Monthly Archives: July 2014

The Glasgow Coma Scale nominated for Not the Booker Prize

Some Not the Booker contenders

Every year since 2012, The Guardian newspaper has run a blog series/competition called the Not the Booker Prize, in parallel to the actual Man Booker prize (the longlist for which was announced last week). Unlike the real Booker, this prize includes a public vote: first, nominations are sought, then from the lengthy longlist thus assembled — 99 books this year — six are picked to progress to the next round, to be read by hapless Sam Jordison, who is in charge of the thing.

The Glasgow Coma Scale has been nominated (hurrah!), and so joins those other 98 titles; and I, therefore, join 98 other authors who will spend the next few days encouraging, cajoling, bullying and offering imaginary bribes to voters to try and get enough votes to proceed to the next round.

What you need to do — I stress the word need; there’s a mug on offer as a prize, you know: The Guardian is asking voters to pick two books from the longlist and write a 100-word review of each. So, merely write a hundred words or so on The Glasgow Coma Scale, plus one other, post them on the Guardian thread with the word ‘vote’ in your post, and all will be well.

I will point out here that GCS is, at a little over 200 pages long, among the shorter books on that list, and since voting closes at midnight on Sunday, there’s ample time to read it before then: how about buying it half-price here?

I will also point out that I drink a lot of tea, and a new mug would be actually quite useful.

Incidentally, the above illustration — which I spent time putting together in Photoshop when I should have been doing actual work — represents the only other NtB-longlisted books I’ve read, all of which are excellent.

The Glasgow Coma Scale Tumblr


Everyone and everything has a Tumblr these days — even books and book publishers. (Though still it mostly seems to be used for porn.) I set up a Tumblr for The Glasgow Coma Scale months back, then thought today I had perhaps better put some STUFF on it. I’m using it as a sort of retrospective sketchbook or moodboard to show some of the influences on the book: art works I looked at and thought about, books that were useful, songs I was listening to, and random gubbins that, dreamlike, had an effect on the way the book went. Have a gander.

“I read it in The Times… tomorrow’s Times.”

I was, as they say, cock-a-hoop — and what does that really mean? — to hear from my excellent friend Jennifer that The Glasgow Coma Scale was reviewed in The Times today (Saturday, 26th July). I wouldn’t dream of subverting their paywall, but the words you need to know are “assured, original, witty”, plus some other very nice things.

On looking the phrase up, I learn that cock-a-hoop may have its origins in some technical term involving turning on a tap and letting alcohol flow. Well… all right then!

On guddling around in dialect

Mony a mickle maks a muckle. Photo: Mark C.O'Flaherty

Mony a mickle maks a muckle. Photo: Mark C.O’Flaherty

It didn’t take me long, when I was thinking about the story that would become The Glasgow Coma Scale, to realise that I faced a fundamental decision: on dialect. The book is set in Glasgow, and many of the characters are Glaswegians; so how was I going to represent their way of talking? Just by sprinkling an ‘aye’ here and a ‘naw’ there? Or should it be something more intensive? Something more… difficult?

I grew up in Glasgow being questioned over, or mocked about, my accent, which sounds distinctly un­-Glaswegian and means I often have to issue caveats – ‘I am Scottish, despite the accent.’ (The author Janice Galloway – you may need a dustpan and brush to sweep up that name – once delighted me when she was signing my copy of All Made Up by describing it as ‘an accent that’s travelled’.) So to try and write characters who employed ‘the patter’, as it’s known, was a daunting prospect: it meant trying to replicate in text a form of speech that I was very accustomed to hearing, but not to speaking.

Still: lots of things that are difficult are worthwhile, and I had the safety net of being able to look to that tradition in Scots literature of employing not just individual words that don’t quite have English-language equivalents, but of the variant spellings and the phonetic renderings of everyday speech. Trainspotting and the works of James Kelman are obvious recent comparators, but most Scottish authors will deploy even in ‘standard English’ writing a resonant bit of Scots lingo: a ‘cooried in’ here, a ‘glaikit’ there. The important element was to try to use context to make these words’ meanings comprehensible to a reader unfamiliar with them: quite a nice challenge in itself. And no different from when you encounter ‘flocculent’ in John Banville (or Nabokov) for the first time and have to consult your encyclopaedia or, more likely, Wiktionary.

