Trying to find an adequate novel for a student’s BA dissertation (or Treball de Fi de Grau), I finally read Lewis Grassic Gibbon’s classic Sunset Song (1932). I say finally because I am indeed very much interested in Scottish fiction but have huge gaps in my reading list, like this one.

Reviews and academic criticism present Sunset Song as a wonderful novel about an engaging female character; besides, Scottish readers had voted this novel their favourite back in 2005 (above Trainspotting!!). My student is on an Erasmus stay in Edinburgh, so I decided that she should work on a Scottish author, and this seemed ideal. In the end, though, both Marta and myself have agreed that Chris Guthrie’s life is not that interesting –after all, she chooses marriage and motherhood over an education. We have focused instead on a quite eccentric romantic reading of Janice Galloway’s marvellous The Trick is to Keep Breathing (1989).

I did enjoy reading Sunset Song and will eventually complete my reading of the other two novels in the A Scots Quair trilogy: Cloud Howe (1933), and Grey Granite (1934). Once you get over the hurdle of the Scots dialect, which is not that terrible, Sunset Song reads beautifully (maybe in this the audiobook is the perfect choice). I found, though, both plot and characters quite sketchy.

Gibbon’s portrait of the transition onto the WWI years of his rural community lacks much detail, and so does his rendering of Chris’s psychology (despite the positive feminist criticism). I never really understood why she makes most of the choices in her life, particularly concerning her love for the mulish, mentally unattractive Ewan. Even so, I actually believe that Sunset Song would have been much more interesting if Gibbons had focused on this young man’s decision to enlist at all costs, or on his neighbour Long Robert’s contrary decision to object to the war. That must be my fascination for WWI, for sure.

Anyway, I checked Amazon UK for readers’ opinions and I stumbled onto a kind of mini-debate among young Scottish students who had been forced to read the book in, I think, secondary education (I’m not sure about the meaning of the Scottish ‘Higher English’ level). There are complaints about the difficulty of the Scots/English language but the most negative reader focuses on ‘relevance’.

An anonymous city teenager writes in exasperation: “What teenager nowadays is interested in farming?!” S/he concludes that “for me to enjoy a book, there has to be a greater deal of significance and relevance to today’s world.” Another teenager, a girl, horrified by the negative comments, calls Sunset Song “a beautiful book which shows us the similarities between young people of the past and ourselves, among many other things.”

This is tricky. As we all know, novels are excellent vehicles to transmit personal experience that we could not otherwise access. They require empathetic readers with an endless ability to put oneself in the characters’ shoes. Now, if the reader is limited by the generational narcissitic view of relevance that the first teenager flaunts, then his/her own capacity to read novels will be drastically limited. See how, nonetheless, the second teenager defends Sunset Song on the grounds of its comparative relevance to her generation and not quite because it tells you what life was like in rural Scotland 80 years ago. As I reader, I do choose my books on narcissistic grounds, too, but I want to believe that I am open up to very alien experiences, different from mine in time and place.

As a teacher of students eighteen and upwards, I realise, though, that we hesitate all the time when it comes to relevance. The two times I have taught Scottish literature I have focused on the 1990s mainly: a selection of short stories by women writers, Ian Rankin, Alasdair Gray, Trainspotting (the film). In future editions, I’ll update the subject and move closer to the 2000s: some theatre, possibly Ali Smith, Alan Warner, etc. The other teacher, the professor who originally set up the subject and sent me to Scotland as a PhD student, teaches a far less student-oriented selection, including Sunset Song. He consistently defends the position in all his subjects that students should adapt to the history of Literature and not the other way round. I myself do that only half the time: you must enjoy Oliver Twist, but I’ll be teaching the Harry Potter saga.

I am wondering, also thinking of my student Marta, whether this has to do with my gendered position as a reader. What separates me from Sunset Song but makes me love Galloway’s novel is, after all, relevance: Chris Guthrie’s life has nothing to do with mine, not because she lives in rural 1930s Scotland and I live in urban 2010s Catalonia, but because she abandons her education. In contrast, Galloway’s Joy Stone is a working woman (a teacher) whose life collapses when her man dies. Funnily, this also happens to Chris but the way Gibbon and Galloway narrate the heroine’s search for the trick to stay alive (keep on breathing…) is vastly different. Shallow in Gibbon, so deep that it hurts in Galloway.

