CALLY PHILLIPS REVIEWED

Visit Cally Phillips’ Festival Page 

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Reviewed here: Brand Loyalty, The Threads of Time, Voices in ma Heid, No Labels, Chasing Waves

Other ebooks: A week with No Labels, Five Fairplay Dramas, It Wisnae Me.

BRAND LOYALTY

Move over George Orwell Brand Loyalty is set in the future, a future which is horribly near. It is a thought provoking, page turner which explores life in a consumerist dystopia run by ULTIMATE. Despite living in such a virtual environment the characters of the young people Omo, Flora and Nike are engaging and authentic and make us want to believe there is a way to circumvent ULTIMATE and live a ‘real’ life again. It is not a comfortable read and this book raises questions – about memory, about reality, truth and whether we can prevent the creation of this monstrous world. What is so scary about Brand Loyalty is its plausibility. When you look around, you see the world of ULTIMATE is already almost upon us. Reviewed by Mary Smith

I want to see this on TV! Don’t get me wrong – I’m a lover of books and I loved this one in many ways. But to my mind, it’s a story that cries out for visual enactment and dramatisation. It’s exactly the sort of thing that Channel 4, if I had my way, would be showing on our screens.

Where to begin? This is partly the story of Helen, one of my generation, currently middle-aged but, since this is 2030, she’s now ‘old’, and because she’s one of the unlucky ones she’s living a sad, impoverished existence in a dreary ‘home’. Helen is a VCC – a victim of the credit crunch (interestingly, the first drafts of this story were written in the 1990s, long before the ‘real’ credit crunch). The CC was the end of History and the beginning of Today – and the online dictionaries reflect this boundary by giving two definitions of every word – one ‘In History’ and one ‘Today’. (Yes, there are strong echoes of 1984. Orwell’s I mean, not Thatcher’s, though come to think of it…)

Helen has lost her much-loved husband and children and now lives with only her memories – though the whole notion of memory has a different cast in these times. Memories, even the most personal ones, are always social constructs to some extent, but Phillips has stretched this notion to a frightening but not implausible degree.

‘Brand Loyalty’ is also the story of three ‘Project Kids’: Nike, Omo and Flora (yes, these really are their names), who are being trained to play their part in the brave new world of ULTIMATE®. ULTIMATE® can be thought of as an amalgamation of the world’s largest companies (naming no names here) – it’s the ultimate ‘brand’.

‘Brand Loyalty’ is set in Edinburgh, but it’s a future version of that city where there is no longer any Scottish Parliament or even a Royal Commonwealth Pool. Presumably, ubiquitous virtual reality has removed the need for the latter, while ULTIMATE® has overtaken the functions of government. In 2030, everyone is a consumer – consumption rules. Much of life is lived online, including most sexual encounters. But this isn’t really sci-fi. It’s a near-future scenario, much of which, you feel, is already beginning to happen in our day. It’s social engineering built on the back of rampant capitalism, consumerism and IT. And, of course, greed. It denies individuality and progressive thought – any kind of challenge to the system. It’s frightening, I have to say, because it could almost literally be Tomorrow’s World, if not today’s…

So, as the Project Kids watch the world’s last tiger die on their screens – is resistance useless and is freedom doomed?

Things change. Helen talks to the project kids. One of them falls in love and comes to her for advice. It’s poignant, hearing Helen talk about love as it was, in the lost world she remembers. Another kid starts posing questions – difficult ones that he’s not really meant to ask. One question leads to another and he soon uses up his quota (which has to be paid for by useful work – doing consumer surveys in the main). But Nike (or Nick, as Helen, his gran, insists on calling him) ploughs on, uncovering all kinds of inconvenient truths, making contact with a rebel group and… let’s just say shaking things up.

As for Helen – is there any escape for her, in any kind of life, from her institutional magnolia-painted walls?

‘Brand Loyalty’ is the most challenging, disturbing and fascinating book I’ve read for quite some time. It deserves to be widely read – and, if possible, seen. Please, someone – put it on TV. Reviewed by Rosalie Warren

THE THREADS OF TIME

The Threads of Time is set in rural Scotland in the 1990s on the site of a dig to excavate the remains of an ancient Celtic settlement. Young, idealistic archaeologist, Paul, is employed by grizzled veteran Harry, the very embodiment of cynical, corrupt careerism. Paul’s immediate superior on the dig though, is also the object of his deepest desire, Diane.

