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In good company

SOHO SQUARE VII: New Scottish Writing. Edited by Harry Ritchie. Bloomsbury Paperbacks, #9.99. Scottish Sea Stories. Selected by Glen Murray. Polygon, #9.99.

NOT being part of the Bloomsbury set puts me in distinguished company.

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``I did try to persuade Iain Banks, James Kelman, Liz Lochhead, and Muriel Spark to provide contributions but no amount of pleas or threats could alter the fact that they felt they had no contributions to provide,'' writes Harry Ritchie in his Introduction. William McIlvanney is not here, nor are Allan Massie, Agnes Owens, Alan Spence, or Dilys Rose. And if New means younger than 35, Angela McSeverney and Graham Fulton are also missing. There are some wonderful things in this collection, which can do nothing but enhance many of the contributors' reputations, but the ordinary and prosaic are also here and in many places it reads as though people were selected on the basis of previous performances rather than submission. Candia McWilliam's story is the best I have read in a very long time. Set in Oban and possibly a metaphor for the country, it is spare and beautifully written. Shredding the Icebergs carries a hauntingly dark picture of small-town mentalities and restrictions, told by an articulate and intelligent woman whose life has been defined by the place as clearly as by herself. It underlines entrapment and lack of choice. Carol Ann Duffy gives Quasimodo a wife. Her account of their life together is uncomfortable in its acceptance of the pathetic. The ``music'' of the bells is ``murdered'' in an act of ultimate despair by Quasimodo's wife, who is the antithesis of the ``well-formed'' beauty with ``thighs of lard'' and ``wobbling gut''. Duffy knows the weak spots in the common female psyche and ruthlessly exploits them. The difficulty in compiling an anthology of Scottish sea stories would appear to be a lack of material, though we are assured this is not the case. ``There is more good Scottish sea writing omitted than included and many aspects of Scots maritime experience are overlooked,'' says Glen Murray in his preface. ``A comprehensive anthology with the same title would be a vastly bigger book.'' This is as far as he goes in explaining his selection process other than to tell us he omitted obvious and readily accessible pieces. I would have liked some mention of the aspects he overlooked as well as an explanation of why they were not included, for he has taken extracts from novels, journals, diaries, and biographies as well as stories to render our relationship with something which ``delineates Scotland by a coastline so irregular and so deeply indented that its length is very great for such a small country''. The editor's casual definition of maritime writing includes a story which is not about the sea at all and three folk-tales which have been retold in a language that emulsifies them of anything other than feyness. They long for a voice, for direct language, and narrative power to lift them above their limitations. Many of these extracts obviously read as such; they have an unfinished random air about them, appearing almost incomplete as observations, lacking the focus of single-subject investigations. The positive side of this selection process is that it shows how the seaboats and sailing, work rather than travel or leisure has permeated our consciousness to the extent that it is almost absorbed in the national psyche, the way it is absorbed in a variety of narratives. It is in Stevenson's autobiographical account of underwater engineering at Wick, the strong and rebarbative extract from MacDougall Hay's Gillespie, and Neil Gunn's memoir of landing sheep on the Flannan Isles, which amply compensate for a number of flaccid or unresolved pieces. Edward Gaitens's wonderful story The Sailing Ship beautifully interplays reality and fantasy, the way many simply exchanged harshness and poverty on land and sea with a realism and dialogue that could have been written by James Kelman. George Mackay Brown's The Ferryman underlines his ability to find the world at home.

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