Argyll peninsula: Lochs, Scots… and two whisky barrels

There are two types of season in Scotland,” Billy Connolly once quipped, “June and winter.”

As the warm evening sun flickers one final time on the calm, aquamarine waters of Loch Goil, near Loch Lomond, before disappearing behind the ruins of Carrick castle, I glance at my wristwatch. If the Big Yin ever tires of stand-up comedy, he could certainly have a future in meteorology: it’s 10.46pm on June 1.

Scotland is often described as a land of contrasts, both physical and cultural, and it’s not hard to see why. The bright lights of Glasgow are barely 40 miles away, but out on the loch, as porpoises bob up and down and gannets and oystercatchers soar majestically overhead, the big city feels like another, distant world. Only the slow, steady hum of the generator punctures the silence.

As darkness draws quickly in, I drain the last amber drops of Scotch from my glass and slip back into my lodgings for the night — and for the next week — the Glen Massan.

The boat, a converted fishing trawler, is one of two belonging to The Majestic Line, an Edinburgh-based outfit that specialises in luxurious cruises along the west coast of Scotland. I’m on board for a six-night wildlife-spotting cruise around the south Argyll peninsula.

The Massan, an 85ft slab of Irish oak, has been stripped and redecorated for less able seamen, with a stylish saloon, surprisingly salubrious and spacious cabins, and a viewing deck replete with sun loungers (for those occasional non-June afternoons when a bout of high pressure interrupts Connolly’s long-term outlook).

The brainchild of keen amateur sailors and old school friends Ken Grant and Andy Thoms — inspired by a jaunt on a Turkish gulet, they founded the company in 2004 — The Majestic Line operates from Dunoon and Oban, two of the most famous fishing ports in west Scotland. Both are little more than an hour’s drive from Glasgow, but there’s no need to hire a car: I’m one of a handful of guests collected from the international airport by shore manager Andrew Manwell.

“It’s all part of the service,” Andrew smiles, before going on to entertain his rapt audience with salty tales from the Clyde’s long shipbuilding history, the remnants of which are clearly visible in rusting industrial towns such as Greenock and Port Glasgow that pockmark the road from Glasgow to Dunoon.

Andrew’s friendly, informative manner is typical of The Majestic Line, where luxury seldom equates with stuffiness. Indeed, our vessel has barely pulled out of its berth when there’s a knock on my cabin door. “Sorry to bother you but we’re going to be sounding the horn in a moment,” explains engineer Bob McLean, who I’d been introduced to only moments earlier over a bon voyage glass of bubbly in the saloon.

“Don’t be alarmed. It’s because we’ll be passing by Andy Thoms’ mum’s house and we’re giving her a birthday salute. She’s 94 today. You’re more than welcome to come up and have a wave if you like!”

Scurrying up the stairs, I’m just in time to spot a white tea-cloth furiously moving back and forth across the front window of a semi-detached house on the shore. “There’s Mrs Thoms,” Bob smiles, as we glide by, picking up a gentle speed. We begin the voyage towards Loch Goil, our first night’s port of call.

As the sun sets over the rolling hills, the guests — eight in total — unwind over a long, languorous and consistently excellent evening meal in the saloon.

My girlfriend and I are, by some distance, the youngest members of our party, but the group has little of the static, retired air I had expected from a cruise boat. Two middle-aged English couples, Viv and Robin, and Jean and Gordon, have come north separately but share a love of wildlife, while Carol and her octogenarian father George have travelled from the east coast of the US especially for the trip. “I come for the whisky, really,” George laughs, admiring the two fingers of Talisker single malt in his tumbler.

It’s impossible to gauge how guests will gel beforehand — and it could be a long week if they don’t — but thankfully there are no personality clashes, and we’ve nothing to distract us from the remarkable scenery of Argyll and its myriad islands. The area’s roads are notoriously bad (think Cavan circa 1987 but worse), so water really is the best form of transport for exploring Scotland at its wildest and most dramatic.

Our daily itinerary is pleasingly flexible: each morning, skipper Martin McWhirr puts down his sextant and alights from his cosy, wood-panelled bridge to inquire of the breakfast table, in dulcet Clydeside tones, “Where do you want to go today?” McWhirr’s ‘suggestions’ are generally accepted — he is the captain, after all — but where we decide to stop, and for how long, along the day’s route is always up for playful negotiation.

