Writer’s bloc


By the authorof H V the international bestseller

on at» -. t .

I had expected the author at a spy-thriller to be some sort of enigmatic Alec Guinness type. The two oi us would meet on a park bench in winter, both clad in iur hats and dark overcoats and talk in laden undertones while ieeding the ducks. As itwas,l met the disappointingly lrank and amiable Tim Sebastian iortea in the Caledonian Hotel. Ah well, such is the power oi glasnost.

My ‘contact’, whose second book, Spy Shadow, has just been published, looked like a chubby version oi Lenin with the kind oi hairstyle that may pass as avant garde among certain sections at Soviet youth. My mission was to get his assessment oi the spy novel’s iuture, in this new age oi the love-in between East and West.

Ten years as the Beeb’s main man in Eastern Europe has given him a detailed grounding in the lacts oi lite behind the old Iron Curtain. He has, as they say, been round the Bloc. It’s a knowledge that he puts to good eiiect in his book. His terse punchy prose iollows the trail at conservative conspirators in the Kremlin pursuing their ultimate goal oi bumping oil Gorby. Though he plays his cards close to his chest throughout the book, you never get the ieeling oi being lost in the

cloying swampland at a Le Carré novel. His grasp oi the realities oi liie in Poland, where the bulk oi the book is set, helps to surmount the hackneyed games oi bluii inherent in the genre.

So his second book is set to be a success, but isn't be getting into the game rather late? Spy writers oi the East v West school these days are rather like chess masters who've had their boards swiped from the table. The popular conception being that the spirit at glasnost in the East has melted the foundation oi distrust and intrigue on which the Cold War and its encumbent literary heroes were based.

Does the iuture lor writers at his ilk look as bleak as the prospect oi a night out with Yuri Andropov? Not according to Sebastian. ‘Far lrom being a much easier atmosphere I think it’s going to be much worse in a lot at ways. Ironically, East and West are a lot more paranoid now. In the old days, neither side trusted the other, now we’re supposed to be ireinds and there are supposed to be arms agreements. 80 there’s going to be raging paranoia about who’s cheating on these agreements. You can’t take away a wall that's divided Europe iorthe past 30 years without producing enormous instability, which I think we’re about to

see. All oi which is iertile ground tor iiction.’

The monolithic power block has split up and the battles ior control in Eastern Europe are just beginning. Sebastian sees in all this plenty oi grist tor the spy writers’ mills. These days authors have to respond quickly to the events in Eastern Europe in a way they haven’t tor the past tony-live years. And he should know, a large part at his current novel had to be reworked to accommodate the revolutions oi last year.

We chatted about the heady eitects oi peppervodka and political reiorm, well he did, I’ve never touched the stuit. And though it was somehow disappointing that he didn’t keep glancing over his shoulder or trying to shove some microiilm into my hand, I had at least iound that the spy novel’s iuture was secure. Time to leave I thought. It can get bloody hot wearing an overcoat and iur hat indoors. (Ross Parsons)


ROBERT LOUIS STEVENSON'S unfinished novel with an exciting new ending by Jenni Calder.

Price £4.99 Paperback Available from all good bookshops

Richard Drew Publishing Ltd a Clairmont Gardens, Glasgow G3 7LW

I McGrotty and Ludmilla Alasdair Gray (Dog and Bone £5) In his acknowledgements. the Gray man of Culture City denies plagiarising Yes Minister but owns up to having nicked the plot of the Arabian Nights. He protests too much. Mungo McGrotty, half-cousin to Kelvin Walker. another of Gray‘s North Britons adrift in the Big Smoke. is propelled from being a nobody in the Ministry of Social Stability to a seat on the Front Bench. A Swiftian satire, McGrotty in pursuit of Ludmilla (‘a ravishingly lovely child who had been badly knocked about and deprived of decent clothes by a cruel stepmother in a Cinderella pantomime‘) is a sight to make bad eggs quail. Anarchic, manic and all too believable. it's a knock-out knockabout novel. a mongrel maybe. but with meat on the marrow from Glasgow’s newest publisher. (James Barrie)


I The Chanter’s Tune Valerie Gillies (Canongate £7.95) Nicely produced and illustrated, The Chanter's Tune begins with a sequence about a marble head in a museum. Attempts to link it with the present (for example by having the Roman soldier’s head soliloquise on NATO) fail because they lack any real immediacy; and the same can be said ofall Gillies’ work. Her poetry is mostly rooted in the past in history, mythology, and a Celtic twilight where music is provided by the chanter and the clarsach. and discos are ‘loud, ill-starred’. In keeping with this old-fashioned quality. the poems are usually formal in structure, sometimes leading to a pre-occupation with rhyme and metre that stiflesthe flow.

When she lets go of her rigid formalism and allows the language to take over, Gillies is at her best; for example in ’Infertility Patient‘. the final line ofwhich has a Plath-like quality: ’You month, rat’s jaw, I see you yawn‘. But most ofher work does not achieve this level. It‘s gentle. lyrical poetry, pleasant to read but lacking in any force or anger or relevance to the modern world. (Elizabeth Burns)

I A Scottish Assembly Robert Crawford (Chatto and Windus £5.99) It seems to be accepted these days that, to be taken seriously, art of any kind must be convoluted and abstruse. And while we may agree with Eliot that ’genuine poetry can communicate before it is

.understood‘, I think he has much to

answer for. Given that poetry is a contrivance ofwords and ideas, the artifice works best when it is concealed rather than indulgent and intrusive.

’A Scottish Assembly’ is an enjoyable collection, unashamedly rooted in Scotland and all the more welcome because ofthat. But I found myselfbaffled once or twice by strange and apparently deliberate jumps in sense and by unfamiliar

names. What do you make of Bhidhio. Syrophenician. or hydroponicum‘.’ The latter in fact hides a pleasing metaphor. if you happen to know what it means. Wide-ranging in subject and style. Crawford is not afraid to tackle the political or technological. Many of his poems are short and accessible; most are unrhymed; some are humorous. others satirical. and one or two of the best are thinly disguised love poems. ()verall. his is original and powerful verse. (Ken Morrice)


I The Little Clown Reg Varney (Hodder and Stoughton £14.95) Reg Varney was the cheeky Cockney chappy in those 70s comedy ’classics' The Rag Trade and ()n the Biases. In ’The Little Clown‘. the first volume ofhis selfpenned autobiography. comfortable illusions about him are smashed into a thousand blinding pieces.

Reg starts off covering his school days in ‘we wuz poor but ’appy' style. He discovers a gift for playing piano and soon achieves minor fame on his local variety circuit.

Eventually he ends up playing in a brothel catering to the Chinese underworld. Seduced by morphine and sex he sinks gradually into a twilight world ofcrime and desperation. He fled to the sprawling decadence of Weimar Berlin where he tried to cure his debilitating addiction to morphine with copious amounts of readily available cocaine. The rise of the Nazis brought Reg to his senses and he returned to London and a career in the music halls. older but wiser.

N0. . . I‘m sorry but the last paragraph is a pack of lies. ‘The Little Clown‘ is an unpretentious. straight-forward account of Reg Varney‘s life in the inter-war years.

It‘s chatty. disarming style renders criticism petty and pointless. Volume Two is on it‘s way. . . that's all really. (Charles Holmes)


I BLS—A Lite Study Jenni Calder (Richard Drew Publishing £6.99) Illustrated biography of Robert Loius Stevenson a well researched and smooth read. A good source for interesting titbits on the man himself and also for obscure details on 19th century Edinburgh. Overly chummy style at times was the author an intimate acquaintance of ’Louis‘ in

82 The List 20 April 3 May 1990