Extract: The Great and Good of the Brilliant & Forever

In this extract of The Brilliant & Forever our three intrepid readers are preparing to attend something almost as daunting as the festival itself: the launch party. It’s a place where making a good impression could mean the difference between winning or losing . . .

Brilliant and Forever

The Great and Good of the Brilliant & Forever

The annual Brilliant & Forever launch party had arrived. The evening sky was a deepening bruise; the very air over the island seemed to crackle. I could hear it. Normally the sky doesn’t talk. Yet a palpable static of anticipation and apprehension fizzed and sparked at my ears, hissing words like ‘failure’ and ‘disappointment’ as I cycled around, trying to keep my mind in the moment, rather than projecting into worrisome futures. Maybe the sky was echoing my own inner voice? Maybe that’s outrageous arrogance.

The streets bristled with adrenalised people dashing in and out of houses, cars, shops, shouting platitudes about clothes and haircuts and drinks. Alpacas bounded along in jittery, alert packs. They weren’t allowed to attend the party, but some of them showed support by bearing homemade flags with painted ‘Archie for the B&F’ or ‘Alpacas are Brilliant & Forever’ messages fluttering. Some flags had an image of Archie in his stetson, grasping his spittoon, grinning cheesily.

Back home, I had a long hot soak in the bath and read chapter eighteen of Life and Fate to remind myself to be grateful for the countless opportunities I had and the immeasurable terrors I didn’t.

Macy and Archie came round to my blackhouse at eight. Macy wore a strapless dress; its top half was green, then it fell in black silken pleats from her waist to just above the knees. She’d gathered her hair into an Ecclefechan plait, complete with diamond hair clips. She looked sensational.

‘You look sensational, Macy,’ I said.

‘And you look shit,’ she said, presenting me with a quick hug and a solid good-natured slap across the shoulder.

‘My face is like an early hagiography, or the world’s greatest novel.’

‘What?’

‘Not yet made up.’ She smiled, pleased with herself.

‘You never wear make-up.’

‘I know, just practising some lines for a story.’

‘Very good,’ I said. ‘Hey Archie, you smell like vanilla shower gel. I’m going to eat you.’ I made a play of grabbing him and attempting to bite into his neck. He thrust me away, beating at me with his rhinestone stetson.

Archie is one of those alpacas who showers regularly as a concession to humans, an act some hard-line alpacas shun and politicise, and today he had brushed his coat, too.

He put on and adjusted his stetson, which I knew, and he knew I knew, was his favourite one. ‘Gotta make an effort.’

Maybe I did look shit. I had dressed in a yellow tartan kilt and purple shirt.

‘I don’t know,’ I said. ‘Parties aren’t real. They make me uneasy.’

‘Your dress sense makes me uneasy,’ said Archie, trying to lift up my kilt.

‘Oi! Quit it. Let’s just stay in and watch a film instead,’ I said. ‘Who needs parties. The B&F itself is what it’s about, the party’s a superficial event for whitehousers and posers. I want to stay in and watch a film. Yeah, I’m gonna fight for my right not to party.’

‘Is there a John Wayne on?’ said Archie, suddenly alert.

‘No, but there’s a Jeff Bridges. It’s called True Grit. From 2010. Jeff Bridges and his actor pals make a good effort at repeating just about every single quotation from True Grit, in order.’

‘Like a film would have more drama than the B&F launch party! You just have social anxiety, and face it,’ said Macy, who was perfecting her hair in front of and inside a wall mirror ‘you’d be crazy if this society didn’t make you anxious. Ergo, you’re worried because you’re intelligent.’ Macy had a theory that intelligence caused people to be unhappy. I had a theory that any intelligence ascribed to me was exaggerated.

I opened my sporran to see if I’d remembered my eye drops, cash, pen, inhaler and blank page. ‘I just feel it’s weird. Eight o’ clock, Saturday, you are granted permission – no, you are obliged – to be happy. Let’s synchronise watches.’ (Archie didn’t use one, Macy in lieu of a watch had a tattoo of a watch on her wrist; the watch’s face read ‘Now’.) ‘Impossible,’ I said, ‘or is it easy, to synchronise your watch with itself.’ I suddenly panged, wanted to be a watch in sync with itself, just as quickly shook the thought away. ‘But parties – how can people even do that? Just start being happy because someone decrees this is the time to be ecstatic? People don’t get together every Wednesday morning at eleven fifteen to share a few hours of poignant behaviour. We don’t congregate every second Thursday at midday to express our communal outrage.’

