CHAPTER TWENTY-FOUR

C.A.R. Hills, J.W. New,
Ian Rankin, Robert Mullen












As soon as I step out of the station into the warm September streets of Edinburgh, I feel fabulous. A change seems to have taken place within me. What happens to writers? They get over the deaths of their fathers.

I walk up the Scotsman Steps admiring the different colours of marble that artist Martin Creed has chosen for each of the hundred-odd individual steps. What materiality, what manifest luxury, what public sculpture can be and do today!

‘Green, red, pink, blue;
Climbing up the stairs to you.’


I’ve come this way so as to pay a fleeting tribute to C.A.R. Hills. I’m now passing the Balmoral Hotel, formerly the North British Hotel, which has strong associations with Muriel Spark. Charles wanted to tell me his theory about The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie, but I didn’t think - and still don’t think - that’s what this last chapter needs. What it needs is a carefree taking of the air. Nevertheless, “Cheers, Charles,” I say, as I pass the kilted guy manning the doorway. “Best of luck with your post-Brixton life, and thanks so much for the wisdom you sent me from your cell. Now I know what the word ‘jailbird’ means.” Charles has told me he is pouring his hard-won wisdom into the blog he had to take a break from in order to serve the second half of his prison sentence.

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I’ve come to understand Charles to be an indomitable figure, a life force. A bit like Grimes in Decline and Fall. Evelyn Waugh wrote a truly inspired paragraph about him and I have it with me today:

'Grimes was of the immortals. Sentenced to death in Flanders, he popped up in Wales; drowned in Wales, he emerged in South America; engulfed in the dark mystery of Egdon Mire, he would rise again somewhere at some time, shaking from his limbs the musty integuments of the tomb. Surely he had followed in the Bacchic train of distant Arcady, and played on the reeds of myth by forgotten streams, and taught the childish satyrs the art of love? Had he not suffered unscathed the fearful dooms of all the offended gods of all the histories, fire, brimstone, and yawning earthquakes, plague and pestilence? Had he not stood, like the Pompeian sentry, while the Citadels of the Plain fell to ruin about his ears? Had he not, like some grease-caked Channel-swimmer, breasted the waves of the Deluge? Had he not moved unseen when darkness covered the waters?'

I spoke to Charles just the other day. He was phoning from the porter’s lodge of his and Waugh’s old college at Oxford. He was not sure he had permission to use the phone so had to rush his important message. He told me he had been reading stories from
PEN New Fiction 2. In his opinion, the Suzi Robinson tale was extremely accomplished, and The Veils by Edith Cope was a miniature masterpiece. I was glad to hear this, as these are two of my own favourite stories from the anthology. Shame that Edith Cope has almost certainly passed away. Like my father, who I feel is all around, filling my lungs every time I take a breath.

JK Rowling is also associated with the Balmoral Hotel, indeed she wrote the final pages of the last Harry Potter book in a suite here. That book sold 18 million copies the day it was published. But - guess what? -
Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, published in 2007, may have 1,568 customer reviews on Amazon, but Saints of the Shadow Bible by Ian Rankin, published in 2014, already has 1,254. Could John Rebus yet eclipse Harry Potter? In any case, Rowling and Rankin, Rankin and Rowlin': two British state school literary sensations.

Soon I’m walking past the Scott Monument on Princes Street. Sir Walter, rendered in white marble, sits serenely, surrounded by the most outrageously decadent spire of stone. It’s the biggest monument to a writer in the whole world, apparently. But what’s this? Sir Walter’s features seem to be morphing into those of Ian Rankin. Ah well, just as my father has happily made way for me, so Sir Walter has given up his prime place in the sun to the bestselling writer of today.

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Last week, Ian Rankin was in sunny Barcelona collecting a cheque for 125,000 Euros, as winner of the RBA Crime Novel prize, given for the Spanish version of
Even Dogs in the Wild. That’s the most money on offer anywhere in the world (that big claim again) for a crime novel. And do I take pleasure from that? Well, a little, but not as much as I would if the money was distributed equally between all the PEN pals!

