‘A reminder of the sheer range of Scotland’s literary imagination’
I’ve been thinking a lot recently about literary prizes, because in the next couple of weeks, I’m judging one. As I write, we have still to pick the five category winners for the Saltire Literary Awards – best fiction, non-fiction, poetry, first book and history – and then the overall winner, but we’ve already chosen the shortlists.
At this stage, I could easily imagine any one of at least half a dozen books winning the overall prize. And it’s this part of the judging process – when everything is still up for grabs, when just one of the judges’ passionate advocacy could still sway the room, when doubts about front-runners have still to be articulated and certainties have still to be frayed by debate – that I like the best.
On 24 November, the overall winner of the Saltire Best Book of the Year will be announced, and the news will filter out across the media in headlines that will seem to spell certainty, resolution, and objective fact. But right now, the shortlisted books are all in play, every one of them, each with their own supporters ready to point out their originality, style, impact, narrative flair, depth of research, breadth of imagination and singularity of purpose, or any number of other qualities. All of the books are on the table – literally so: at our last meeting, they were piled up on the table around which the eight judges sat, a visual reminder of the sheer range of Scotland’s literary imagination.
Every time a literary prize is announced, the chair of the judges invariably says how the abundance of quality writing made picking the winner such a difficult decision. I’ll probably end up saying the same thing myself: just because it’s a cliché doesn’t mean that it isn’t also true. Meanwhile in the audience, many people will be inwardly muttering, ‘Yes, yes, of course. Now can we please get on with the main event? Can’t you just tell us who’s won?’ This time, as a judge, I almost want to change that around, to say: ‘Never mind who’s won. Just look at what we had to choose from.’
I don’t have the space to do that for all five categories, so let’s just look at one. I’ll pick non-fiction, and rather than subverting the judging process by looking at how the books in the category measure up against a general standard (style, originality etc), I’ll confine myself to looking at which of them was best at a particular one: filling the yawning chasms of my own ignorance.
There are five on the non-fiction shortlist: The Outrun by Amy Liptrot, Glasgow: Mapping the City by John Moore, Other People’s Money by John Kay, Richard Holloway’s A Little History of Religion, and Fallen Glory by James Crawford. Or, to put it another way, an acclaimed memoir about overcoming addiction on Orkney, a scholarly study showing how Glasgow grew, an economist’s critique of how the financial sector dangerously distorts our economy, a crisply written guide to the world’s religions and a history of the world’s greatest lost buildings.
In terms of books that did the most to fill in gaps in my own ignorance, I’ll keep them in that order too, ending up with James Crawford’s Fallen Glory as the book from which I learnt the most. Perhaps the things I learnt from the other books were more significant – the clarity of Holloway’s exposition of how doctrines of the afterlife and resurrection made their first appearance will stick in my mind, as will Kay’s takedown of a financial sector grown too big for its boots, whose profitability is overstated and which, after all, only directs 3 per cent of its total lending to firms producing goods and providing services.
But Crawford’s book – a 566-page history of the world’s greatest lost buildings – is, for me, a triple ignorance-buster. First of all, it tells me the kind of things that, in hindsight, I’m embarrassed that I didn’t already know – like precisely where the Tower of Babel was built and what’s there now, which is the oldest continuously inhabited city in the world, where the first lottery in Britain was drawn, or which 17th century siege (with, according to contemporary reports, a besieging army so large it occupied 30 square miles) made its victor the richest man on earth. *
Crawford realises that just as important as depicting fallen glories is showing what they reveal about human nature – both the grandiose dreams of their creators and the fantasies about the past sometimes unleashed by wishful archaeologists. Agamemnon’s tomb at Mycenae, for example, was visited by Himmler, Goering and Goebbels, lured by archaeology that – wrongly – seemed to hint that those fighting armies from the Age of Heroes were proto-Nazis. At Knossos on Crete, meanwhile, Arthur Evans was busy trying to prove the opposite – that the ancient Minoans had been civilised, sporting pacifists rather than bloody savages. The most recent evidence, Crawford points out, suggests that the archaeologists got it the wrong way round: the Mycenaeans were farmers and traders, while the Minoans certainly sacrificed humans and may well have been cannibals too.
But it’s the third, deepest level of Crawford’s ignorance-busting that impresses me the most. The first level is, after all just the pub quiz question: you either know the world’s oldest continuously inhabited city or you don’t. But Crawford has the knack of introducing new facts about stories you might have thought you already knew – facts which, although they might not radically alter the historical record, widen and deepen it immeasurably.
Take 9/11, for example, and look at it through the eyes of two architects. The first is Minoso Yamasaki, Japanese-American architect of the World Trade Centre. When it was finished in 1973, he went out on the roof of what was then the world’s tallest building with two of his colleagues. They celebrated with champagne, looking down on the planes landing and taking off from Newark airport ten miles to the west.
A year earlier, at St Louis, Minnesota, nearly a thousand miles further west again, in what Crawford calls the creation of “the first great American ruin”, the first three of the 33 tower blocks Yamasaki built in the 1950s were blown up (the rest followed in the next three years) after they became a byword for public housing policy failure. The destruction of the Pruitt-Igoe flats is one of the more spectacular moments in Godfrey Reggio’s 1982 film Koyaanisqatsi. It was, said architecture critic Charles Jencks, the moment modern architecture died.
Our second architect was four years old at the time the Pruitt-Igoe flats were blown up. Later, for his post-graduate degree, he studied in Germany, where his 162-page thesis took issue with the way in which western modernism – buildings like the Pruitt-Igoe flats or smaller-scale examples of Yamasaki’s ‘New Formalism’ – often overrode local architectural traditions. The architect was Mohammad Atta, and the city whose architecture, according to the thesis he spent five years putting together, was being swamped by western modernism was the one I’ve already mentioned twice without naming. You know, the oldest continuously inhabited city in the world. I didn’t know either, because for some reason they never mention it in all the news reports. Aleppo.
* Tower of Babel? That would be the Temple of Etemenanki in Babylon, south of Baghdad on a site levelled – and ruined – by coalition forces in the 2003 war. The first recorded lottery drawn in Britain was at the West Door of (Old) St Paul’s in London in 1569, and the 1687 siege of Golconda fortress in Hyderabad, centre of the world’s diamond trade gave Mughal Emperor Aurangzeb control of the south of India and made him vastly richer than he already was.
David Robinson is a freelance journalist and editor and from 2000-2015 he was books editor of The Scotsman. This year David is convener of the Saltire Society’s Literary Awards panel; find out more about the awards here. The winner of the Scottish Non Fiction Book of the Year will be announced at the awards ceremony on 24 November 2016.
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‘A reminder of the sheer range of Scotland’s literary imagination’