“Go on. Say coo.”
“Feel it? The shape your mouth makes?”
“Like a kiss.”
“Na, man. More like a suck. Now say baa.”
“Just like exhaling. Coo-baa. Coo-baa. You say it every time you take a draw of you cigar.”
“Kind of oral, these Cubans.”
“Yeah,” he said. “Ain’t I the lucky one?”
At about a fiver for the digital issue, it’s well worth it. With material from all over the world included, it’s another fine outlet for writers. Take a look.
New Writing Scotland 30 is out now, and very interesting it looks too. You can buy it here: NWS30.
My story, “Spree Killer” tells of one day in the life of Duane, an underemployed, divorced, impoverished Texan with a chip on his shoulder and a semi-automatic rifle, and of his efforts to buy the meat for his friend’s barbecue.
Here’s an extract to give you a flavour:
“He drains the beer bottle, kicks open the back door, tosses the empty at the dumspter at the back of the duplex. It misses, bounces high in the air off the back wall, comes down hard on the metal edge, shatters, spraying glass everywhere. The old guy upstairs, not so bad, but he walks his poodle out back in the evening, he’ll moan like crazy bout the glass. Duane takes a broom, crosses the dusty yard where nothin’s ever grown and brushes the glass under the dumpster. If the poodle gets under there, it’s its own fault, he reckons, though its okay, belonged to the wife afore she died. Not a good dog, not a huntin dog, but it keeps quiet and shits in its own corner of the yard.
The guy’s an old vet, not even from Vietnam or Korea but from the German war, which was like fuckin way back, was the first in to one of those concentration camps, piles of dead hebes and walkin skeletons. Duane woulda liked to’ve seen that, the piles of hebes and those Germans with their hands behind their heads and shittin their pants, and Duane woulda taken his machine gun, big Browning 50 calibre, and spread those motherfuckers’ guts all over the place. The old guy gets misty when he talks bout it though, says it was the worst time ever, but Duane’s brother was in the first Gulf war and he came back wrecked, shakes and sickness specially in winter, just couldn’t keep the food in his belly, heavin all the time until he blew his brains out in a doss house in Denver with a Saturday night special he bought offa some nigger crack dealer, so Duane reckons the old guy couldn’ta had it that bad. Yeah, Duane woulda liked to’ve seen that, seen what the old guy’d saw.
He’d better go get the meat, though fuck knows it could go off by the afternoon in this heat. He’ll swing by Barney’s first, grab a coupla beers, see who’s around, get some ice to pack the meat. He racks up the Woodsmaster in the cab, clears out the burger wrappers on the floor so Jonelle won’t make that screwed up face she makes, climbs in. It’s a rust heap, this fuckin thing, and it burns through rubber fast, but the engine’s good, big 5 litre V8 with that Nip transmission, solid.
The solenoid’s been playing up, almost shot, so it just clicks dead and he has to spark it with a screwdriver, but then it just ticks over sweet. Jonelle says he should get rid of it, it’s too thirsty and he only uses the bed but once or twice a year when he’s gone deer huntin, but he’s not goin for some European compact like hers cos he’s a man and she’s a schoolteacher, and he says he might stretch to a station wagon but he can’t afford it right now. “You can’t afford not to,” she says, “that thing’s just gonna eat money,” but she wants to go shoppin with him for a new car, she’d co-sign the loan, she says, but he don’t want that, don’t want saddled with obligations to her and her weirdo kid yet.
Down the road he’s trailin dust, fast past that fence hopper’s place, the one that drives the el Camino like some pimp, the one picked a fight with Duane down at Barney’s and Duane kicked his ass and almost popped his eye, took the guy’s switchbade off him and damn near dug it right out of its socket till Barney stopped him and they threw the wetback’s ass off the lot and told him not to come back. The guy don’t look Duane’s road now. He hacks hard, spits at the guy’s yard, drives on. The guy has a car in the yard, rust and dents, parts for the Camino.”
I had a lot of fun getting inside Duane’s head: hope you enjoy it enough to buy the book and support the ASLS.
No, I haven’t got my arithmetic wrong: I actually have given Deolinda six stars out of five. It’s my blog, I can do anything I want: so stick.
Deolinda are, of course, that wonderful Portuguese band I have blogged about before and who I adore because of the sheer sunshine of their music. I catch them doing a Taste the World session, and it’s really amusing to see their stage dynamic replicated in the kitchen. Singer Ana Bacalhau is up front, elbowing everyone out of the way, chatting away nineteen to the dozen; lead guitarist Luis José Martins quietly gets on with the important stuff as he’s obviously the talented cook (his father was apparently a chef); meanwhile, Luis’ brother, songwriter and guitarist Pedro da Silva Martins, and bass player Zé Pedro Leitão, who is Ana’s husband, beaver away quietly in the background preparing the ingredients for the dishes and organising the salad.