As you can see, choice is the key here –Marta must choose ONE novel to work on, the Scottish teachers of Higher English must choose a limited reading list to teach, I must also choose for my students. As readers, though, we needn’t limit our choice and happily for me, I have read both Sunset Song and The Trick is to Keep Breathing. Now you enjoy them!

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Re-reading for the umpteenth time Oliver Twist I finally paid attention to something I’d ignored in the prologue by Philip Horner to the Penguin Classics edition (2002). This refers to Dickens’ publicly expressed opinions on capital punishment and how they should colour our reading of Fagin’s paradoxically unseen public execution.

Intriguingly, both Dickens and William Makepeace Thackeray attended the hanging in 1840 of one François Courvoisier, a valet who had murdered his aristocratic master. Anticipating Foucault’s seminal Discipline and Punish, Thackeray gives a very direct testimonial of the loss of effectiveness of public executions. He describes in his article “Going to see a man hanged” (http://www.exclassics.com/newgate/courv.htm) how the 40,000 members of the crowd enjoyed the proceedings as a grim holiday. Deeply shocked by the scene, Thackeray closed his eyes and thus missed the prisoner’s actual death. When he writes that “I came away down Snow Hill that morning with a disgust for murder, but it was for the murder I saw done,” he sounds as appalled by the callousness of the crowd towards Courvoisier’s ugly punishment as by the state’s cruel assassination of a citizen. Do read the whole text, it is certainly a magnificent chronicle.

Dickens, Horner informs us, first manifested his negative view of capital punishment in a letter of 1845 to Macvey Napier, editor of the prestigious Edinburgh Review. Do read the letter (http://www.gutenberg.org/files/25854/25854-h/25854-h.htm) and see how for Dickens the death penalty “produces crime in the criminally disposed, and engenders a diseased sympathy—morbid and bad, but natural and often irresistible—among the well-conducted and gentle,” as all feel its fascination. Dickens also worries that the rabble that attends executions may be tempted to read them as martyrdom rather than exemplary punishment and, so, glamorise crime. Gentlemen are supposed to feel horror, though Thackeray and Dickens were actually among the pioneers to turn the tide against public executions, and not really representative of their (professional) middle-class background.

Horner mentions in passing a set of letters to the editor on capital punishment that Dickens wrote in 1846, as he revised Oliver Twist. Have a look at:


and read Beppe Sabatini’s extensive analysis. Basically, as he says, “Dickens had become more conservative on Capital Punishment, and changed his stand from demanding total abolition (1846) to advocating private executions (1849).”

Returning to the theme he had failed to develop for Napier’s Edinburgh Review, and in view of the popular craze for a series of executions, Dickens finally published his opinions in the Daily News after his own very brief editorship. The letters, which amount to more than 13,000 words, are quite a substantial consideration of the matter, although, essentially, they expand on the arguments advanced to Napier. Dickens writes “in no spirit of sympathy with the criminal” but believes that “a firm and efficient stand may be made against the punishment of Death.” He disputes vehemently the reality of last-minute repentance and religious reformation, questions the right of the state to kill, and, a well-known argument today, prefers that “hundreds of guilty persons should escape scot-free” rather than kill a single innocent by mistake.

The second letter refers directly to Courvoisier’s execution. Like Thackeray, he describes an “odious” mob: “No sorrow, no salutary terror, no abhorrence, no seriousness; nothing but ribaldry, debauchery, levity, drunkenness, and flaunting vice in fifty other shapes.” In the third letter, Dickens insists that the gallows is no deterrent at all, whether the crime is impulsive or deliberate. Stopping to consider what he calls hate crimes, and we call domestic violence, he claims that the threat of the gallows is by no means women’s ultimate defence but even “that which lures and tempts him on.” Dickens further argues that since executions are no good to prevent crime, they should be stopped. With impeccable logic, he rejects the eye-for-an-eye argumentation, claiming that if we obey the Mosaic law in this, perhaps “it would be equally reasonable to establish the lawfulness of a plurality of wives on the same authority.”