On the island of Bute, past the faded seaside glamour of its main town, Rothesay, we spend a sunny afternoon exploring Mount Stuart house, home to the current Marquess of Bute. The house was built by the third Marquess in the second half of the 19th century: a dyed-in-the-world eccentric, he installed one of world’s first heated swimming pools, decorated his pile with astrological symbols, collected fine art and built a majestic white marble chapel. (An orphan, the Marquess converted to Catholicism at the age of 18.)

Mount Stuart also hints at the rich history Argyll shares with Ireland. Throughout the sixth and seventh centuries, the powerful, Gaelic-speaking kingdom of Dalriada encompassed Antrim and the west coast of Scotland, and some historians argue that the Book of Kells was produced on the island of Iona, in the Inner Hebrides.

The old language hasn’t died out completely, and a quick stop at the picturesque village of Tighnabruaich, nestled on the east coast of Loch Fyne, provides a golden opportunity for this journalist to wow his fellow guests with a cúpla focal.

“Aye, it means ‘the house on the bank’,” Dougie Wilson confirms my guestimate. Dougie, the Glen Massan’s hugely talented chef, moved from Falkirk — an unremarkable commuter town midway between Edinburgh and Glasgow — to live on one of the many farmsteads dotted along Loch Fyne.

“I love it here. It’s so peaceful — there’s never a sound, except the nature all around you.” And Dougie is dead right. Apart from the occasional puffin squawk, as it flies past the bridge, or the expectant chatter of seagulls circling the fishing trawlers that still work the Kyles of Bute, life on the open sea is remarkably quiet, though never dull.

Our land legs get regular exercise, visiting pretty fishing villages such as Tarbet, or strolling around ruined churches, as at Lochranza on the Isle of Arran.

There is no shortage of on-board adventure, too, whether you’re learning to drive the small, motorised tender to lay lobster pots in still loch waters, or just standing on deck, binoculars glued to your face, scanning the horizon for signs of otters or basking sharks.

Pitching up in a different spot every evening has a definite nomadic charm. Each night, we eat dinner with a fresh vista through the saloon windows, and often with some pretty distinguished neighbours for company: along the Kyles of Bute, we drop anchor not far from Richard Attenborough’s boreal bolthole, while a little further north, at Loch Fyne, we moor across from Ewan McGregor’s palatial Scottish retreat.

The pace of life quickens — but only just — on Great Cumbrae island. This tiny lump of rock, a stone’s throw from the mainland town of Largs, is still popular with day trippers from Glasgow and its main drag, Millport, is filled with retro cafés, fishing shops and, most importantly for cyclists, bike hire shops. With a circumference of exactly 10 knots — sorry, I mean miles — and little in the way of hills, the island is perfect for a leisurely cycle. The route is littered with orchids and other wild flowers, while Goat Fell, Arran’s imperious peak, dominates the western skyline.

Back in Millport, I treat myself to a well-deserved 99 in the Ritz Café, a hallowed name among Scots of a certain generation that still serves some of the best ice cream this side of Milan. After a quick nosey around Britain’s smallest cathedral and a photo outside the country’s narrowest house — scarcely the width of a door — it’s back on board for our final evening meal.

The unmistakable (should that be inescapable?) sound of Wings’ Mull of Kintyre is blasting across the PA as we clamber back on board the Glen Massan. In the distance Ailsa Craig, or Paddy’s Milestone, halfway between Belfast and Glasgow, shimmers in the bright, warm sun, while fat, round-headed seals loll on the rocks opposite the boat.

Ten minutes later, Dougie emerges from the kitchen brandishing a plate of canapés: Stornoway black pudding and locally caught scallops.

I doubt even Billy Connolly himself could conjure up a more fitting punchline for a wonderful week on the Scottish high seas.

This article first appeared in The Irish Independent on July 24

Nick Ward – Closing the Circle

In the 19th century Fastnet rock was nicknamed ‘Ireland’s teardrop’. This small, clay-slate island, 11 miles off the coast of Cork, was, for many emigrants, the last glimpse of land before America. A hundred and fifty years after the coffin ships, Fastnet is now a byword for offshore yachting – the biannual race is the jewel in the sport’s crown – but the name retains its capacity to invoke sorrow and sadness.

