Book review: The Quarry by Iain Banks

ImageYou may have heard already that The Quarry is a very sad book. It isn’t.

Well, okay. It is a bit sad. One of the main characters is dying of cancer, after all. It’s also very sad that the author Iain Banks was dying of cancer when he wrote it. This was apparently a strange and tragic coincidence. Banks was only diagnosed when he was quite close to finishing the book. It’s also sad that as he has now died, this will be his last ever novel. But the book itself is, for the most part, not a sad one.

The narrator is Kit. Kit is eighteen and lives with his father Guy in a remote country house which backs onto a quarry. Kit is in some ways like Frank, the “hero” of Banks’ 1984 debut novel The Wasp Factory. He lives an isolated existence with his father and is very “different” from most other people. But there the similarities end. Unlike Frank, Kit has normal sexual appetites. He has Asperger’s or something like it, a fact not mentioned specifically until quite far into the book although obvious from the start. He is also (unlike Frank) not homicidal and his father is the one dying of cancer. The action centres on a farewell visit by a group of Guy’s old Uni friends, one of whom may or may not be Kit’s mother. There is also an added mystery (another “quarry” for the characters to search for). Where is a missing tape? Why is it so important and what is on it?

As he demonstrated with Stonemouth, Banks is good at writing about younger people. Kit is a convincing (socially disabled) teenager and even the other characters are well below Banks’ age when he died (fifty nine). Banks has always done reunions, piss ups and lively political discussions well and there are plenty here.

“Look me in the eye, you twat, and tell me you weren’t tempted to vote for him (Boris Johnson),” says one character. “Especially against Ken; you’re more of a Blairite than that lying, war-mongering scumbag is himself.”

Kit is also a master of HeroSpace, a brilliantly realised World of Warcraft-type game as convincing as any of the fictional games Banks created as a backdrop to Complicity, The Steep Approach To Garbadale or in the Culture novel The Player of Games.

The book doesn’t stint on the cancer either. Kit describes the disease: “Cancer makes bits of you grow that are supposed to have stopped growing after a certain point, crowding out the bits you need to keep on living, if you’re unlucky, if the treatments don’t work.” This is as succinct and precise an explanation of cancer as any I can think of. Kit also muses that wiping another person’s bottom is (once one overcomes the initial disgust) more practical than everyone wiping their own .“I can’t see this catching on though,” he concludes.

This is ultimately a great send off for a Scottish writer as great as Conan Doyle or Robert Louis Stevenson, a science fiction writer in the class of HG Wells and a political writer in the class of Orwell.

Iain Banks. You will be missed.

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Iain Banks : where to start?

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Iain Banks, who died this month, was one of my favourite writers.

In a career spanning twenty nine years, he wrote an impressive twenty nine books including the science fiction Culture books (as “Iain M. Banks”: his middle name was Menzies). To my sham, I’ve largely not read any of these though I would recommend The Player of Games (1987).

But, to the uninitiated, which of Banks’  “mainstream” novels is best to start with? Let’s take a look…

The Wasp Factory (1984)

“Two years after I killed Blyth I murdered my young brother Paul, for quite different and more fundamental reasons than I’d disposed of Blyth, and then a year after that I did for my young cousin Esmerelda, more or less on a whim.

That’s my score to date. Three. I haven’t killed anybody for years, and don’t intend to ever again.

It was just a stage I was going through.”

 

The first book Banks was published when he was still in his twenties and might seem the obvious place to start. Indeed, it’s the first Banks book I ever read, aside from the first Culture novel Consider Phlebas (which I didn’t enjoy).

Be warned though, while brilliant, this is a darker offering than any of Banks’ other books. Frank, the “hero” is a sexually, confused, isolated and, indeed, homicidal teen. His older brother enjoys setting fire to dogs and Frank himself lives in a superstitious dream world, many of his activities (which include fighting a real life giant bunny) are dictated by the factory of the title, a bizarre construction of his own. The book generated a tabloid furore and Banks did well to escape its shadow.

Fact: A stage version of the book has been produced and performed.

 

Walking on Glass (1985) and The Bridge (1986)

Both fairly outlandish books and Walking on Glass is not a total success. I would not recommend either book as a starting point. Yet The Bridge, dealing with the aftermath of a road accident, is one of Banks’ best.