It’s a lovely way to spend an hour, watching your heroes cook. They take it very seriously, rustling up some patinishkas (I have no idea if that’s spelled correctly) which are salted cod bajhias, along with various salads. The guys get on with the cooking while Ana charms everyone by talking about their career and their relationship with fado (“We don’t do fado,” she says, “but fado is in our DNA”); at one point, she talks about the band crafting their sound and their songs to suit her voice, and that makes absolute sense. They perform four numbers, my favourites being the breathlessly beautiful “Passou Por Mim“, a lovely little tale about a smile from a stranger brightening up a lost life and offering hope for love, and “Mal Por Mal“, a swinging calypso about a disjointed, fractured relationship in which the wellbeing of one drags down the other.
Their stage slot just doesn’t do them justice: they take to the Siam tent at 12.30am, the last show of the day, when half the crowd are drunk and noisy and just not willing to pay attention to an acoustic band. They deserve better, but they do their best, which is, as always, fantastic.
Ana Bacalhau sure has a sense of dress. She often plays ironically on her surname – for their live concert recorded at the Lisbon Coliseu, she wore an odd creation reminiscent of shellfish – and here she appears dressed in a little black jacket and a sherbert-lemon tutu dress with what looks like a fish motif in large glossy sequins. Sounds hideous? Well, she looks fantastically adorable; I hear a few “wows” muttered behind me. And of course, there’s that sweet, strutting, cheeky streetkid presence that immediately commands affection and she begins to win the war against the bubbling horde.
I know that you can only really appreciate a band singing in another language if you either understand the language or know the music: for me, it’s the latter, so I’ve got the CDs with translated lyrics and I’ve watched the live DVD with the English subtitles on. Therefore, I know just how clever a songwriter Martins is, and how brilliantly his creations suit Bacalhau’s delivery. A song like “A Problemática Colocação De Um Mastro” is a terrifically subversive tale of a small town council puffing itself up by celebrating their enormous flagpole, one of those apocryphal morality fables that could have come from a writer like Louis de Bernieres, Italo Calvino or even Iain Crichton Smith. Their music is hugely political, but at the micropolitical rather than the macropolitical level: in that respect, they are not unlike Frank Yamma. Thus, “Parve Que Sou” is a red hot indictment of the austerity measures which are crippling the lives of young Portuguese, telling of a young woman habituated into blaming herself for her lack of opportunities who heart-breakingly comes to realise that the system has lied to her all her life. I’ve always said Deolinda make me smile so widely; they can make me weep with rage and sadness too.
But mainly they are fun, fun, fun: they’re the kids on the block who will drag their pals out to play in the streets until dusk, which is exactly what they do on the impossibly catchy “Um Contra O Outro” (“Come with me out to the street / Because that life you have / As much as you win a thousand lives, it’s your life / that loses if you don’t come!”); they are the youngsters who gather in restaurants and drink and joke and sing their hearts out until they’re kicked out at closing time; they’re the wry, witty cool dudes who constantly burst the bubbles of the arrogant and self-important, in so many songs like “Fado Toninho” or “Patinho De Borracha”. They must be a hoot on a night out.
I just have a few complaints. First, when I met them in Manchester, they said they were playing WOMAD, and so I booked up to get there on Thursday. I then discover they were playing Glasgow’s RCH on that night. So, instead of seeing my favourite band in my home town, I was 400 miles away. I could have come down on Friday and seen them twice in three days, dammit!
Secondly, at the end of the Taste the World events, there is an unholy scrum to get a taste of the food that has been cooked: you wouldn’t believe how sharp some hippies’ elbows are, nor how psychopathic they are about free food. So I hang back a bit, and never get a taste of anything they’ve made. And Luis José’s patinishkas looked lovely too.
Thirdly, there is one song on their second album, “Há Dias Que Não São Dias”, a sultry, flamenco-tinged slow burner about the pain of passion that is utterly gorgeous, and which I haven’t yet heard live.
Next time, I hope. Although, by then, their third album may well be released (around next February, Ana promises) so I may have a whole new set of songs I’m desperate to hear.
Already, I can’t wait.
ps – thanks Ana! She let me know through Facebook they are called pataniscas, and I’ve managed to find a recipe here!
Blick Bassy is a talented young man from Cameroon, which is perhaps unfortunate for him: earlier in the day, Kayrece Fotso, who charms everyone she meets, has some pretty scathing things to say about Cameroonian men. Still, he seems like a nice guy, so we won’t hold that against him…
He has a lovely voice, similar to Smokey Robinson, and his band set up some great Brazilian-tinged West African jazz-funk. However, it’s just a bit too samey for me: the programme promises something really different, assuring us that there will be no stereotypical bass solos; and yet, that’s exactly what we do get, even if the bass solos are fantastic. The band – and I can’t find credits for them anywhere on the internet, dammit – are very good indeed, especially a French guitarist who, in his looks and style and mannerisms, is the spitting image of Tom Cruise but is obviously not a dick or a cult member.
Perhaps I’m tired, perhaps I’m just impatient waiting for Deolinda who come on next, but this kind of washes over me – in a nice way, of course, like soothing warm water in a deep, deep bath.
I obviously have dribbly festival showers on my mind.