On 11 August 1979, 303 yachts competing in the Fastnet race left Cowes on the Isle of Wight. The 606-mile course was supposed to take them south-west through the English Channel, across the Celtic sea, around the famous rock and back to the port of Plymouth, in Devon. Four days later, after a series of incredibly violent Force 11 storms between Land’s End and Fastnet, 24 boats were sunk or abandoned, and 15 yachtsmen dead.

The 1979 race was eventually won by American media mogul Ted Turner, but it is another name – that of Englishman Nick Ward – that became synonymous with the tragedy. Ward, then 24 and an epileptic since a brain haemorrhage at the age of 15, was one of six men on board the 30ft Grimalkin. Two of the crew – owner and skipper David Sheahan and Gerald ‘Gerry’ Winks, an Irishman – never made it off the boat, while Ward was left for dead, as the rest of the crew scrambled the life raft and escaped the badly damaged clipper.

After 13 hours alone on the Grimalkin with the body of his friend Gerry Winks, Ward was rescued by a Royal Navy Sea King helicopter somewhere off Land’s End. He was the last man to be found alive.

‘I didn’t speak about what happened for 25 years,’ Ward says, his soft voice quivering noticeably down the phone line as we move from talking amiably about his passion for boating and his chocolate Labrador to the events of that fateful race in 1979. ‘For so long I couldn’t talk about what happened to me on August 14, that day I spent with Gerry.’

It was a call from Sinead O’Brien, a Dublin-based documentary filmmaker, in September 2004 that finally led to Ward breaking his silence. O’Brien had intended to make a film about his story, but once the pair met in Ward’s home in Hamble, near Southampton, the project quickly morphed into a book. The writing process was drawn out – Ward would ‘write furiously in the middle of the night’, and email his efforts to O’Brien, who would make suggestions for redrafting – but the results are remarkable. Left for Dead is a gripping, thought-provoking first-person account of Ward’s experiences on board the Grimalkin, published in 2007 to near-universal critical acclaim.

‘Sinead brought a lot of things out of me that were hidden. She acted as a conduit, and without her I don’t know if I could have done it,’ says Ward, a warm, almost avuncular character whose modesty is ever-present yet never less than genuine.

What was the hardest part of writing the book? I ask. ‘Finding enough different adjectives to describe the weather that day,’ Ward laughs. ‘The waves were unbelievable. It was like standing at the bottom of the White Cliffs of Dover and looking up at the top – that’s how big the y were.’

Ward’s work as a chandler in the 1980s and 90s brought him into occasional contact with the crew mates who abandoned him on Grimalkin, after he was knocked unconscious following a massive wave. And while they never spoke of the incident, the writer insists he feels no anger and animosity towards his former friends.

‘A force 10 is a force 10. Things happen very quickly. I’d like to think that if I’d been conscious things might have been different – but I don’t know if they would have been. There are no hard feelings now. I used the anger to keep me afloat when I was on the boat, but that’s all over now.’

While writing Left for Dead was ‘a release’, Ward still felt he had unfinished business with Fastnet. His burning desire to complete the course, a passion he attributes to a childhood neighbour, led the by now-retired sailor to enlist in last year’s race, successfully taking the 30-ton clipper Aerial around the famous rock.

‘We only got 40 miles off Land’s End in 1979. I’d never made it to Fastnet before, and when we got the first sight of Cape Clear and Fastnet it sent shivers down my spine,’ he recalls.

Thirty years after almost losing his life on Grimalkin, Ward was finally able to sail into Plymouth at the end of a successful Fastnet race. ‘Closure is an over-used word, and catharsis is an over-used word, but 2009 was both for me. It was such an emotional event.’

Left for Dead has just been republished with an extra chapter about his experience on last year’s Fastnet. But Ward’s participation in that race was no marketing gimmick, rather the sailor wanted to honour those who lost their lives in 1979 in his own way.

‘Going back and doing the race again was, for me, the perfect way to commemorate those lives. There was an official church service in Cowes last year but I didn’t want to get into that depressing state. I wanted to commemorate them in my own way,’ he explains.

Not that everyone agreed with Ward’s decision to race again. His wife took several years of persuading, and there were plenty of 1979 veterans who couldn’t understand why a 54 year old would want to race again. ‘I met a couple of old friends outside the pub in Hamble before I did last year’s race. They had both raced in 1979 and they said ‘you bloody idiot. Why are doing this?’. I just said ‘don’t worry, I’ll come back’. And I did.’

