Fire In: Edinburgh’s Literary Secret Revealed…
Before Christmas, between the first and second Ashes Tests to be exact, I was presented with a copy of One O’Clock Gun, Pax Edina: An Anthology and asked if I would consider reviewing it. I confessed that the words on the cover, in that order, meant nothing to me but I’m always willing to try new things. If you know all about The One O’Clock Gun then skip the next paragraph as I’m about to give a brief explanation. The publication may be well known in the capital, but its fame has not travelled up the M8, or, I’m guessing, any other road leaving Edinburgh. That’s a real shame, and something that I hope that this anthology could put right.
The One O’Clock Gun was (is?) a one sheet literary publication that appeared in some of the better pubs in Edinburgh from February 2004. In the appendix there is a handy ‘User’s Guide’ to The One O’Clock Gun, illustrated by house artist Lucy McKenzie, so I’ll paraphrase from that to explain how the Gun (as everyone tends to call it) works in theory:
1) While having a quiet pint pick up a copy of the Gun.
2) Unfold it and peruse the stories, poems and art that it contains.
3) Turn it over and delight in the fact that it is printed on both sides.
4) Fold it carefully, take it home and spread the word.
All very interesting and novel, but it would mean nothing if the content was not of quality, and while not everything is great writing, taken in context, it is always interesting. What I really like about this anthology is that it includes everything that featured in the original editions. That means that the stories, poems and essays vary in terms of style and content, but not dramatically. In fact the standard is remarkably high. When you discover some of the names involved this is unsurprising. Alasdair Gray, Angus Calder, Suhayl Saadi, Rodge Glass, Kevin Williamson and even Robin Cairns are some of the better known writers that can be found between the covers, but there are many names that I knew little of, and some who were completely new to me, and it is their contributions that are perhaps the most interesting. Actually that’s not true, it is the balance of contributors which is the real achievement. The One O’Clock Gun has managed to incorporate different writers and styles while still maintaining an overall agenda of pushing ideas of what literature can achieve, and, perhaps more importantly, how it can achieve it. It’s an old adage, but in this case true; that the method of transmission is as important as what is being transmitted.
Some of the work contained is rough around the edges, but surely that is what such a publication is about. The most important thing is to get the paper out, and it is easy to forget as you read this glossy anthology the fanzine nature at the roots of the Gun. There is strong whiff of the punk ethic, the idea that literature is not elite but for everyone. It’s as if they are saying ‘here’s a pen, here’s some paper, now go and write. If it’s any good we’ll publish you.’ This plan worked better than the editor Craig Gibson could have hoped. Some of best things included, and these are good enough to justify buying a copy on their own, are James Wood’s poems, Alasdair Gray’s moving vignette to Billy Semple, the ‘Ode To All The Orange Ladies I Have Loved’ by ‘The Heckler’, ‘God Saved The Class of ’85’ by Rodge Glass, ‘Uncle’ by Andrew Smith, everything by Graham Brodie and Lucy McKenzie’s illustrations (particularly the one which has Alex Kapranos having a Martini as James Kelman looks on in disgust).
But the star of this collection, perhaps unsurprisingly, is the late Angus Calder. I had read some of his poetry, but it is the essays and prose that are included here that surprised me, delighted me, and made me want to read him more widely. It is his writing, as much as the editor’s vision, that holds the anthology together and helps maintain the tone. He is witty, political, literary and poetic; all the things to which the Gun obviously aspires to be, and often achieves. His best pieces are ‘Drums for Sandie Craigie’, ‘Dark Seagull’ and ‘Aux Armes, Citoyens!’ where Calder gives great advice to us all; “If it isn’t witty or beautiful, don’t bother to read it.”
Special mention must be made of edition No 17, the last one collected here. It is an overdue assessment, and attack on, Scottish culture’s obsession with duality and the idea of a split personality. It is too simple to say that Scotland is split, or Edinburgh is split, or the Scottish psyche is split, or whatever example you wish to make, especially in a modern Scotland. It’s too neat and life’s not like that. Peter Burnett’s essay ‘Stop This Shit Now!’ rightly points out that although there are a few prominent and famous examples of duality in Scottish Literature, there are just as many examples in English, French, Russian, Irish, and any literature you wish to offer. It has become an accepted truth that Scotland has a dual nature. It’s lazy, clichéd, and outdated thinking that is ferociously and rightly challenged here.
The final piece is Kevin Williamson’s brilliant discussion of Scotland’s obsession with the idea of an antisyzygy; ‘Duality: Come In, Your Time Is Up’. It touches on Descartes, Slipknot, Alexei Sayle, John Knox, Thomas Aikenhead, R.L. Stevenson and The Verve. You may not agree entirely with the premise, but it’ll take all of your intellectual ability to argue against it. This is what the Gun often does, challenge pre-conceived ideas (as Howard Jones once sang. This pop referencing is catching). You may feel some of the content is controversial, but a little more controversy in writing, as long as there are sound reasons for it, is no bad thing.
I was originally going to read the anthology straight through and then review it as I would normally do. But then I thought that’s not the way such a collection should be approached, in fact it would be detrimental to do so. You should live with it, reading and re-reading favourite pieces until they start to live with you. Stick a copy beside the bed for those times when the thought of picking up that important novel is unappealing, or take it with you to the pub and read The One O’Clock Gun as it was originally meant to be read. Finally those of us who are not residents of Edina can participate.