‘Maybe we should,’ said Archie.

I paused. ‘Maybe we should,’ I conceded. ‘Maybe there’s a revolution on the horizon.’

‘You’re nervous and havering,’ said Macy. ‘Don’t make me slap you in the face.’

‘I,’ Archie announced, ‘am going to get rip-roaring drunk and persuade everyone to get nekkid and dance the fandango with me. They’ll see how much fun an alpaca can be. I’ll show them Bohemian living, fandangoing alpaca fashion. How’s the fandango go? Such a great word.’

‘I know nothing about it,’ I said. ‘Nothing. So you can’t call me intelligent.’

‘I don’t know the fandango either,’ said Macy, ‘and I’m supersmart. It’s no indicator. Straighten your sporran, mister.’

‘Parties aren’t real,’ I said again.

‘You’d pass up the chance to watch an alpaca do the fandango?’

I sighed. ‘Well, when you put it like that.’

‘Here’s a taster.’ Archie started shaking his hindquarters and scatting random syllables – ‘doo-wa-doo-woo-a-shoobee- doo-shoobee-doo-way-a-bom-ba-shoo-a-weeeee eee-wee-ba-ba-boo’
– and in this fashion he shook and shimmied and sang his way around the room, his rump occasionally crashing a book or a mug to the floor. Macy and I grinned. Archie was as excitable as a kangaroo. It was wonderful to see him in exuberant mood.

At last he stopped and struck an exaggerated, disgruntled pose. He pouted and made his face look as hurt as he could, which didn’t work too well with his perma-smile. ‘The hell you pair laughing at? You got no class. It’s just a jazz thing you don’t get.’

We laughed at our brilliant mad alpaca pal. No humour as endearing as unselfconscious self-deprecation. And no question, I supposed, but that we were going to this party. I tried to don the mental equivalent of a yellow kilt.

Macy sped us to the castle in her battered Datsun, cornering at screeching right angles. The landscape streaked by like we were on a train. Boyracers hurtled past in the other direction, millimetres away, sound systems blaring repetitive beats.

An Interview with Kevin MacNeil, author of The Brilliant & Forever

We are less than month away from the publication of Kevin MacNeil’s novel The Brilliant & Forever. We thought that we would take the opportunity to ask Kevin a few questions, to get to know him a little better:

Brilliant and Forever
1. Do you have a favourite character in the book?
 I grew fond of all the main characters, but my favourite has to be Archie. Because he’s an alpaca.

2. What was your inspiration to write this story? / Was there a particular moment of inspiration that pushed you to write this? Was there one specific moment? Hmm. I’ve wanted to write a novel about the X-factorisation of culture and about friendship (and ambition and competitiveness and envy) for some time. I wanted to create a novel that had a wide spectrum of voices so that I could give thought to what writing is and what it’s for. But the triggering moment was probably when I met a talking alpaca.

3. What is your favourite scene or moment in the book? I especially like the final chapter – but no spoilers.

4. What inspired you to become a writer? I always thought it was because I wanted to create something that would last longer than I would. But I’ve increasingly come to realise it is also to honour those who existed before I did.

5. What keeps you motivated as a writer? Reading great books, observing lovely absurd little moments in life, travelling, meeting people, attending book festivals, watching films, being alive in and to the moment.

6. What’s your favourite book, and why? Impossible! Too many to choose from. Way too many. Probably a Buddhist sutra, though  – The Heart Sutra.

7. Do you have a routine when you’re writing (i.e. silence, a particular genre of music, only working in the morning, only working in your underpants?) I usually work best in the quiet of morning. But I can also write in noisy cafes, and I’m glad of that as writers need flexibility, discipline and a deep understanding that things are how they are. Writers who can only work with a diamond-encrusted biro or while wearing a pair of Dan Brown’s castoff Y-fronts are heading down the road of OCD.

8. What advice would you give to anyone who wants to be a writer? Being a writer is about communicating imaginatively. You communicate every day and you exercise your imagination every night, so inherently you have the potential. The practical skills are learnable. The thing no one can give you is perseverance.

9. How easy was it for you to find a publisher? It was relatively easy since I’d already published with Polygon. My first book was with Canongate – and they had approached me asking for a manuscript. So I’m not a good example! I just happened to be in the right place at the right time.