The arc from Paul’s infatuation with Diane to the beginning of their burgeoning relationship is traced with excruciating, exquisite detail; the passages of prose take on a mounting, electrical erotic charge as Paul moves forward towards his goal. As fixation develops into love there are moments of union when time, for the couple, seems to stop, and they exist on the edge of the revelatory. The fact that the reader is somehow allowed to tangibly share in those moments speaks of the book’s great descriptive power.

Paul and Diane also share a strand of mysticism which leads back into their separate childhoods; manifested as Paul’s encounter with the living past during a meeting with a mediaeval knight in the form of a jousting re-enactor; and Diane’s courageous act as a little girl of taking the hand of a Red Indian head-dressed war-chief during an event in Harrods and abandoning herself to the primal dance.

But in Paul, there is always something watching and separate, removed:

“She shone like gold and he wanted her to be gold but he had no way of knowing if the real Diane was a treasure trove or a smashed pot.”

With the digging up from the peat earth of an extraordinary find, Paul’s love for Diane is unexpectedly dwarved. He enters into an even deeper psychic bond with the ancient past, his mind pulled back overwhelmingly two-and-a-half-thousand-years. The sensuality which had enabled him to escape the bounds of time and space with Diane for those exquisite but excruciatingly brief periods, has now led Paul to lay hands upon something far more powerful and ancient which may never let him go. He becomes privy first-hand to the mysteries and revelations of the ancient world, realising ever more keenly the bankruptcy of the modern one.

The old world takes over Paul’s dreaming life, but he still has to live in the modern daylight world with Diane and Harry. A battle for supremacy of his soul seems to have been entered into with no guarantee of the outcome.

As the purpose of the past’s call becomes clearer, Paul understands he may have to break with everything and everyone he has ever believed in, if he is to fulfil the requirements of a destiny set in motion long before he was ever born.

“We are all magicians in the face of reality. History is our magic wand.”

Inexorably, and with a structural beauty and emotional power, this book moves towards a denouement which, in the huge context of this story, can only be seen as the “right true end”.

An exceptional novel, with a strange quality of warmth, which juxtaposes beautifully with the meticulous structure and detail of the prose.

The book haunts when it is closed and put aside, in a way that I suspect may be permanent, and while reading there are moments of penetrating revelation where a hushed stillness and centre seems to have been suddenly discovered by the author and transmitted into the spirit of the future reader.

Part love story, and part labyrinthine quest into the terrifying corridors and tunnels of the human subconscious, with all its attendant struggles, losses and agonies; and then this quest itself only leading to an even greater love story, one defiant of time and space, and insistent that its call down through the centuries be heard at last. Reviewed by John A.A.Logan

The Threads of Time is a page-turner of a time-slip novel which explores, among other things, the links which connect our lives in the present with the lives of those who lived in the past, thousands of years ago.

Paul is an archaeologist on a dig in South West Scotland. While digging for artefacts from the past he is also seeking answers to his own questions – though he is finding archaeology is not the certain business he once believed: “even questions were uncertain in this discipline.” He is shocked to discover Harry, the leader of the dig, wants only to find remains which will corroborate previous finds to keep his academic reputation. When Paul breaks the rules by digging off-site he discovers a perfectly preserved bog-body. It is a find which will touch and change the lives of everyone connected with the dig.

After his encounter with the bog-body, Paul’s dreams of a past age begin: of the ancient Celtic settlement, of the people who populate it and of the beautiful Maedbh. But, are they dreams or are they memories? Does Paul ‘remember’ the colours, sights and smells of that long ago settlement where people lived in an almost Utopian harmony, where the love of his life, Maedbh carries his child?

Cally Phillips cleverly uses two distinct writing styles for the past and present sections of the novel. This makes the past seem so real there is almost a jolt of dissatisfaction when Paul ‘returns’ to the present with its petty jealousies, commercialism and dishonesty.

Myths, legends, history and hard ‘facts’ are themes which run through The Threads of Time. The characters are real and believable – even if not all are likeable – and the author has created a strong sense of time and place, both in the present and the past. The setting is the glorious Galloway Forest Park and surrounding areas.

