Al­ter­na­tive Scot­lands

The Herald Magazine - - Arts BOOKS -

Run­ning through the Panop­ti­con au­thor’s new book of po­etry is the theme of the mag­i­cal roots of lan­guage, its pri­mal power as an in­vo­ca­tion to al­ter men­tal states and af­fect one’s sur­round­ings. For Fa­gan, writ­ing is a vis­ceral ac­tiv­ity, a re­con­nec­tion with the phys­i­cal rather than a flight away from it, and these are earthy, el­e­men­tal po­ems in which words are likened to flesh and punc­tu­a­tion marks to ar­rows that pierce them.

Love is both a dis­tant, elu­sive heal­ing force and a fully present tem­pest of ten­der­ness and ag­gres­sion with its fin­gers around her throat. The over­ar­ch­ing mood of dark in­ter­nal tur­moil makes the long­est poem here, a memo­rial to the men­tal pa­tients of Ban­gour Hospi­tal a cen­tury ago, even more dis­turb­ing and op­pres­sive, but the fact that Fa­gan was liv­ing in Paris for much of this time, bask­ing in the pres­ence of many great writ­ers be­fore her, brings some airi­ness and shafts of sun­light into this pow­er­ful col­lec­tion.

Cult mu­si­cian Mo­mus (Nick Cur­rie) brought this book out in 2009 and copies of the first run now change hands for silly money. In this edi­tion, he imag­ines hordes of wildly di­verse al­ter­na­tive Scot­lands. Some are summed up in one line, like “The Scot­land whose ‘Auld Al­liance’ was with Ice­land” or “The Scot­land in which forests move about, ful­fill­ing an an­cient prophecy”. Other en­tries are longer and more elab­o­rate, hy­poth­e­sis­ing the ex­is­tence of Scot­lands that are so­cial­ist, hy­per-cap­i­tal­ist or in­tensely in­su­lar. But they’re largely flights of fancy rather than hav­ing any ob­vi­ous po­lit­i­cal point. In an al­ter­na­tive 1970s, for in­stance, Ger­man mu­si­cians make pil­grim­ages to Ed­in­burgh to ex­pe­ri­ence a for­merly fas­cist city di­vided by a wall.

Else­where, a clas­si­cally ob­sessed aris­toc­racy im­poses its Gre­cian ob­ses­sions on the peas­antry. Strik­ing notes that are even more res­o­nant now, Mo­mus casts Scot­land as a spring­board for the imag­i­na­tion and a land of pos­si­bil­i­ties, how­ever bizarre.

What are the chances? It’s yet an­other al­ter­na­tive Scot­land, although Stornoway’s Mal­colm Mackay sticks with this one as the back­drop for an en­tire novel. In this world, the Union of 1707 never took place and Scot­land flour­ished as a great trad­ing na­tion un­til the early 20th cen­tury. The hub of this ex­pan­sion was the north­west port of Chal­laid, now mired in cor­rup­tion.

Fledg­ling pri­vate de­tec­tive Dar­ian Ross takes on the case of a woman whose money-laun­der­ing boyfriend has been mur­dered. The plot it­self is a fairly stan­dard pulpy noir set-up, which never seems to hit the heights it’s aim­ing for. More in­ter­est­ing is how the crime is wo­ven into the cul­ture and pol­i­tics of this imag­i­nary land, and how dis­tanced Chal­laid is from the more “angli­cised” south­ern Scot­land, de­spite be­ing the coun­try’s eco­nomic pow­er­house. It has its mo­ments, but ul­ti­mately comes across as an ex­per­i­ment that fell short of its po­ten­tial.

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