I walk so far along Princes Street, reckoning that every second person I pass is sporting an Ian Rankin tattoo on the back of their neck, could I but see it, and then dive into the National Gallery of Scotland to see what will catch my eye there. A Seventeenth Century landscape by Claude Lorrain is the thing: a timeless, blue-skied scene. In the background, a temple on a hill; in the middle ground, Apollo plays his lyre surrounded by nine female Muses, while four male poets are clambering into view; in the foreground, a God-like man with flowing silver hair and beard is lying on the ground, naked from the waist up. He holds a fern, possibly a quill, in one hand, while a stream seems to emerge from the hefty pot that he’s tipping out with his other hand.

The caption says he is a river God, but if Jeff New wos ‘ere he would surely be able to say much more about the scene, to flesh out the allusions to fame, immortality and creativity that would appear to be found throughout the composition. Jeff would surely be able to link the river God, with Apollo, with the female muses, with the toga-clad men. And in the process some of those beings would come a cropper, no doubt. The temple may be the Temple of Immortality, but I fear for those swans, that winged horse, those mortal wayfarers. I really do.

But Jeff New’s not here, and there’s no reason to suppose he will ever be willing to meet me again. There’s a door to a gents’ in the wall opposite the painting. I enter and find myself walking on marble once more. At the urinal, peeing as freely as a thirty-year old now that my condition seems finally cured, I come up with a theory as to why Claude Lorrain’s river God is looking so serious. He has an infection of the urinary tract. Indeed, he has had a recurring UTI for what seems like centuries. The river God makes gallons of water stream down the land to compensate for the discomfort he feels deep inside himself whenever he tries to squeeze out the merest drop. No need for Jeff’s active co-operation then. I got to the bladdery heart of the picture all by myself.

Another ten minutes walking gets me to Castle Street where I perch on a piece of granite and glance towards Edinburgh Castle while getting out
Call of the Camino by Robert Mullen. Ian Rankin put at least two photos of the castle on his Twitter feed in August, and one can see why: the attraction of this particular view never fades.

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I want to finish reading Call of the Camino before meeting Bob, and it looks like that’s what’s going to happen. Pilgrim Bob has got to journey’s end: Santiago de Compostela. And he celebrates by sharing a bottle of wine with Angelica, a young ‘vulnerable, bad-tempered, fragile, resilient, reliable, stubborn’ Swiss woman who he has met while making the pilgrimage. Actually, they share two bottles over lunch before staggering out onto the streets and taking fond leave of each other. Is that what’s in store for Bob and me today?

I look back at the bits of this humble and wise book I’ve underlined this morning. For instance:

‘Perhaps what the Camino afforded, regardless of any prior intention, was a means of getting to the bottom of oneself.’

That’s maybe what
PEN New Fiction 2 afforded as well.

I make it to the Oxford Bar five minutes ahead of my appointment. As described in the Rebus books, there is a back room and as it’s only 12.40pm on a weekday it’s almost empty. I buy a pint of IPA (as is the custom of both Rebus and Rankin) and take a seat in the back room where I have a good view of what’s going on and no-one can see the back of my neck.

At the front of my copy of
Even Dogs in the Wild, I’ve noted that three scenes take place in the Oxford Bar, beginning on pages 18, 95 and 159. I turn to the first of these, and read:

‘The Oxford Bar was nearly empty, and John Rebus had the back room to himself. He sat in the corner with a view of the doorway. It was something you learned to do as a cop – anyone coming in who might mean trouble, you wanted as much warning as you could get. Not that Rebus was expecting trouble, not here.’

At that point in my reading, I hear someone enter the front room and say: “Are you Duncan by any chance?”

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Now this is ridiculous, the only customer in the front bar is a young red-headed guy of about thirty. Does Robert Mullen really think I have been able to hold back time itself since the publication of PEN New Fiction 2 in 1987?

“IN HERE, BOB!” I shout, somewhat peremptorily. Christ, have I morphed into cantankerous John Rebus? Is the whole world Rankining? Now there’s an observation cum prediction. It sounds a bit negative but I mean the exact opposite.

Robert Mullen comes into the back room and we smile into each other’s eyes as we shake hands.

pen pals - Version 6pen pals - Version 6















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