Sailing runs through Ward’s veins. He lives just a quarter of a mile from the sea, and 500 yards from where he was born, and still races three times a week. While epilepsy put paid to his dreams of a full-time life on the sea, he passed on his feverish enthusiasm for all things nautical to his two children, 24 year old Sam, and Elizabeth, 18.

His eldest is a sailor on the RSS Discovery, currently off the coast of Iceland. ‘He has been through two force 10s in the past two weeks,’ his father says proudly. ‘I’m living his life vicariously. To say I’m jealous isn’t true but I would love to be with him.’

Thanks to Left for Dead, Ward’s story has inspired not just his family, but people all around the world. One of his most dedicated fans – a young woman who gave up her shore job and dedicated herself to sailing after reading his book – eventually became second mate on Aerial during last year’s Fastnet race.

Fastnet will always be with Nick Ward but, for him, the time for lamenting Ireland’s teardrop has passed. Having made peace with the past, he is happy to walk his dog, write and, of course, sail. Though that’s not to say he would never countenance another crack at the iconic rock. ‘I’d love to do Fastnet again – but whether my wife would let me? Now that’s a different story.’

Left for Dead by Nick Ward with Sinead O’Brien is available now, published by A & C Black priced £8.99

This piece first appeared in The Irish Examiner on August 8

Football, Football, Football

Last week I played in Amnesty international’s annual Edinburgh critics versus comics football match. Not only was a chance for comics to get their own back for those one-star reviews but it was all for a good cause – to highlight the terrible treatment of Burmese comic Zarganar by his country’s military junta.

The Guardian cameras were there, and even managed to capture a rare goal by yours truly (it’s 3.10 in, but who’s counting…).

We lost 3-2 in the end, we’ll have our revenge next year. Or in print even sooner.

A satire on schooldays puts Paul Murray at the top of the class

In Ireland, small talk is not what it was. For centuries, Irish people chatted idly about the weather, then, for one crazy decade, it was difficult to buy a pint of milk without being invited to give an opinion on property prices. Now it’s the ever-worsening recession that is inescapable. “How is it in Longford?” novelist Paul Murray asks, as he waits for his decaf coffee, in one of the countless upmarket cafes that sprang up in Dublin during the boom. My Midlands hometown is typical of much of Ireland: boarded-up housing estates, spending cuts, redundancies, public anger. “Yep, it’s the same up here,” he says, shaking his head wistfully.

Murray, a fresh-faced 35-year-old, started writing Skippy Dies – his wonderful, dark, comic, Man Booker-longlisted second novel – seven years ago, when his native land was in thrall to a credit-fuelled spending bonanza. “It was such a selfish, narcissistic place then. Everything was lost in a psychosis of spending. The amount of kitchens that were put in on our street was incredible. Everyone got a new one – except us. We probably brought prices in our neighbourhood down by €80,000!”

In person, Murray’s anger at Ireland’s political classes is barely contained, but anyone picking up Skippy Dies expecting a polemical rant against Celtic Tiger consumerism will be sorely disappointed. Set in Seabrook College, a traditional Catholic boarding school in a posh Dublin suburb, the country’s “economic miracle” provides only the haziest of backdrops for the story of Ruprecht “Van Blowjob” Van Doren, an overweight 14-year-old mathematical whizz kid and string theory devotee, and his reticent, thoughtful best friend, Daniel “Skippy” Juster.

The book opens with the death foretold in its title and the succeeding 650-plus pages deal with the events leading up to Skippy’s tragic passing during an ill-advised doughnut-eating competition. As a panoramic view of public-school life, Skippy Dies is both hilarious and perspicacious, but to describe it as a “teenage comedy” fails to do justice to the sprawling world Murray has created. Here myriad, seemingly disconnected, themes – including cosmology, Ireland’s role in the first world war, quantum mechanics, Robert Graves, fairy tales and child abuse – all coalesce into a fast-paced, coherent narrative that zings with originality and invention.

A rag-tag cast of characters stalk the halls of Seabrook; porn-obsessed adolescents, lustful French teacher Father Green (“Old Pere Vert”), acting principal Greg “The Automater” Costigan, and his ill-fated history teacher Howard Fallon. Dubbed Howard the Coward by his unswervingly prescient pupils, the failed City banker and Seabrook old boy’s doomed dalliance with beautiful supply teacher Aurelie McIntyre provides many comic highlights.

