By Stanley Roger Green

The Saltire Society, £7.99

ACCORDING to UNESCO, Edinburgh is a "World City of Literature". I am still to be convinced. It is, to be sure, a world city of bestselling novelists, whose literary credentials have yet to be identified. In the decades immediately after the second world war, however, Edinburgh was a city in which literature was respected and thrived and was part of the ether, even if its key figures - Sydney Goodsir Smith, Robert Garioch, Norman MacCaig, Tom Scott, George Mackay Brown and the Langholm Vesuvius, Hugh MacDiarmid - never threatened to make a proper living from their endeavours. MacCaig, for example, could not have kept bread on the family's table with what he earned from his poetry.

Not that any of the above-mentioned were under any illusions about their chosen paths. For them, most of whom were primarily poets, writing was not a profession but a vocation, a way of life. If that sounds hopelessly romantic, so be it. But in all the time I knew MacCaig I never heard him once mention money or talk about publishers, or refer to coverage of his work in what then passed for the media. His job, his raison d'être, was to write poems; all the rest was flim-flam.

Stanley Roger Green was on the fringes of what have become known as the Rose Street poets, who coagulated around Milne's, the Abbotsford and, to a lesser extent, Paddy's Bar. As he says of them: "You couldn't have swung a claymore in these pubs without decapitating half-a-dozen geniuses." Green was younger than them and in their awe. Who would not have been? Some, such as Scott, Goodsir Smith and MacCaig, he knew better than others, perhaps because they were Edinburgh residents. For three years Green was a lodger in Scott's flat in the New Town, where the only house rule was: "If you have a party, tell guests to keep out of my bed." Once, in 1959, between Christmas and Hogmanay, a fellow lodger blew his brains out in the flat with a shotgun to the sound of Wagner's Liebestodt.

Through such anecdotes, Green evokes an Edinburgh reminiscent of bohemian Dublin in the 1950s and 1960s recreated in Anthony Cronin's Dead As Doornails. It was a very different place from that of today: darker, sootier, with fewer cars; more provincial, closer-knit, austerely beautiful. Most importantly, the pubs closed at 10pm, after which the boozers might repair to MacCaig's flat in Leamington Terrace, scene of many high jinks and arguments, some literary, some personal. Green is good at showing how the poets interacted, and delineating where the fault lines lay; less so at sticking to his subject. Often a chapter starts with a portrait of one or other of the poets and then meanders off at a tangent. A little tighter focus would not have gone amiss.

The book is dedicated to Stella Cartwright, "The Muse of Rose Street", who featured prominently in Maggie Fergusson's prize-winning biography of Mackay Brown. Green knew her well if, perhaps, not intimately. He recalls that on their first meeting they went back to his digs where they shared a bed but did not consummate their relationship. The insinuation is that they never did.

Cartwright was a teenager when she first encountered the Rose Street coterie, to whom she was introduced by her father, an architect and friend of MacCaig's. In this almost entirely male company she must have stuck out like a tulip in a field of thistles. One after another, it seems, they fell for her, and she had affairs with at least three of them. Green absolves two, Garioch (who was "incapable of infidelity") and MacDiarmid (who was "getting on for 70").

Apart from Mackay Brown, her other confirmed lovers were Scott and Goodsir Smith. But one by one they drifted away, or she drifted away from them, and she sunk into alcoholism. By the time she died, aged 48, in 1985, the end of an era was beckoning. Edinburgh was changing and so, too, was its literary scene. None of the poets, says Green, attended Cartwright's funeral. One wonders why. It is a reminder that more work needs to be done on this pungent and significant period in the nation's literary history.


Halldor Gudmundsson, translated from the Icelandic by Philip Roughton

Vintage, £30

Reviewed by Theresa Munoz

Halldor Laxness may not be a household name in Britain, but to Iceland he is a hero of literature, a cultural icon who gave his small, isolated country a voice and identity. The author of more than 60 books, including The Fish Can Sing and Independent People, Laxness was also a keen globe-trotter, frequently away from Iceland but always writing about home. His colourful life that spanned most of the 20th century is described in The Islander, a meticulous biography by Halldor Gudmundsson and translated by Philip Roughton.