10. What’s the best experience you’ve had while writing a book? Writing The Brilliant & Forever was overall the best experience I’ve had writing a book. It was actually fun to write. I enjoyed it in a way that felt fresh and new and energising and I think these qualities fed into the book.

11. Who are you generally writing for? I’ve never really known. Perhaps anyone with a lively mind and a sense of humour.

12. If you weren’t a writer, what would you be? I once worked in a restaurant as a commis chef and indeed was asked to leave university and work as a chef full-time. Maybe I could have done that.

13. What one thing would improve your life? I don’t think it’s helpful to think about what’s missing in life – better by far to be grateful for what we have.

14. Where would you like to be right now, anywhere in the world? Same answer as 13!

15. Are any or your characters based on yourself or people you know? *Consults lawyer* ‘No comment.’ *consults bank account* ‘That’s how much advice to “make no comment” costs?’

16. If you could swap lives with one of your characters, who would you choose and why? Hibiki in The Brilliant & Forever. He understands.

17. Have you ever regretted how you ended a story and wish you could change it? Yes. I once gave quite a dark book a depressing conclusion, thinking it was the only possible ending that novel could have. But the film version would have been different, and will be, if it’s ever funded.

18. If you weren’t a writer, what would your ‘dream’ occupation be? Professional cyclist.

19. If your book was a film, who would you cast for the lead character? Ryan Gosling? Though he seems to smoke too much in his movies. A young James Stewart, if such a thing were possible? I wonder if I’d play one of the characters myself – I played Sorley Maclean in a drama doc a few years ago.

20. Why are books important in your opinion? Wisdom, empathy, experiences we wouldn’t otherwise have, enjoyment, emotional engagement, humour, awe.

21. What are you reading right now? West of Sunset by Stewart O’Nan, The Anthologist by Nicholson Baker, Time Present and Time Past by Deirdre Madden, The Travels of Sorrow by Dermot Healy, Carrying the Fire: An Astronaut’s Journeys by Michael Collins.

22. Which authors do you particularly admire? Ryunosuke Akutagawa, Anton Chekhov, Anne Michaels, Vasily Grossman, Lydia Davis, George Saunders, Denis Johnson, Dino Buzzati, Carson McCullers, Ron Rash, Mary Robison, Robert Louis Stevenson.

23. If you had a superpower what would it be? I’d like to be SortTheTrainsOutMan – my superpower would be the ability to sort the trains out in this country. Instead of being overcrowded, unreliable and overpriced, they’d be comfortable, affordable and a joy to travel on. I wouldn’t have an attention-grabbing costume. I’d be dressed normally and go about my business anonymously. As people relaxed on their train journey, eating pastries while, say, Glenfinnan slid past, I’d feel happy because I’d Sorted The Trains Out. And yet I’d always have a tinge of regret I hadn’t gone for Eradicating Poverty and whenever EradicatingPovertyMan went zooming past overhead I’d get a physical sensation of self-reprimand.

MacNeilKevin MacNeil is an award-winning writer from the Outer Hebrides now living in London. He is a novelist, poet, editor and screenwriter. The Brilliant & Forever is his third novel will be published on the 3rd of March 2016. You can buy a copy here, online, or in any good bookshop.

 

Six Nations 2016 – An Extract from ‘Behind the Thistle’

Ahead of this weekend’s matches that kick off of the Six Nations 2016 we take a look back to the genesis of the current Scotland team and how it has grown to a squad that was a whisker away from the semi-finals in the 2015 World Cup; a team that were crushed emotionally in that great, bittersweet battle against Australia, a game that will live on in infamy in every Scotsman’s memory.

This extract is from Behind the Thistle: Playing Rugby for Scotland, and is from Chapter 25 and starts with the 2013 season:

RETURNING TO THE TOP TABLE
2013-2015

2013 and 2014 saw another period of transition. Scott Johnson had been employed by Robinson as a skills and attack coach at the start of the 2012 season and took on the head coach role after the Englishman’s abdication. Johnson in turn employed the services of former England international turned Sky TV analyst Dean Ryan on a short-term contract as his forwards coach for the 2013 Six Nations and the hurriedly assembled coaching team pulled a rabbit out of the hat in leading Scotland to third in the table – the highest finish they have enjoyed since occupying the same position in 2006 (although the 2013 team recorded just two wins to the 2006 team’s three – and one of these was a daylight robbery one-point win over an otherwise dominant Ireland at Murrayfield).