Then there are those terms for which a phonetic rendering is unimprovable. Any day on Sauchiehall Street you might hear a harassed mum implore her boisterous child, ‘Haud your wheesht!’ How to put that in standard English? ‘Hold your tongue’ seems a bit fierce, ‘Hold your hush’ unnatural, ‘Hold your breath’ downright mean. Nope: the best translation of ‘wheesht’ is ‘wheesht’. And, as a writer, once you’ve committed to that, why not also to that ‘Haud’ – and then to a terse ‘yer’ or ‘yir’ instead of the long vowel sound of ‘your’? Suddenly the language starts speaking for itself.

What was important to me was that the dialogue seemed authentic to the characters. When we first meet Angus, a born-and-bred Glaswegian from a working class background, he’s living out on the streets; to have him speak in BBC-announcer RP English was of course not unthinkable, but it seemed it would be a missed opportunity. You can pay tribute to a place in all kinds of ways; to me, an effort to work with the rhythms and cadences and vocabulary I hear around my home city was one way of praising the place. It’s a city of voracious readers, gleeful language-users, and haverers – that’s people soapboxing and going on a wee bit long – and I wanted my book to reflect that. And while consistency of spelling was important, I was aware that not every Glaswegian speaks the same way, up to and including those of us with a ‘travelled’ accent, so there are variations among characters, from the thicker-spoken to the more anglicised. (There’s even an Aberdonian in there. I hope I got a plausible Aberdeen-ism into his dialogue too.)

There was another reason, too, one which was important to me and, I hope, will affect readers likewise. This was, as I say, a hard decision – why not set the book elsewhere and/or leave out the Weegie dialect? – and part of my motivation was to do something I’d never done before: at least to try it, to work out how (or if) I could achieve it, and to teach myself something. A first novel it may be, but The Glasgow Coma Scale is not the first book I’ve finished, and each time I’m keen to try something I haven’t attempted before.

From the reader’s point of view, in turn, I hope that the little bit more engagement the text asks as you accustom yourself to the dialogue between Angus’s Scots accent and Lynne’s English accent yields some sort of reward. A reader is a translator already; how else do those funny squiggles on the page turn first into signifying words and then to scenes you can visualise in your mind’s eye? Bringing in non-standard English is just one little extra wrinkle to an already pretty impressive act of engagement by the reader. And it never did Irvine Welsh’s popularity any harm.

On another level, it’s one more way in which Angus and Lynne – who are thrown together by circumstance and spend the book attempting, in an Odd Couple type of scenario, to try to understand one another – differ visibly on the page.

At the very least, I hope I can bring the word ‘fankle’ to a slightly wider audience.

First reviews of The Glasgow Coma Scale

Checking that the mistake on p.171 was deleted properly

Checking that the mistake on p.171 was deleted properly

It’s a week until The Glasgow Coma Scale is published, and I’m delighted I’ve already had a couple of reviews. The Skinny calls it “an intriguing debut, capturing the psyches of two very different people as they look sidelong at the reasons their lives haven’t gone quite as well as they’d hoped” — those two being Angus, the former art teacher fallen on hard times, and Lynne, the ex-pupil who helps him out not quite out of the goodness of her heart.

The Stirling Observer has also published a generous review which turns out not to be available online, intriguingly demonstrating that ‘offline-only’ journalism still exists in 2014. As well as discussing the journey Angus and Lynne go on together — becoming more dependent on one another the more their increasing enmity makes them want to break apart — the review notes that the book “turns its gaze to questions of gentrification, economics… art… [and] the personal tussle involving in deciding whether to declare yourself a resident of Maryhill or North Kelvinside.”

Above: it’s me, last week, having opened the parcel containing finished copies of the book. I asked Mark to document this process, figuring that there’s only one time in my life I’ll ever get to see final copies of my first book for the first time. As I had no involvement in the cover, which was designed by clever Jonathan Gray, I can fairly say how terrific the finished product looks. It’s a book you’ll want to pick up and stroke when you see it in the shops next week. And then you’ll want to take it to the till.