Halldor Laxness was not born with the surname Laxness - that is his pen name, and Laxnes is his home town. Born in 1902 as Halldor Gudjonsson, he was more inclined to stay indoors and write than help with the family chores, as was expected of him. At the age of seven he claimed that Christ appeared to him by a large stone behind his house. That vision led to his first work of art, a 600-page opus called Dawn. These, and a publication in a Canadian-based magazine for children called Sunshine, are the highlights of his early years.

As his biographer, Gudmundsson slips in ideas about Laxness's personality. Laxness desired constant change and deep spiritual fulfillment. He did not stay in one place for too long, and liked to travel alone. As a young man he lived for a time in a Luxembourg monastery, where he composed religious poems. Later he replaced Catholicism with communism, which resulted in two long spells in the Soviet Union and a seat in the audience of the Moscow trials.

Gudmundsson emphasises Laxness's interest in assuming identities. As a 17-year old in Copenhagen, Laxness purposely dressed like an older gentleman in a hat, cane and glasses. When he was baptised as a Catholic in 1923, he adopted the name of Halldor Kiljan Marie Pierre Laxness. In Hollywood, while trying to find work as a script writer and failing, Laxness told others to call him Hall d'Or.

Some days his life seemed less than golden. In his early 20s, Laxness got a woman pregnant. He never connected emotionally with his first daughter, Maria, whose picture is included in the biography. While in Los Angeles in 1929, his passport was taken away after being accused of writing articles in which he called Americans "idiots". In 1948 he was accused of gross tax fraud, for not accounting for the publication of his books abroad.

Other days were especially bright. In 1953, he accepted the World Peace Council Prize in Vienna where he proudly told his audience: "Never before has an international literary award found its way to Iceland." As Gudmundsson tells us, this was a dress rehearsal for his 1955 win of the Nobel Prize for literature. At the ceremony in Stockholm, Swedish papers reported that "no other award recipient had ever bowed as deeply as the Icelandic writer."

But the real fuel behind Laxness's writing is his relationship with his home country. Though impatient with Iceland for its slow urban development, he decided after a trip to America that his role in life was to write about Icelandic people, for the rest of the world to read.

And around the world, Laxness's writing was well-received. Herman Hesse and Thomas Mann praised the storyteller. Karen Blixen told him that his books moved her to tears. Of his book Atom Station, Che Guevera asked: "Does it give the correct picture of life in Iceland?" But the meeting that seemed to mean the most to Laxness was his audience with Pope John XXIII in 1963, shortly before the pontiff's death.

Though this translated version of Gudmundsson's biography has been edited and abridged, the author's life is still vividly recounted. Perhaps it helps that Gudmundsson had "unfettered access" to Laxness's archive, a fact he mentions in his acknowledgements.

Detailed chapters and powerful quotes allow for an honest assessment of the author's career. There could be more pictures of the fair-haired, beaky-nosed Laxness, but Gudmundsson's critical opinions of the author's life and work are probably worth more.


By Edward Stourton

Hodder and Stoughton, £14.99

Reviewed by Geoffrey Elborn

THERE is something Alice in Wonderland-like about Edward Stourton's introduction to his survey of Political Correctness. In it, he remarks, it is his intention to confuse the reader, for "such is the importance" of his subject, "muddleheadness is the only possible way to respond to it." If this seems unsatisfactory, then so be it.

Stourton's interest in PC was sparked by an audience with the Queen Mother, when she called the leaders of the EEC "Huns, Wops and Dagos". He concluded she was "a ghastly old bigot". In contrast, on the Today programme, he interviewed a British general in the aftermath of the Iraq war, who later apologised for using the phrase "nigger in the woodpile". Stourton felt the general, whom he knew, had only made a slip and the use of the phrase did not typify him as a racist. The same could not be said of the Queen Mother.

It's A PC World was written in an attempt to explain the difference. In this, Stourton does not quite succeed, although he makes a valiant effort. By challenging the traditional use of language, political correctness seems to limit freedom of speech. Increasingly, for many people, we live in a PC world gone mad.

