Monday, April 12, 2010

Momus – ‘Solution 11-167: The Book of Scotlands’

A collection not of stories but of Scotlands. Numbered, but not in order. None of them are entirely real, none entirely false. ‘Every lie creates a parallel world: the world in which it is true’, states the cover in bold capitals over a flag which is Scotland’s in shape, England’s in colour. Some of the Scotlands are more Germany than Scotland; quite a few are 90% Japan. The majority are high concept one-liners (Scotland 37: ‘The Scotland in which every citizen is pale, malevolent and glaikit’ (p. 131)), but many also run to several pages. A few are obscene, a few might count as magic realism, myths or fairy stories. The influence of Momus’ holiday to Orkney in 2008 is clearly felt. Edinburgh, where he is from, is the most vividly realised city; Glasgow hardly features; and Dundee is, unaccountably, completely absent. Primal Scream are in there: rebranded Sonic Flower Groove, you’d have to be a pretty odd Momus fan not to pick up on that. Norman McLaren is there too, under the name McBean, and I wondered what the point was in telling people about Norman McLaren if you aren’t going to reveal his name? Like you did here. Maybe he is more famous than I’m giving him credit for. Click Opera runs through this book’s veins: its recurring themes are here too, most emphatically the one about the UK’s boorishness, its intolerance of nonconformity, which is the target of Momus’ satire whenever he switches Japan for Scotland. There is never any ‘reveal’ as such, the details build up until you realise you’ve been had:
Some adorably cute kids, a boy and a girl, are slithering by on steel rollbars, pointing at the rain flecking the airport window. Their mother indulges them for a while, then calls them to her kindly. They respond with a loud ‘Aye!’, an obedience which is at once utter compliance and delight. (pp. 35-6)
An unexpected effect of the book was that it made the things it led me to look up seem fake. It is heavily referential throughout, nearly every page sent me to Google, and what I found on the internet was often written in the same factual style as the book itself. A mention of McCaig’s Folly, a fake Roman amphitheatre in Oban, led me to this website, and the first sentence there, ‘Oban stands unchallenged as the capital of the western seaboard of Scotland’, could easily be the start of another of Momus’ Scotlands. The fact that I knew about McCaig’s Folly, and have seen it many times (though I didn’t know its name before), wasn’t enough to make the real website ring true. But I believed in Momus’ fakery (as fakery), because it was on paper.

Googling the word ‘superlegitimacy’, from the same story as the quotation above (Scotland 101, natch) led me right back to Click Opera. That entry is reworked, in fact, and included as Scotland 124. In it, the Tokyo train driver of the blog post becomes an Edinburgh tram driver (like there are ever going to be any of those...), but, place names aside, it is not Edinburgh which is being described. The story is a simple one: the narrator takes a tram, from Pilton to Restalrig, and happens to stand close to the driver’s glass partition. He soon notices ‘a series of odd cries’ coming from the driver, and begins to closely observe his behaviour, which appears to be highly eccentric:
I watched – and filmed – the lunatic. He did seem exceptionally focussed. At each station he made a series of florid manual curlicues, approximating the gestures of an orchestral conductor. He pointed vigorously at the TV screens in his console displaying the doors, then pulled the tram away from the station with both gloved hands on the accelerator lever, uttering as if by compulsion the ecstatic, falling cry: ‘Kkkkyyyyyoooooooooo!’ (p. 106)
It turns out that within the driver’s own culture, this behaviour is perfectly normal – it only appears remarkable to the narrator as an outsider. Perhaps for this reason he is also better placed to see its virtue: the man has ‘the very soul of a tram driver’, and is the opposite of an employee within an individualistic society, who would never identify himself with such menial work in this way. The flaw with this attitude is that
Individualistic societies cover their hierarchical verticality with the ideology of ‘equality of opportunity’ (which of course entails its less benign cousin, inequality of result). (p. 107)
If an individualistic society is vertically structured, with everyone chasing the same goals, ‘Scottish society is superflat, diffuse’. Your job gives you a place within it. In the book version, the narrator actually becomes the driver, and gets to feel his pride. It seems very much like a happy ending, but there is a problem with it: the narrator has swapped curiosity for a contentment which never looks beyond itself. And Momus would not be Momus if he did that.


Update: Chris points out, ‘the perpendicular St Andrew’s cross on the front cover isn’t in the colours of the English flag – it’s Pantone 1655 (ref. Scotland 23)’. I dunno though, it looks red and white to me.

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