The Threads of Time may make you reconsider just how accurate archaeology can be and how devious respected professionals can be when defending their ‘turf’. By coincidence I had only just finished The Threads of Time when I read a newspaper article on the Piltdown Man hoax. It was exactly 100 years ago two men discovered the skull and jaw of an early human in a field in Sussex. It was presented to the world as the ‘missing link’ between apes and humans and allowed Britain to claim its own human fossil after years of being an also-ran to the French and Germans. Forty years later, the find was revealed as a hoax and accusatory fingers were pointed at such eminent men as Arthur Conan Doyle and Pierre Teilhard de Chardin, although until now there is no evidence to say who the perpetrators of the hoax were. This year scientists are going to try to solve the mystery of who planted and ‘discovered’ Piltdown Man. A fitting year for the publication of The Threads of Time. Reviewed by Mary Smith.

NO LABELS (Monday to Friday)

These are 5 episodes chronicling the work of a fictional drama group (called No Labels) which are based on real work done by the author in collaboration with a beguiling, attractive, varied bunch of people tagged with the label ‘learning disability’. It’s a great read – funny, entertaining, but also thought-provoking in the best sense of the word. With each wee adventure, it gently challenges your perceptions of people, labels, and the values on which our society SEEMS TO run. I’ve just finished reading it and the characters are all still vivid for me. I know they’ll stay that way for a long time, too.  Reviewed by Bill Kirton

(please note that A week with No Labels, the Omnibus edition is now available as an ebook)

VOICES IN MA HEID

Cally Phillips is a courageous author. Not only has she been brave enough to write the five stories in this collection in her local tongue, she has also had the audacity to publish the collection, to open it up for scrutiny (and perhaps derision) by the vast worldwide population of Amazon readers.

That tongue – Lowland Scots vernacular – is the one I was brought up with. Sadly, though, after many years of practising a cultured Edinburgh accent, its rough intonations have all but disappeared from my speech. Yet it’s still the tongue I think with; it’s still the voice in ma heid. And that’s why these stories resonate so much with me. It’s why the characters created by Cally – the voices – are so authentic to me.

Would that many more Scots authors had the courage to write like this. Would that many more readers in Scotland and beyond appreciated the writing. Mind you, if you come from that green and pleasant land south of the Watford Gap, dinnae bother; you wouldnae unnerstan’, ken? Reviewed by Brendan Gisby.

IT WISNAE ME  When I read Voices in ma heid, the first volume of Cally Phillips’ short stories written in Scots, I was delighted by the authenticity of the characters – the voices – who populated her tales. There’s only one voice in this latest volume, but it is equally authentic – and I was equally delighted by it.

The voice belongs to a young girl, who I presume to be the author herself. In consequence, the stories are intimate and personal. Matter-of-factly, with bags of humour, and in that all-important Scots tongue, they narrate escapades from the girl’s life from when she was only six years old through to when she had just turned thirteen. Disclosed in the course of them are long-held secrets, together with glimpses of the girl’s nomadic home life and mildly eccentric mother.

Two qualities in particular make this collection stand out from the fast-growing mass of similar memoir ebooks. The first is so subtle that perhaps even the writer didn’t realise she was achieving it. It is the gradual maturing of the voice from naïve youngster in the opening tale to knowing, almost world-weary teenager by the close of the final tale, a feat that could only be accomplished by a highly skilled writer.

The second quality is much more obvious. It is the development of the narrator’s character. Here we have the little girl who wanted to grow up to be a man; who eschewed the Brownies for the Cubs; who shunned the rules at school; who wouldn’t be intimidated by the bullies; who didn’t want to be part of the crowd; who knew by the time she reached her teens that she would be different. Here we have the emergence of a non-conformist, a rebel. Here we have, I’m certain, the origins of the spirit of Cally Phillips. For that reason alone, it is worth downloading this collection. Reviewed by Brendan Gisby

CHASING WAVES

This Ebook consists of two relatively short plays, Chasing Waves and Benito Boccanegra’s Big Break and the author’s notes on each. In those notes, she suggests that the latter investigates areas that she refined and developed in the former, so it seems logical to approach them from that perspective. They both belong very clearly to the Theatre of the Absurd, a movement that people tend to date back to the middle of the last century (or even earlier) but which persists today.