Murray could almost pass for a slightly older version of Howard. Pale-skinned, blue-eyed, he wears his sandy-brown hair in an unruly mop; his slow, considered speech is peppered with scholarly references (Barthes, Nietzsche, the Second World War). “No, I’ve never been a teacher,” he says, looking surprised when I ask if the novel’s stilted staff-room interaction is based on insider knowledge. “I think I lack the ability to intimidate or project an air of imminent violence that you need to succeed as a teacher.”

Raised in affluent south Dublin, Murray attended Blackrock College, one of Ireland’s most illustrious secondary schools, and his experiences there provided ample inspiration for Skippy Dies. “I’ve seen what a class of 30 boys can do. They are able to pinpoint a person’s weak spot and just take them apart. It’s frightening,” he shudders slightly, eyes looking down at the table guiltily.

After terrorising teachers at Blackrock, Murray read English at Trinity College, Dublin, returning to his alma mater for his debut novel, the Whitbread-nominated An Evening Of Long Goodbyes. An energetic journey through modern Ireland seen through the eyes of a rich college drop-out, his first book’s success bought him the time and space to concentrate on an even bolder follow-up.

“When I finished the first book I thought to myself, ‘I’m free of a lot of the pressures that most writers have. I don’t have a mortgage, I don’t have children. Now’s the time to go for it.’” Only, in 2003, Paul Murray had no idea just how big his second novel was going to be – in every sense.

The first draft of Skippy Dies clocked in at well over 1000 pages, a length even his literary hero Thomas Pynchon would balk at. “Initially my editor would suggest changes to the manuscript,” Murray says of the process of whittling down the original text. “Then one day, about six months before it came out, I’d a really bad hangover and I decided to just sit down and read it from beginning to end. It was over 900 pages at that stage and it just wasn’t working. By the end of the day I had got rid of 250 pages.”

The novelist’s swingeing editorial axe had the desired effect: Skippy Dies was published in February of this year to near universal critical acclaim, with Ireland’s foremost director, Neil Jordan, quickly taking out the film option. Murray also makes his debut at the Edinburgh International Book Festival later this month. And then, of course, there is the nomination for that literary prize …

“It was really, really strange and totally unexpected, to be perfectly honest,” he remarks of his appearance on the recently announced Man Booker longlist. An outsider for the prize proper – at least according to the bookies – the nomination has, nevertheless, given Skippy Dies something of a commercial kiss of life. “It is like a second birth for the book. People who never looked at it before are looking at it now. I would normally get about three emails a day but since the nomination there has been lots of interest.”

In the notoriously ego-driven world of literary fiction, Paul Murray is that rarest of beasts, a genuinely bashful writer. He shies away from praise of his work, and openly talks about the kind of self-doubts that plague most novelists, but which few would admit to. “No matter what you do as a writer, you’re always afraid that you’re going to run out of things to say,” Murray, who is currently working on novel number three, explains. “I think you’re always haunted by that fear.”

One worry that preys less and less on his mind is the place of the writer-as-artist in his home city. “For so long it felt that if you wanted to work as an artist in Dublin, you had to accept that you would never feel financially secure, you would never be able to own a house. You were forced to live in a society in which a really large chunk were being excluded,” says Murray, who recently moved from the middle-class suburb of Ranelagh in the south of the city to working-class Stoneybatter on the opposite side of the Liffey.

After more than two hours in conversation, we also decide to relocate to a nearby hotel for – predictably enough – a pint of Guinness. Sitting with his back to a row of pristine book-filled shelves in the library bar, Murray looks more comfortable than he has all day.

“I definitely find it easier to live as an artist in Dublin now. For a while you felt like such an outsider, the culture was so much about money and hedonism.” He pauses for a moment, taking a sip of his stout. “Thankfully that’s changing now.”

Skippy Dies is out now, published by Hamish Hamilton at £12.99. Paul Murray appears alongside Simon Rich on August 19 as part of the Edinburgh International Book Festival

Piece first appeared in the Sunday Herald, August 16

Edinburgh Festival Reviews

I’ve been in Edinburgh on and off during August, doing some reviews for a couple of local magazines, The List and Fest. It’s been great fun – I’ve seen some great stuff as well as the inevitable dross – but rather post all my reviews here I’ll paste a couple of samples with links to the rest of them.