In 1849, after attending a second execution, that of Frederick and Maria Manning, Dickens wrote two more letters, in this case to The Times. In the second he defends for the first time, private rather than public execution “within the prison walls.” Sabatini explains how the report of the Royal Commission (1864-6) “leading to new legislation in 1868” which ended public executions borrowed some arguments from Dickens himself. The last persons executed in Britain (always by private hanging) were murderers Peter Anthony Allen and Gwynne Owen Evans, in 1964. The death penalty, Wikipedia confirms, “was abolished in all circumstances in 1998” all over Britain. Just yesterday.

Dickens finished Oliver Twist in 1839, before he attended Courvoisier’s hanging. Now I need to think why he showed in this novel a negative attitude regarding the application of the death penalty to Fagin (as it is obvious from the fact that his execution is not narrated) whereas, in contrast, he imagined for the murderer Sikes an accidental public hanging in the course of his getaway. Fagin, remember, has killed none but clearly prompts Sikes to kill Sikes’ own disloyal girlfriend Nancy and is condemned as an accessory to the crime.

Is this a case of poetic justice? Or is this, rather, hypocrisy? Let the novelist do what the judge should never do…

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If you care to check my entries for mid-September 2011 and 2012 you will find more or less the same content. In 2011, I was given recently revamped classroom 302 and I commented that “We have two tiny windows, a blind is broken and temperatures inside the classroom were yesterday at 15:00 in the afternoon above 30º (that’s 86º Fahrenheit).” Last year, I was given a different classroom, possibly the same 102 I’m ‘enjoying’ now, and when, on the verge of collapse, I demanded the logistics chief that the temperature be taken for the record this was 32,5º.

Yesterday, with milder temperatures outside than last year (around 26º), once more 15:00 came and I found myself sweating like an iceberg in the tropics, facing 60 very uncomfortable students. I can’t begin to describe the smell that saturated the classroom, occupied non-stop since 8:30. I have, of course, complained once more but, so what?

I find it appalling that the most important thing I need to discuss on the day the course begins, for three years in a row, is the temperature in my classroom. Back in the ‘Licenciatura’ times, teaching would begin in early October, but now, with the academic year’s start pushed back two weeks into September, the weather is a serious problem. The weather and the building. I’m sitting today comfortably at home, no sweat, no air conditioning and the temperature is the same as it was yesterday. In contrast, my UAB classroom feels like a furnace. Why isn’t the AC on? Because we’re poor.

We are officially five years into the crisis triggered back on 15 September 2008 by the failure of financial giant Lehman Brothers. One of his former Spanish employees, the current Minister for Economy, Luis de Guindos, runs our finances since 2011. Just yesterday, his colleague José Ignacio Wert, Minister for Culture (and Education), announced that 603.069 students lost their state aids last year, a total of 195 million euros. Those who do dare study, as you can see, are subjected to insidious forms of torture, such as overheated classrooms, in which no normal human brain can really function.

I feel downhearted today, and it’s quite a physical sensation. My dignity as a teacher and as worker is being attacked, and so is that of my colleagues and the students suffering the same inacceptable conditions. I am really ashamed that students who have paid more than 1,000 euros to receive an education are treated like this and I am awfully embarrassed by what the Erasmus students must be writing home.

My brother tells me that the good times, which now seem to be almost a legend, will never come back and that this is who we are: poor, undignified. Insert here one of my deep sighs…

I did think of staging a protest and asking my students to join me into wearing a swimsuit to class but, oh well, then I’d be thinking of swimming pools all the time and it would be worse…

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Sorry about the unimaginative allusion in the title to David Bowie’s wonderful 1980s record (LP, not CD…). What else could I use to recall one of my main childhood terrors? Yes, I’m writing here today about memory and, particularly, about the childhood terrors that remain with us for decades, in this case consciously. Yet, at the same time, in a fuzzy, hazy way that calls for the need to check up as an adult what exactly scared us so much as children.

