Monday, 6 April 2009

10. Ian Rankin - 'Talk Show' (1991)

'It all seemed a long way from the Light Programme, a long way from glowing valves and Home Counties diction.'

(Ian Rankin, Beggars Banquet, Orion, 2002, p.165)

Rankin deploys an insistently engaging style, straightforward and familiar, in contrast to Hill's rather distancing subtlety. He uses reference points that are easily recognised (i.e. a character's glasses are round, 'NHS or John Lennon' style), whereas I felt that the particular Hill story chosen gave one little to latch onto. That is hardly to say that he overdoes this and things become played-out in the 'look at my empathy with pop culture' Nick Hornby manner. This is an Inspector Rebus story, actually published when the series of novels (which now is up to #17) was only two books in. It is also from the same year that Terry Gilliam's The Fisher King drew inspiration from the similar territory of radio phone-ins and 'shock jocks'.

Rankin makes use of his Scottishness, clearly setting the work in a recognisable Edinburgh - placing himself in the lineage of Scott, RL Stevenson and Muriel Spark, whom he wrote his thesis on, I believe. He writes with humour and understanding of the absurd modern media phenomenon of the talk show, here incarnated within Lowland Radio - represented by the polar opposite shows on the station, of confrontational highlander Hamish MacDiarmid and the more understanding, soothing approach of Penny Cook.

Looking over the stories read so far, there hasn't been a great deal of bona fide amusement; much laughter induced. I would argue this is the funniest I have read, dry humour like the Barthelme, but Rankin's satire here is less stinging - the guffaws tend to be more affable. However unhappy his vision of Scottish life is - the very lifeblood of such phone-ins is human misery, after all - it is conveyed in a manner which says: all is not lost. The grounding is in the bleak ebbing of ordinary lives - 'All these lonely, slightly deranged people out there...' that Penny deals with - but despair does not become the main tone. (p.170) This is certainly not James Kelman's A Disaffection (1989), which is casually and intensely harrowing in its delineation of one human being's disillusionment with society and work and distance from others.

I have the chance to go to Edinburgh and Glasgow next week; will certainly give it some thought. I am looking forward immensely to reading more Scottish shorts; naturally the formidable Glaswegian block of Gray-Kelman-Spence. But also the equally acerbic counter-culturalist Muriel Spark - whom the proprietor of Attica, the vintage clothing / artefacts shop on High Bridge in Newcastle was reading when I was last in there (when I bought a tie, several seventies editions of Films and Filming, a Spanish style shirt which reminded me of the cover of the Associates' Sulk in an entirely unscientific way, and, after a joint utilitarian / aesthetic purpose, an in-house Attica pen).

Rankin's story here impressed me; local observations (city-centre bars invariably reverting to a staple of beer, eg. the solid marker of an IPA pump) mixed with portrayals of people that show how the reality can be different from the perception - e.g. hearing somebody's voice and 'persona' via the radio. Rebus is confounded twice in terms of his expectations of the presenters. The detective himself is hardly explored in great depth in this story, but one gets the sense of a vaguely Columbo-esque operator, occasionally seeming absurd or clownish but gradually gaining an insight into things and then using melodramatic sleight-of-hand to push home his advantage.

Overall, the story subtly questions the assumptions behind phone-in radio; itself a forerunner of reality television and all that that entails. He uses the generic form of crime narrative and police procedural to expose folly - as in how ratings and cheap sensation always dominate over ideals of public service. Rebus exposes the lie upon which MacDiarmid and Cook's current success was founded; one is consigned presumably to 'a croft somewhere', but Penny is implied to be pursuing a more rewarding form of journalism. As thanks to Rebus she drops in at his flat in the curiously ambiguous final passage, nicely complicating this genuinely 'honest copper'. (p.167)


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