Fact: Iain Banks frequently cited The Bridge as his own favourite of his own novels.

Espedair Street (1987).

“Two days ago I decided to kill myself. “

A tale of rock and roll excess viewed from its aftermath by bass guitarist Dan “Weird” Weir of fictional band Frozen Gold. Despite the opening line (above), it is one of Banks’ cheeriest novels and an excellent place to start.

Fact: Banks admitted he did no research for this book whatsoever.

Canal Dreams (1989)

Banks recently said this attempt at a political thriller was one of the few books he was unsatisfied with. I would agree that it is a disappointing. I would argue A Song of Stone (1997), The Business (1999) and Transition (2009) also represent rare Banks misfires.

The Crow Road (1992)

“It was the day my grandmother exploded.”

Banks’ masterpiece, a time jumping family saga centring on teen Prentice McHoan and his conflict with his atheist father and quest for his long missing Uncle Rory. The book spans fifty years ranging from Prentice’s own father’s wartime childhood to Prentice’s present. The usual dark humour, discussion of politics, piss ups, drug use and a murder mystery element are also thrown in. Brilliant.

Fact: A decent TV adaptation appeared in 1996 featuring Bill Paterson and Peter Capaldi (later of The Thick Of It).

Complicity (1993)

A rival to The Wasp Factory, for the title of Iain Banks’ darkest novel this centres on Cameron Colley, a journalist addicted to drugs, computer games and sex who finds himself suspected after a series of bizarre murders. Excellent.

Fact: A film version received a limited release in 2000. Most felt Jonny Lee Miller (of Trainspotting), then in his twenties and best known for his marriage to Angelina Jolie, was too young for the main role.

Whit (1995)

Teenaged Isis leaves her small Scottish cult to explore the outside world. Plot-wise, a bit iffy, but an enjoyable book nevertheless.

Fact: Also known as “Isis Amongst The Unsaved”.

Dead Air (2001)

An intriguing premise; the main character is a left wing British shock jock DJ, but the novel feels a bit rushed.

Fact: One of the first novels to deal with the events of September 11th (an event cleverly evoked by the cover).

The Steep Approach to Garbadale (2007)

The Wopold family made rich by the board game Empire! meet to discuss their future. A return to form for Banks with similarities to The Crow Road.

Stonemouth (2012)

Stewart Gilmour returns three years after being chased out of his home town. Highly enjoyable.

My review of The Quarry (Banks’ final book) will appear shortly.

I am thoroughly enjoying it, however, and my only sadness is that there will be no more Iain Banks books to come. He was truly a great author.

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Book review: Just A Simple Belfast Boy by Dr Brian Mawhinney

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George Carey, the former Archbishop of Canterbury makes a bold claim on the back of this book. “Brian Mawhinney is one of the truly outstanding politicians of his generation.”

Bearing in mind, Dr Brian Mawhinney was born in 1940 putting him in the same mediocre vintage as Lord Archer, John Selwyn Gummer, Jonathan Aitken and Neil Hamilton, perhaps this is faint praise. But what about John Smith? Ken Clarke? Chris Patten? Robin Cook? No, Carey’s claim is ridiculously over the top. One suspects Mawhinney would be embarrassed by it himself.

It’s probable Mawhinney’s intense religious fervour swayed Carey. Dr Brian Mawhinney was the Tory MP for Peterborough from 1979 until 1997 (I grew up there during that period myself). Before his selection as candidate, Mawhinney, like Joan of Arc, heard voices. Specifically a voice in Peterborough Cathedral saying: “I need you here”. Mawhinney may have imagined it or overheard somebody instructing a choir boy. Either way, Mawhinney remained MP for Peterborough for eighteen years. Presumably another voice then told him: “Labour are going to win your seat! Peterborough’s too full of lefties these days! Ditch them. Switch to North West Cambridgeshire!”.  Mawhinney did so, remaining MP there until 2005. He was appointed Chairman of the Football League in 2003.