So here it is: my childhood memory, not too deceptive I hope. This was 1976, I was ten, and my paternal grandparents were the first in my working-class family to purchase a colour TV set (Wikipedia claims that colour broadcasting started in Spain in 1972, with the Munich Olympic Games). I was already a fan of Space 1999, an SF British series created by Sylvia and Gerry Anderson, of Thunderbirds fame. Their series –produced 1973-76, aired in Spain 1976-77– narrated how an explosion of nuclear waste unwisely kept on the Moon set our satellite spinning out of orbit into the galaxy, taking the 311 inhabitants of Moonbase Alpha with it. Space 1999 was a success in many countries around the world (not in the US, where Isaac Asimov did a good demolition job out of its bad scientific premise). It still maintains a classic cult status in many of these countries, continued thanks to the DVD pack editions. I have no idea how many of the 48 episodes I did see, but by the time the memory that I’m narrating bore down into my brain, I was already totally fascinated by metamorph Maya, a humanoid alien female who could take any shape.

The episode I saw that afternoon, apparently within the TV magazine for children Un globo, dos globos, tres globos, was The Beta Cloud (season 2, episode 14). This is information I learned only two weeks ago, after an intensive Google search leading to the corresponding YouTube link. The adults chatting around me as I watched the episode (with my younger, far less impressionable brother) never knew that the story of how the Moonbase Alpha crew fought desperately to kill an unstoppable monster has stayed with me since then. For two reasons: the absolute terror produced by understanding that the monster could not be stopped, and a scene in which the creature is partially burnt when it runs against an electric fence –remember this is the first TV programme I ever saw in colour. My clever girl Maya finally stops the fearsome thing, and maybe that’s in the end why I’m still writing about strong female characters.

I saw The Beta Cloud again a few days ago. The fine sets and special effects still maintain all their 1970s charm, and what can I tell you about that amazing spacecraft, the Eagle Transporter? Never sufficiently praised! The cheap props, though, and, above all, the flared trousers of the male crew uniforms quite spoiled my rediscovery of the series (the girls wore skirts…), and so did the haircuts –Star Trek’s costumes have stood indeed much better the test of time. I won’t comment on the acting, oh my! As for the monster, that was a howler –so silly! An obvious guy-in-a-suit hairy concoction, rubber-masked, moving like a toddler with a bad diaper rash case. Yes, I did recall the plot correctly, with the climactic electric barrier scene and Maya’s last-minute intervention. I wasn’t scared but I perfectly understood why my ten-year-old self was.

Before I move on, let me remind you of the context: this was late 1970s medium-budget British TV. On US 1970s TV, in contrast, they had the best SF series: the old Battlestar Galatica, Logan’s Run, The Six Million Dollar Man. Star Wars soon followed, with its blockbuster big budget. Not that expensive, Alien, which is not that different in plot from The Beta Cloud, came out in 1979 with the marvellous monster designed by Giger. It was still a guy in a rubber suit but what a suit… Morphing, the computer technique that helps us to see on screen credible transformations, was first used in Willow (1988) –and Space 1999 did without it convincingly for Maya. So, all in all, not that bad.

What puzzles me is this. Space 1999 was not a series for children, but aimed at a general audience. Unless, that is, the Andersons were working on the well-known premise that ‘the Golden Age of SF is twelve.’ At any rate, the inevitable conclusion after seeing The Beta Cloud is not only that I have personally outgrown its 1970s TV-related limitations (the whole generation I belong to), but that all TV audiences around the world have. Only a committed lover of vintage TV can really enjoy Space 1999, whereas good 1970s SF films survive much better. It might be a matter as simple as budget, with TV getting ever closer to what cinema requires (a trend started, by the way, by The X-Files).

As I smiled condescendingly at my younger self, I could not help thinking that a contemporary ten-year-old would not be scared by The Beta Cloud. I wonder indeed what scares today’s kids! So much lost innocence…

PS If you have enjoyed my post, do read “Espacio 1999 y yo” by Antonio Quintana Carrandi at http://www.ciencia-ficcion.com/opinion/op01379.htm

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Dear Iain,

As I have narrated here, on the very same day you announced your imminent death of cancer, I had sent an abstract for a conference about your twelfth (and last!) SF novel, The Hydrogen Sonata. The conference is next October, the paper is written, and you were supposed to live until then. Unfortunately, you died much earlier than expected, last June.