Benito Boccanegra’s Big Break (which, from now on I’ll call 4B) is ambitious. The action switches between the present, Italy in the 1920s, Italy and Paris in the mid-late 19th century, and 14th century Genoa, but these disparate periods are tightly linked through the characters. Joe Green (a name which, except for one vowel, translates into Italian as Giuseppe Verdi) is a student researching the operas of the real Verdi, who wrote an opera about Simone Boccanegra, Il Doge de Genova. And the fourth main character is the fictional  Benito Boccanegra of the title, a circus ringmaster who’s beaten to his goal of establishing fascism in Italy by another Benito – Il Duce.

In the words of the author, these characters in their separate time periods and their separate ways, explore ‘the relationships between fiction and reality, tragedy, history and heroism, audience and character’. Each of them is seeking to understand something about himself, to explain some aspect of his dilemma. It’s entertaining but challenging. The scenes and the action move quickly and the overall dramatic pace never drops. It’s an experimental play but one which is built on firm stage conventions.

I enjoyed reading it but, having read Chasing Waves first, I felt that the complexities of the personalities and their different involvements in 4B were so absorbing in themselves that the underlying ‘message’ didn’t come through as clearly as it had in the other play. Perhaps, since 4B was written ten years earlier then Chasing Waves, that might suggest that either the writer’s thinking or her dramatic techniques had evolved but that’s pure speculation and tends, unfairly, to imply that 4B is a lesser play as a result. It isn’t. It’s just different.

Chasing Waves has only two characters, but they’re called Wittgenstein and Schrodinger, so we know what to expect right from the start. Except that, while it’s a play about thought, knowledge, understanding and meaning (in short, philosophy), it’s also funny, thought-provoking, involving and entertaining. It has clear echoes of Waiting for Godot, both in the repetitious and questioning nature of some of the exchanges and in their frequent, direct acknowledgements of the presence of an audience. It also references the Stoppard of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead.

Their only props are a black or white board, 2 photographs of the ‘real’ Wittgenstein and Schrodinger, and a box – the famous box, of course, which contained (or didn’t contain) a cat, which was alive or dead or both. But the theatrical dynamic is in the single debate they pursue through the play, the scientist stressing the importance of knowledge, the philosopher insisting that the goal is understanding. This is making it sound dry and academic – it isn’t. Ideas, especially about the fundamentals of how we perceive things and the consequent nature of the ‘reality’ we construct from those perceptions and observations are stimulating and even fun. The two actors who call themselves Wittgenstein and Schrodinger share the slow desperation of Vladimir and Estragon and sometimes become frustrated at the apparent lack of progress or the occasional stalemate. They discuss levels of ‘truth’, the need to make choices and the ‘evidence’ we need to make such choices.

And the members of the audience are also participants in the debate. They watch the action expecting to ‘learn’ something, to ‘know’ something as a result, but Wittgenstein rejects knowledge as unreliable and, instead, seeks understanding. Knowing what someone means isn’t the same as understanding them. ‘Mind invests meaning in language’ says Wittgenstein and, of course, the unreliability of language is one of the basic themes always exploited by Absurdist drama.

A recurring question is ‘What’s in the box?’, and it’s used cleverly for both philosophical and dramatic effect. At the philosophical level, it’s not just the contents but the nature of the box itself that’s questioned and its theatrical impact comes from its use as a running gag and an excuse for some good and bad miming from the actors. They talk of starts and endings, insist on the importance of ‘now’ and recognise that all we ever have is the moment.

The author, in her notes, suggests that the audience must have ‘open, enquiring minds’. Well, yes, that’s true. But that doesn’t mean a po-faced notion of the elevated nature of philosophical discourse. There are light touches of wit and humour that make this much more than a ‘thought-play’. On top of that, the author’s ‘Extras’, i.e. notes on the production and for the enlightenment of her actors, offers the clearest exposition of quantum theory I’ve ever read (and as I write that, it’s important to know that, as a non-scientist, I’ve read countless books which claim to ‘popularise’ science and which have left me as ignorant as when I began).

Altogether, this was an entertaining but also an instructive read. I not only ‘know’ what physicists ‘mean’ when they talk of such things, for the moment at least, I ‘understand’ them. Reviewed by Bill Kirton

Cally is editor of IEBR and the Director of the Edinburgh Ebook Festival.

Being thus primarily ‘responsible’ you’ll find her popping up everywhere but she can also be found with her writer’s hat on in Short Stories (Aug 15,18,20), Writers’ Pieces (Aug12) @theFestival (Aug 13), Beyond Fiction (Aug 13).

Visit Cally Phillips’ Festival Page  

Visit Cally’s Amazon Author Page