Behind the Thistle pbkJohnson came to Scotland with a mixed reputation as a popular skills coach but with mixed results as a head coach. After negotiations with the SRU following the 2013 Six Nations, it was revealed that he would remain as temporary caretaker coach and would, in time, move ‘upstairs’ to the SRU’s Director of Rugby position, last occupied by Ian McGeechan in 2005. With the announcement of Vern Cotter as his long-term successor as head coach, a whole new controversy ignited when Cotter’s employers, Clermont Auvergne (who had been unaware of the SRU’s advances), blew a gasket and insisted that Cotter see out his contract to the summer of 2014. So Johnson remained in charge for the 2013 summer tournament in South Africa with the host nation, Samoa and Italy, the autumn Tests against Japan, South Africa and Australia and the 2014 Six Nations before handing over the reins to Cotter for the summer tour to north and south America and South Africa – and the road to the 2015 World Cup in England. Clearly, for a team that had struggled to string a series of victories together in the professional era, the foundations on which the team was trying to build consistency were manifestly unstable. But the players simply had to accept the coaching merry-go-round and get on with things.

Despite this instability and sense of uncertainty in the coaching structure, some of the attacking play during the 2013 Six Nations was exceptional. Against England in the opening game, Sean Maitland marked his debut with a try down the blind-side wing after some wonderfully ambitious attacking play, before a turnover on the Scotland line by Kelly Brown unleashed a counter-attack normally only seen by the classic French teams of the ’80s and ’90s. The ball went from Brown to Stuart Hogg to Ruaridh Jackson to Matt Scott, whose quick hands unleashed David Denton – and all this done behind the five metre line. Denton carried the ball just beyond the twenty-two and very nearly ended the move when he ignored supporting runners. But as he was felled by Mike Brown he popped the ball from the floor to Jackson, who showed the same dexterity as Scott had done just moments before to slip the pass wide to Maitland. Maitland found himself in space but was aware of the covering defence tracking across to close him down; he was also aware that he had Hogg to take his side into the lead with just four minutes remaining on the clock on his inside, so carried the ball up field to the ten metre line and stabbed a grubber into space for his fullback to chase. Hogg put on the afterburners, showed fabulous footballing skills to hack the ball on and then beat the despairing cover of Toby Flood to score in the corner. It was to be voted try of the tournament.

The attacking intent was wonderful, but the defence was often stretched and the set-piece creaked under pressure from a dominant England eight. In the end, those were the margins that decided the fate of the match and England won 38-18, a scoreline that was more than a disservice to the Scottish efforts.

Mike Blair: I decided to retire shortly before the 2013 Six Nations. It was a hard decision to make, but it’s one that I felt lucky that I was able to do. Every time I pulled on the Scotland jersey it was an incredible honour and a privilege.

There’s a plaque in each players’ cubicle in the Murrayfeild changing-room which bears the name of greats from the past who have previously worn the shirt. Seeing those great names, I was always reminded of something that Jim Telfer once said: that the jersey is never really yours; it belongs to the nation and to the history of the team . . . you are only ever borrowing it for a time.

I used to recreate David Sole’s slow march of 1990 in my garden, used to hear Bill McLaren’s voice commentating as I ran around with the ball. I think that when any player pulls on their international jersey, they wear it for their friends and family, for all the fans that support them around the world, for the great players that have worn it before them, for their school teachers and for their club coaches and so on; but they also wear it for that boy inside of them who has played a thousand games in his head, and for those who even now run around their gardens with a dream that they might one day wear that same jersey. For me, that was what playing for Scotland was all about. Forget all the lows. It was an amazing ten years; I lived a dream.

Jim Hamilton (Scotland 2006-2015, 63 Caps): After the England loss Dean Ryan dished out a pretty brutal analysis. There was no crisis meeting but he spoke to every forward and asked us to tell him what we felt our primary role was as an international player. None of us did our job properly against England so we had to strip it back and sort it out. Rugby is a simple game and if you don’t do the basics right you won’t win the game; there’s no point looking pretty, running around and offloading if you don’t get the win.

Against England, we were a bit off our game and they were very, very good – they played a completely different game to what we had trained for and what we expected. You have to give them credit, though: they won the contact area so well that we had to go away and have a good long look at ourselves.

The backs had impressed at Twickenham and they continued where they left off when Italy came to Murrayfield, tearing the Italian defence to shreds as they scored tries through Tim Visser, Matt Scott, Stuart Hogg and Sean Lamont in a 34-10 shellacking.