I thought then that the best homage I could pay to you was re-reading all your SF novels. It’s taken me most of July and August but I’m done –the whole 5,691 pages. The funny thing is that I decided to read them out of sequence, as you explained that, anyway, the internal chronological order is determined by the references to the Idiran-Culture war. And, then, a few of the novels are not even connected with the Culture. So, I left Surface Detail, possibly the densest and most demanding, for the end –without recalling that you-know-who turns out to be a major character in your third novel. I have managed thus to put myself into a nice loop. What an excuse to start all over again…

One doesn’t lose a favourite writer every day and I was really very sad to see you go. Since then my admiration for you as a writer and as a person has increased, particularly after seeing your last interview. Yes, the one in which you discussed really calmly your reactions to the cancer diagnosis and your impending death; being a non-believer, you simply attributed your fate to bad luck. You also downplayed the mystique around writers, presenting yourself as just a guy who wrote stories and who didn’t know the meaning of the expression ‘writer’s block’ (here you are: Ian Banks- Raw Spirit, BBC Scotland Interview, http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=v2vrypvdqWI). That’s how I’ll remember you: braving death with a smile, unpretentious to the end. What a lesson.

Reading the books has not been that easy. Your imagination is at points overwhelming to someone who, like me, has very poor skills at visualising space, high-tech gadgets and outlandish aliens –and swallowing up large batches of made-up names. This is exactly why I read SF. I almost gave up on you on page 358 of The Algebraist: “Clouders were part of the Cincturia, the collection of beings, species, machine strains and intelligent detritus that existed –generally– between stellar systems and didn’t fit into any other neat category (so they weren’t the deep-space cometarians called the Eclipta, they weren’t drifting examples of the Brown Dwarf Communitals known as the Plena, and they weren’t the real exotics, the Non-Baryonic Penumbrae, the thirteen-way-folded Dimensionates of the Flux-dwelling Quantarchs).”

A reader in Amazon wrote in despair that The Algebraist is only for ‘completists,’ readers fanatical enough to put themselves through the task of reading everything a writer has written, no matter the quality. That’s me (for you). Your protagonist in this novel, Fassin Taak, claims he gets ‘swim’ whenever he imagines the galaxy full of civilisations, and all the colossal network of relationships. I get ‘swim’ at your imagination. Clouders, by the way, turned out to be a real beauty.

I’ve been dragging my feet for the last 200 pages of Surface Detail, thinking simultaneously that it was about time to finish, stop mourning, move on and that I didn’t want to close the book. Not really, not yet, not ever. Right now, as I write, I have this very strange feeling that I’d rather be in your universe than in mine (would I qualify for Special Circumstances?). I’ll miss it sorely –the aliens, the drones, the Minds, the avatars, your men and women, pan-human or not. The humour, the wit, the adventure, the awareness that this is just a tiny corner of the galaxy…

I must thank you particularly for the women, and for how you have narrated so touchingly the immense difference that living in a totally egalitarian society like the Culture makes for us. Would make for us. I thank you particularly for Perosteck, Sharrow, Lededje, Vyr, Anaplian and Vossil. And I don’t know what the avatars have, but I know I’ll miss them (unpredictable Demiesen and cool Berdle, above all).

You must be asking yourself: what about my fifteen mainstream novels? Are you also going to be a completist for them? Yes, I think so. I don’t have them all yet but will go for them. You wrote so much… I’ll have to wait until next summer, though (Harry Potter is right now waiting for me). A very intelligent girl student has asked me to supervise a BA dissertation on the body in one of your SF novels, we still haven’t decided which one. I know then, that I’ll have to re-read at least one of the twelve soon (some excuse, huh?).

I know you’ll probably would say ‘but why???’, which is what you told me when so many years ago I told you in person that I was teaching your eccentric, singular The Wasp Factory. Your fault, for having that wonderful imagination.

