The Scottish Review of Books Review: Strip The Willow
In David Nokes’s study of eighteenth-century satire, Raillery and Rage, a question is posed. “What literary (his italics) pleasure or edification is to be gained from works whose primary purpose may often appear to have been the excoriation of some topical vice, or the exposure of some ephemeral vanity?”
This question will, in the future, be asked of writing furiously inspired by the 1990 Year of Cultcha, an event which, to many Glaswegian writers, did not so much revive Glasgow as turn her into a circus elephant. It will also be asked of John Aberdein’s new book, for although his betrayed city, as his name suggests, is Aberdeen, it is to this tradition that Strip the Willow belongs.
In Aberdein’s case, Nokes’ question is easy to answer. Literary pleasure lies firstly in the author’s mastery of language, for which the adulatory epithets attached to his first book, Amande’s Bed, winner of the Saltire First Book of the Year Award in 2005, are still pertinent. His “great river-rush”, zestiness and vibrancy have not deserted him. Post-Archie Hinds, then Kelman, et al, Aberdein’s flipping in and out of dialect – “So fit’s this ye’ve got yir heid stuck intae noo? – may no longer be groundbreaking but still manages to feel like an act of war against Tom Leonard’s “po-faced literati”. His characters, originals all, speak as they find, also occasionally in French. Reading the dialogue aloud reveals, too, a controlled and particularly Scottish wryness, a wryness that does not erupt into full-blown anger until the finale. Only occasionally in Strip the Willow] does Aberdein leap out of his study and into the pulpit, though you feel the pull is always there – Aberdein is a Tommy Sheridan style political activist, after all.
There is a further, more Joycean, pleasure to be had in Aberdein’s richness of allusion, though just as with Joyce, pleasure is mixed with terror. The contemporary references are easy enough. Though the word ‘trumped’ does not appear until page 154, it flashes like a beacon over Rookie Marr who, as the council “sell oot”, knows how to “take a readymade city, lock it to one’s purpose, and shaft it for all it was worth”. However, like teabags into boiling water, Aberdein drops other literary nuggets into the text, swelling and enriching his tale in the best Augustan style. Right to the end I remained half crippled with fear that I was missing clever echoes and twists, particularly in the names. I got Ludwig, Kepler, NuLot and Oedibus, but did not feel I grasped the full multi-lingual resonances of LeopCorp and all its spin-offs or of Peem (photoemission electron microscopy, to generate image contrast?) Are Andy Endrie and Professor Zander Petrakis of special significance? Perhaps I am blind or perhaps, once in the swing, I just looked for too much.
The plot requires the reader’s full attention, for the book is aptly named. Aberdein offers a true strip-the-willow, with characters, some of whom reprise earlier creations, whirled into momentary interlockings, departures and reunions, all of which turn out to be the continuation of a dance begun long before. The City of Aberdeen’s history is woven into hopes born in Paris in 1968, with stone throwing students as midwives. Integral to the personal stories of Lucy, Alison, Gwen and Peem is the rape of a city, not just from without by a moneyman but from within, by greedy city fathers and those who, through passivity, ambition or coercion, embrace a new world according to lottery, or, as Aberdein might say, go with the GrottoLotto flow. The May Day denouement, momentous with “mortified herring”, brings the nasty rich into direct confrontation with the more virtuous poor.
For all its imaginative vigour and modern references, however, Strip the Willow actually glows in a slightly old-fashioned light, mainly because its political territory is well worn. Disillusion with a Labour government for whom “UbSpec Total, the public-private partner of the City’s ReCreation and Social Engineering Department”, is barely a spoof, is now very familiar. More interesting to know, through his fiction, where Aberdein goes from here. Of this he himself seems unsure, which is why, I imagine, Strip the Willow is open-ended, its small revolution not yet secure and no blueprint for a better future offered, either for Aberdeen or for Scotland.
Perhaps his next work will do this job, breaking new ground, not just ideologically but also in literary style and tone. I mean no disrespect when I say that even satirical dystopia can proffer a slight whiff of kailyard. Of course novelists are not obliged to offer anything but their own imaginations and, as Strip the Willow joyously proves, Aberdein has plenty of imagination to offer. However, if he has something more, his readers will be anxious to hear it.
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- Paperback - Polygon
For years council officer Lucy has felt alone, but as predatory LeopCorp twists the city to its global will, her instinct to resist becomes tangled with a deep call from the past. A wounded, ragged stranger comes to town - but can Lucy's heart reopen in time to save herself and her city?