Stuart Hogg (Scotland 2012-2015, 38 Caps): I really enjoyed my try against Italy because it was another length of the field effort and had been a bit of a gamble. Italy had broken through and they had a two-on-one against me – and I decided to go for the intercept. It was a pretty big call and I could have made a complete mess of it if Luciano Orquera had thrown a dummy. It was a fourteen-pointer, as they say, because if it didn’t come off then they would have scored under the sticks. Orquera had broken into space and I was set up pretty square against him, so it made sense for him to try and keep me fixed and then give the scoring pass to Tommaso Benvenuti. I had the option to either try and tackle Orquera man-and-ball to try and stop his pass, to slide onto Benvenuti but risk Orquera dummying and scoring himself, or to go for the intercept. Luckily it came off and eighty metres later I’d scored at the other end. It’s a great moment when you back your instincts and your skills and things like that work out for you.

Greig Laidlaw: We played Ireland next and with the way we were playing we felt really good about our prospects. We wanted to win and we wanted to win the respect of the Irish boys as well. We’d probably not given them much reason to respect us in the recent past, so we wanted to change that. Unless you beat them you can’t expect respect from them. It was a bit of a scrappy game; they went ahead after we let in a pretty soft try from Craig Gilroy, but we kept in amongst them and kept chipping away at the scoreboard. We showed some decent dog that day and hung in there and we managed to get our noses in front near the end and stayed there.

Jim Hamilton: It was a strange game, I think they had seventy-five per cent possession and I think we stole ten out of fourteen of their lineouts, which was obviously a huge base for them. Ireland are always very structured in what they do and rely on their ser-piece a lot. But if you can counter that you set yourself on the road to beating them and that’s exactly what happened in 2013.

Although the team continued to play in an expansive fashion in the next two fixtures, against Wales at Murrayfield and France in Paris, the defence was porous and small errors on the part of the Scots were ruthlessly taken advantage of by their opponents as Grieg Laidlaw’s team lost both Test matches 28-18 and 23-16 respectively.

In the summer, the team travelled to South Africa for a quadrangular tournament featuring the Springboks, Samoa and Italy. The opening match was against Samoa in Durban, where preparations were hampered slightly – albeit in a positive way – when prop Ryan Grant received a call up to the Lions tour in Australia. The late change in the front-row could not be blamed for the result that followed, however, as the big-hitting South Sea Islanders overpowered the Scots to win 27-17. The bruised squad then had to try to pick themselves up to face the might of the tournament hosts at Nelspruit, but they had picked up a number of key injuries in the squad and Kelly Brown, Pat McArthur and Geoff Cross were all forced to return home. The South African 372 media had written off the challenge of Scott Johnson’s side, but the match wasn’t nearly as one-sided as it had been predicted, with Scotland sparkling in attack to score some sensational tries through Matt Scott and Alex Dunbar. The injury woes continued, however, as Scotland lost not one but two stand-offs during the course of the match, with Ruaridh Jackson and Peter Horne both sustaining serious knee injuries, and in the end the greater power and experience of the Springboks told as they secured a 30-17 victory to meet Samoa in the tournament title decider.

Matt Scott (Scotland 2012-2016, 33 Caps): The South Africa game in the summer of 2013 was a big turning point for me. Scott Johnson had given me a hard time all week after we lost to Samoa, and one day he took me to one side and said, ‘Look, you’ve got thirteen caps now, you’re not new any more. If you don’t start growing up and acting like a player with thirteen caps, one who can boss the game and start believing that you are good enough to be here, then we’re going to pick someone else.’

It was a huge kick up the arse, but he was right; subconsciously I was still immature, still not being loud or assertive enough. Against Samoa I’d been too chilled, but before the South Africa game I wrote loads of notes and distilled them into five or six key points which I kept reading over and over. In the warm up I was very focused and animated, much louder and more vocal than usual.

I was so motivated and pumped – although getting up for that game was easy as the South African media spent the week speculating on whether we could keep the margin of victory to less than 50 points – and I had a very good game against Jean de Villiers, one of the best centres in the world. The way I played gave me a big confidence boost; I felt a genuine change inside of me, and I often reference that game in my own mind.

You can read more about the history of the team with your own copy of Behind the Thistle: Playing Rugby for Scotland, available here, and in all good bookshops.