What I am grieving today, I realise, is not only your loss but the realisation that the Culture, the utopia you imagined to protest against so much dystopia, is not within our reach. The recipe you imagined to replace our disastrous civilisation, let the computers and machines take over to free us from the slavery of money and property, is so well built in your novels that it’s hard to accept it is only a remote possibility. The total freedom with which Culture citizens live their lives is a dream from which I’d rather not wake up –I’m even ready, as I told you, to join SC and do the necessary dirty tricks.

Thank you, there is nothing else to add.

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I’m writing this post in answer to Sophia McDougall’s juicy article for the New Statesman, “I hate Strong Female Characters” (15 August, http://www.newstatesman.com/culture/2013/08/i-hate-strong-female-characters). Basically she complains that while male characters get pinned on them a variety of adjectives (see her list for Sherlock Holmes), female characters in recent audiovisual fiction “get to be Strong.”

McDougall finds the idea of the Strong Female Character patronising, as she is usually an anomaly, a single effective woman in a world of men. Too often, her supposed psychological strength is signalled by abusive behaviour, including physical violence (though she is not that self-reliant and must be frequently rescued). And far from eliminating sexism, she helps condone it, as many men think that to write one SFC “per story” is enough. Instead, McDougall demands more female roles on screens (a “1:1 instead of 3:1” ratio), more variety both in main and secondary roles, more stories in which women interrelate, and female characters that are more complete in their characterisation, including weakness if necessary.

Since my first paper, on Silence of the Lambs’ hero Clarice Starling, I have been defending the SFC as a solution to the previous all-pervading weak female character, the one that screamed but was completely paralysed by fear, which is why she always needed rescuing by the Strong Male Character. The contemporary SFC came about quite by accident, when the wife of one of the producers of Alien (1979) suggested that Lieutenant Ripley could be a woman, Ellen. There have been since then many more, for whom I am very grateful, as no one uses any more the silly screaming heroine that reigned on screens until the late 1970s.

I agree, though, with McDougall that she has become a stereotype –or, rather, that all the other changes she demands are by no means on the way of being implemented.

As usual, though, I find she misses the main point in her protest. This is the message I have been preaching in recent years and I’m sure I have already discussed the same issue here several times. The key question here is not when male screenwriters, directors and producers will finally understand the need to change women’s representation on screen but when will films and TV be fully open to women.

I truly believe that film and TV are far less sexist than they were thirty-five fifty years ago. Yet this refers mainly to the content of the stories, not to who is making decisions about what is told. The Directors’ Guild of America only has 10% female members. A recent study of the Writers Guild of America indicates that since 1999, the presence of women writers in US TV staff increased “from 25 percent to 30.5 percent.” At that rate, the study concludes, “it will be another 42 years before women reach proportionate representation.” That’s 2058… (See http://www.thewrap.com/tv/article/tv-writing-remains-white-mans-world-writers-guild-study-finds-82556).

The equality that McDougall demands can only come, then, from young women’s efforts to tear down the barriers that hold them back from entering the film and TV industries in full equality and to tell their stories. As consumers we women can also affect the film and TV industries by demanding more stories that appeal to us. And by ‘teaching’ the men around us what we like: your boyfriend asks you to see a film you don’t much like? Ok, go and then take him to see one you like. Of course, if that is Twilight or Fifty Shades of Grey, then I would say we’re not on the right track –as, well, we women do have a serious problem with some of the stories we write and enjoy.

Whenever I ask men whether they feel offended by their representation on screen, which includes many Strong Male Characters but also many despicable bastards, they shrug their shoulders: for them, generic representation is easier to separate from real individuality. We women do not have that advantage because, logically, our representation is very much restricted to a handful of stereotypes. What we need to consider, and this is right now not that clear, is whether we can contribute to the screens a significantly richer variety that satisfies our needs as 21st century women. To be blunt: if opening the doors of TV and films to women means a proliferation of Bellas and Anastasias, then I’d rather have men go on producing more SFC.

For the big, big, big question to ask ourselves is why the SFC are not ours.

Comments are very welcome! (Thanks!) Just remember that I check them first for spam; it might take a few days for yours to be available. If you like my blog, you can subscribe using the RSS feed (right-hand column, below Blogroll.) You’ll get an email message for every new post. VISIT MY WEB: http://gent.uab.cat/saramartinalegre/