Political correctness is not an ideology in itself, and the term has no exact definition. The author traces the origins of the phenomenon which proliferated as a reaction to Reaganism and Thatcherism. There is little common dissent about its general principles, but Stourton condemns the meddling self righteous guardians of minorities, who impose their views on others, taking their idea of what it's acceptable to say to ludicrous degrees, by extracting offensive meanings from language when none was ever intended.

Some of the examples are hilarious, such as the American couple who tried to prosecute a school that taught "incorrect" values, by reading their child Goldilocks, where the heroine should have been punished for breaking and entering and stealing porridge. Sense prevailed and they failed. Often, ardent campaigners for political correctness for the disabled actually cause them more harm than good by re-defining old familiar terms as humiliating. "Short" is an accurate description of someone who is not tall, but the PC "vertically challenged" is plainly derogatory.

As a broadcaster, Stourton cares about the precise use of language, invoking Humpty Dumpty in Alice In Wonderland: "When I use a word, it means just what I choose it to mean - neither more nor less." He does not endorse "'tis summer the darkies are gay" from The Old Kentucky Home, but is concerned how the obsession to be PC has stifled creative, original expression and the freedom of open debate. That said, Stourton is in favour of political correctness when it raises sympathetic public awareness. But he acknowledges that when it merges with religious correctness it can be dangerous, especially in the current climate.

For instance, tabloid newspapers ignorantly misrepresent the Islamic attitude to Christian celebration of Christmas without checking their facts. The result is that some gullible public bodies modify celebrations for fear of offending non-Christians. This in turn, however, encourages racist feelings towards Muslims, the opposite of what was originally intended.

Stourton offers no simple conclusion to this muddleheaded subject. Instead he quotes his stepdaughter, who remarked that political correctness is "what you are meant to think". Finally, he sticks his neck out to say that for those who try to limit the way we write, speak and think, "in the name of their social and political goals ... you threaten the very values you claim to promote. Go boil your heads". How very un-PC of him.


Lucy Moore is an author, historian and journalist. Her previous books include Amphibious Thing: The Adventures Of A Georgian Rake. Her latest book, Anything Goes: A Biography Of The Roaring Twenties, examines the hedonistic, booming decade that ended with the Wall Street Crash of 1929 and the Great Depression.

Which books are beside your bed at the moment?

I'm reading a rather academic book about Emily Dickinson's garden and how it influenced her poetry, and Richard Mason's latest novel The Lighted Rooms. Both wonderful in utterly different ways. Also a book of Sylvia Plath's poems, as I'm trying to memorise a poem a month.

Which writer makes you despair of your own abilities?

Vladimir Nabokov is a dazzlingly intimidating writer. For non-fiction it would be Jenny Uglow, for her choice of subjects as well as the way she writes about them.

Which book would you recommend to everyone on Earth?

I can't imagine that the collected works of Shakespeare wouldn't speak to something in almost everyone.

With which literary character did you first identify?

Cathy in Wuthering Heights. I think it should come with an age certificate of 30 on the cover; Bronte's vision of love as agony is too persuasive for impressionable young readers.

Which book do you remember being read to you as a child?

The Mouse With The Daisy Hat, sadly long out of print.

Which is the most overrated book you have ever read?

Although Martin Amis's non-fiction is wonderful, I find his novels unreadable. But I can't say I've actually tried to finish one.

What was the first thing you wrote that you were proud of?

I wrote and illustrated a story about a beautiful princess when I was about eight, and I was very proud of it indeed.

Do you have any rituals or superstitions as a writer?

Lots of cups of tea going cold on the table beside me.

Do you have any guilty secrets or pleasures as a reader?

I love Georgette Heyer and Jilly Cooper, but I don't feel the slightest bit guilty about it.

Do you see any parallels between the 1920s and today?

So many: the addiction to easy credit; the fear of outsiders; cults of youth and hedonism and excess; the exaltation of celebrities; staggering political complacency. What I find curious now is that while I was writing - I finished the book in October 2007 - I wasn't interested in what happened after the crash, just in the boom years. Now of course all we want to do is look past 1929 to see what happened next.

Anything Goes: A Biography Of The Roaring Twenties by Lucy Moore, Atlantic Books, £19.99