Non Fiction Book Review


Raw Spirit

(2003) Iain Banks, Century, 10.99, pbk, 368pp, ISBN 1-844-13199-8

 

This is a book about whisky. About making it and the places it is made, about how to get to them, both the scenary and the character of the journeys, and about the search for the perfect dram. A single malt. Is it an Islay or a Speyside or a Highland? Only this book, time, and your own tastebuds can tell. But this is also a book about Iain Banks. Not exactly autobiographical, though there's autobiography galore, not exactly a book of anecdotes, but there's more than a few of them too (including the truth about 'climbing all over' that Brighton hotel and the unconnected arrival of the police), nor is it exactly a book of social commentary and political criticism but, given Iain wrote this during the early part of 2003, there is plenty of that too. In fact, if there is a criticism of this book, it is that it is not much of anything in particular. Which is hardly surprising... I mean, there you are, a well-known Scots writer falling into a dream job: someone wants to pay you to write a book about whisky, plus expenses, and there is no shortage of people offering to help out, once word gets around; so you buy a bunch of reading material, and you take the trips and drink the drams, and then you have got to actually write the book. So you go all Jilly Goolden about it, and the drams become 'peaty' and 'seaweedy' and 'smoky' and 'fruity' and 'caramel-y' with hints of this, that and something else, and the bad stuff is 'oily'. Then you chuck in a few more flavours, that may or may not actually be in the whisky, describe the distillaries (and their various 'Visitors' Centres') and their locations, etc. And, after all that, you find out your book is about 50 pages long! Hmmm, what to do? Perhaps chuck in a load of autobiographical detail, a few anecdotes, some social commentary and political criticism and, voila, 368pp. Easy.

Which scenario probably bears little relationship to the way it actually happened, but I think you get the point. All of which serves to explain why I would review this book here. You see it is not that I think Concatenation readers are particularly interested in whisky (though I know, as a matter of fact, that several of them are), but they are (or should be) interested in Banksie, whether they prefer the SF and 'Culture' novels of Iain M. Banks, or the mainstream-with-a-twist books that allow Iain to transcend the SF 'ghetto' (not much of a 'ghetto' these days, it has to be said - you make your own mind up whether that's good or bad). The point is that, some 20-odd years into his career, this is the first (so far as I am aware) and only (ditto) non-fiction book of Iain's published output. And it is fitting that it should be about whisky, just as it is fitting that it is also about Iain who, barring one South Bank Show, has managed to remain pretty anonymous to his wider public - the SF crowd know Iain well from various SF conventions. So you get to hear about Iain's cars and attitudes on driving, and you meet his friends, as it were, and you hear various tales of varying tallness. And get to read hilarious paragraphs like this:

"I find myself looking at Blair and hating his self-righteous, Bush-whipped ass the way I only ever hated Thatcher before. I look at Dubya and just see a sad f*ck with scared eyes; a grotesquely under-qualified-for-practically-anything daddy's boy who's had to be greased into every squalid position he's ever held in his miserable existence who might finally be starting to wake up to the idea that if the most powerful nation on Earth - like, ever, dude - can put somebody like him in power, all may not be well with the world. Dubya is that worst of all things, at least at this level of power and influence; a cast-iron, 100 per cent, complete and total loser who's somehow lucked out and made it to the very top." Rock on, Banksie.

Tony Chester


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