On paper, Mawhinney’s record isn’t sparkling. He was Minister of State for Northern Ireland under Margaret Thatcher. Unlike under Major and especially Blair, no progress was made in the Troubles under Thatcher at all. He moved to Health, at a time of intense strife for the NHS (the Thatcher/Major years remain the historical nadir ofthe NHS). Now in the Cabinet, he oversaw the disastrous farce of rail privatisation as Transport Secretary. As Tory Party Chairman he presided over the Tory Party’s largest ever 20th century defeat in 1997.

None of these things were wholly Mawhinney’s fault, to be fair. The Tories were clearly heading for a big fall in 1997 already. It is doubtful any non-Cabinet minister could have secured peace in Northern Ireland in the Eighties.  Mawhinney is wrong about many things (gay marriage, Tony Blair) but his dedication cannot be faulted.

The book is not very well written and was almost completely overshadowed on its April release date by the reaction to Lady Thatcher’s death. But Mawhinney is clearly a genuine and dutiful public servant and fundamentally decent in a way one suspects most modern Tories are not.

I would have changed the book’s name though.”A Simple Belfast Boy” stinks of false modesty. The book barely focuses on Mawhinney’s childhood anyway. ’Life of Brian’ is probably out due to his religious convictions. How about “Doctor in the House”?

Or “God Told Me To Do It”?Image

Tom Sharpe: a tribute

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There are few authors who I can claim to have read every single book they have had published. Tom Sharpe, who has just died, aged eighty five, was one such author. Every one of his sixteen books is both funny and incredibly readable.

That is not to say they are low brow either. Although sex, contraceptives, misunderstandings and even famously, a sex doll, famously play a part, Sharpe’s novels are extremely well written and a world away from the low comedy of the Carry On films which were still being published when his novels first began appearing.

His heyday in fact occurred at that time of great low national self esteem, the mid-Seventies. Porterhouse Blue (1975) in which a reforming Tony Benn-style minister is transferred to the position of Master of an ancient and very traditionalist Cambridge college, is for me, his masterpiece. The efforts of the new Master (driven by his domineering wife) to change the rules to enable women to be admitted as undergraduates lead to a fierce Trollopian conservative campaign of resistance from the college notably Skullion, a porter.  The academic shenanigans predate Terry Pratchett’s imaginings about Unseen University and are worthy of comparison with the campus novels of Malcolm Bradbury and David Lodge from the same period. Blott on the Landscape (1975) was similarly excellent while Wilt (1976) drew on Sharpe’s experiences as a college lecturer in an East Anglian polytechnic. Bored of his life teaching English Literature to apprentices and butchers, Sharpe’s hero Henry Wilt soon finds himself wrongly accused of murder after his wife goes missing when Wilt is tricked into being tied to a sex doll at a party. These last misfortunes thankfully never happened to Sharpe.

All three of these books were adapted for the screen in the late Eighties. Porterhouse Blue (starring Ian Richardson as Sir Godber Evans, David Jason as Skullion and John Sessions as the hapless student Zipser) and Blott on the Landscape starring David Suchet and George Cole both worked well on TV, adapted by Malcolm Bradbury. Wilt (1989) a film starring Griff Rhys Jones and Mel  Smith was entertaining in its own way but as a version of the novel, it was poor. Wilt would appear in four more Sharpe novels.

After a hugely successful thirteen years, Shape published nothing after the third Wilt novel Wilt On High (1984) until he produced a sequel to porterhouse Blue Grantchester Grind (1995). Although not a particularly memorable sequel, Sharpe’s later books are still enjoyable, although by this time increasingly less in keeping with the times – characters still, for example, use telephone boxes a surprising amount despite the advent of mobile phones.

But to say Shape’s books are of their time is a weak criticism. The same is true of the works of Dickens, Wodehouse and Waugh, indeed of every book ever written.

The Throwback, The Great Pursuit , Wilt. One hopes such books will endure and continue to be read. It is a shame Sharpe never wrote an autobiography. The details of his past would surely have made for a great book in itself. Sharpe’s mockery of the South African Apartheid regime, a theme of his first two British novels Riotous Assembly (1971) and Indecent Exposure (1973) saw him expelled in 1961, something he remained angry about for the rest of his life. As a child, his family also risked internment. His father who died in 1944 was a fascist sympathiser and a friend of William Joyce (Lord Haw Haw).

As it is, sixteen very funny books is a fine legacy from one of the greatest British comic writers of the 20th century.Image