10 Dec 2014

Strip the Willow by John Aberdein

What is it about Aberdeen that brings this out in writers? This isn’t the first time that Aberdeen has been described through the sort of cracked futuristic lens best reserved for a cortex jamming Japanese comic.

But Aberdeen, the well-known oil-capital of Europe,  lends itself to satirical, future-specific madness.

Strip The Willow by John Aberdein lies somewhere between Akira and Alan Bleasdale, with the best of both. Strip The Willow (Polygon 2009) is literary fiction however, and not science fiction. There is a sub-genre of literary fiction that should be called WAMBA Writing Admired Mostly By Authors. (Could be NAMBA if you change writing to novels - it's up to you).

Take Louis Ferdinand Celine. His is one of those names you hear a lot from writers. Celine was among the most unique prose stylists of the Twentieth Century, and writers know this and laud and praise him from their websites. When it comes to actual readers (those that are not writers) Celine’s showing is poor. Writers adore him — readers don’t get it — classic Wamba.

This may be relevant in the context of John Aberdein because writers seem to like him. The first couple of sheets of Strip The Willow are packed with praise from other writers, but the book didn't perform well at the cash register.

Both writers and readers enjoyed John Aberdein’s Amande’s Bed. However, actual readers reviews of Strip The Willow are less enthusiastic than the critical reviews, but given that those in the know have given the thumbs up, maybe it doesn’t matter.  Strip The Willow can be enjoyed on many levels, but not that of story.

Strip The Willow is certainly crammed with creamy prose full of the best eyeball-kicks you’ll come across today. I was hooked by John Aberdein’s detail, his skill, and knack for capturing moments in life, although it still took 40 pages before anything happened in terms of story hooks.

I am trying not to present that as a criticism. The greatest Wamba of all time (and by extension the greatest novel of all time) Sartor Resartus contains nothing that could inspire a person other than a writer to read any of it, for less past page 40.  Far less past line 40. I’m just thinking that there must be a happy medium of a well-written book, which aside from the ‘supple zest of the language’ (Jennie Renton) contains a story and characters that a reader can care for.

Story, for the record, is different from narrative. Sartor Resartus does not have a story, but it does have a narrative. Strip The Willow does have a story, but it isn’t the first thing that hits you on reading it, because Strip The Willow is more about feeling, flair and the sort of condensed depiction of character, scene and action you may find in poetry.
The puns and jokes are thick and fast in Strip the Willow. To understand some of the jokes you need to be from Aberdeen to get them. For other jokes you will need to be polymathically perverse with a sound grounding in European culture. There will still be jokes in there for you, and I know there were many other jokes in here that sped over my own head — I just had that feeling. I can’t even begin with my favourite joke, because Strip the Willow is like a Bible of them.

Strip The Willow is a novel of great set-pieces. A tramp being cleaned by the heroine and an epic fishing trip are among the most memorable. A fisherman's breakfast and a line of futuristic shops; there's so much finery as well as savagery to enjoy. The climax of Strip the Willow describes the launch and failure of the world’s biggest media spectacle, the LottoGrotto. The nightmarish results of the launch of the LottoGrotto are among the most vicious, apocalyptic and world-churning scenes imaginable. It’s toweringly wicked, and behind it is a strange feeling that the author wants to punish Aberdeen, tear it to pieces, kick it on to the ground and pour on the petrol from on high. It’s like The Day of the Locust, except it's the same Aberdeen that Stewart Home and Iain Sinclair want to see blackish and bloody after a decent kicking. These riotous scenes in Strip the Willow are cartoonish, disastrous and insane.

So what is it about Aberdeen that calls for this? Separating Scottish writing from that of the rest of the world, there are novels of all types from Edinburgh, Glasgow and Dundee. Some novels celebrate these cities, while others revel in the kind of sub-cultures that all cities have.   This does go on in Aberdeen, perhaps in the work of Lance Black and Stuart McBride.

But only in the case of Aberdeen however, Scotland’s fourth city, do the writers roll up their sleeves and attack the municipality head on, as if in some kind of personal grudge war. It’s probably down to something quite simple; the fact that Aberdeen and the North East are highly conservative places, with small Cs and large Cs. Before the oil, Aberdeen was as much a farming town as anything else, and farming is among other things, a conservative profession. As is the fishing, I guess.

That said, everyone in Scotland hates a Tory, and in that John Aberdein is as representative of his nation as a writer can be.  There once was a blog called Other Aberdeen, and in that blog were to be found considered, topical, psychological and social arguments concerning the contemporary development of the city, usually framed with some humour or actual historical digging from the author.  Other Aberdeen was about pyschogeography on the whole, and most British cities have at least one such blog, dealing with these issues, in this manner.

Why Aberdeen's perfectly lucid psychogeographical blog attracted such awful local internet trolls, however, is unclear.  Only in Aberdeen do the rank and file conservative gibbering classses arm themeslves with aggressive catchpharses such as 'This is shite!' and take the time to post their hateful feelings, instead of just browsing on to something more to their tastes.

It is then, war in Aberdeen.  The stushie regarding Aberdeen's Union Terrace Gardens and its proposed development into something called The Granite Web is a good example. In Aberdeen, everyone takes things personally, it appears, which is why hackles are up, people are raging and the slightest boat rocking is shouted down.  And that's one of the reasons John Aberdein shakes as hard as he does.