Winner By Submission
Derek, Winner By Submission’s odious protagonist, lives by the snappy motto: “Life is a cage fight.” It’s an apt metaphor: sitting through this lopsided new play by American writer William Mastrosimone feels a lot like watching a couple of ring-rusty cage fighters halfheartedly going at each other. There’s a decent move or two at the start, then lots of heavy-handed rushing about, before someone (in this case the audience) is finally pounded into surrender.

Greasy, lank-haired Derek is the friend from hell: he lives in his parent’s basement, dreams of being a pro fighter, drinks copious amounts of Budweiser, and generally acts like a spoiled brat. The latter mainly involves bullying his putative friends, geeky Kelly and preppy Jared (or is that Jerry? The carbon-copy nasally American accents are difficult to decipher).

So far, so “suburban America.” However, when Derek introduces date-rape drug GHB into the equation (and into coquettish schoolgirl Shannon’s drink) the lines between fantasy and reality become hideously blurred.

At least that’s the intention. But while Derek’s dark fantasies of gang-raping Shannon and broadcasting the event live on the internet are real—and scary—enough, Jared’s sudden change of heart is not only out of character, it destroys any dramatic potential (though it ultimately saves Shannon).

In the end, Winner by Submission lacks the courage of its own convictions. Mastrosimone purports to shine a light into the dark hearts of men but shies away from revealing what lurks within. This play wants to be nasty, LaBute-ish and short – but in the end it’s just short.

Henry Paker’s 3-D Bugle
“I’m Henry Paker and I approached Nick Faldo in an airport when I was 12.” For most comedians, writing for Mock the Week and 8 Out of 10 Cats would rank higher in their career achievements than a chance encounter with the 1996 Masters Champion – but then Henry Paker isn’t your average comedian.

Paker’s standup mixes off-the-wall observations about conventional subjects (mobile phones, clothes, toasters) with wild, anarchic flights of fancy. In lesser hands this would be a surefire recipe for comic disaster but the tall, shaven-headed Englishman’s commanding presence and chaotic wit has the audience rolling in the aisles for vast majority of an action-packed hour.

There is a script—or it least there seems to be—but Paker is at his gleefully misanthropic best when throwing it out the window. The discovery that an audience member is reading “The Taxidermist’s Book of Recipes” (or The Embalmer’s Book of Recipes, as its author calls it) leads to an extended, inspired riff about a Swiss doctor stuffing foxes with beef to present to the King of France.

Although his humour is mostly observational, Paker has no fear of throwing physicality into the mix. He bounds excitedly about the stage, jumping onto empty front rows and using his not insubstantial frame to great comic effect.

Paker is a riotous, iconoclastic star in the making. On current form, bumping into former golf icons in departure lounges won’t be his main claim to fame for much longer.

The rest of my Fest reviews are available here and my reviews for The List can be seen here.

Experimental work proves the novel is far from dead

Review of Tom McCarthy’s excellent Booker-nominated novel C from the Sunday Business Post.

Literary spats seldom make news headlines, but Gabriel Josipovici’s description of Martin Amis, Ian McEwan , Julian Barnes and Salman Rushdie as ‘‘prep-school boys showing off “, pricked ears far beyond the closeted books world.

The former Weidenfeld professor of comparative literature at Oxford accused the modern English novel of lacking ambition and its most acclaimed proponents of harbouring ‘‘limited horizons’’.

If, as Josipovici claims, the modernist novel is mortally wounded, nobody seems to have told Tom McCarthy.

The London-born writer, artist and self-avowed avant-gardist has spent the past 15 years producing works of complexity and contradiction that – from his feted debut novel, Remainder, to his Dadaist-influenced International Necronautical Society art collective – often defy attempts at linear comprehension.

Spanning 24 years and over 300 pages, in many ways the Man Booker long listed C is McCarthy’s most ambitious project yet.

There are characters and a plot, but in other respects this is less a novel and more an experiment in fiction as a form that harks back to those high priests of modernism, Joyce and Beckett.

Serge Carrefax, C’s protagonist, is born in 1898 in Versoie, an estate and school for mute children in southern England. His father is the school’s principal and also a keen experimenter; Serge literally emerges into the static whirr of his father’s experimental wireless apparatus, tuned in to the electric hum of the new, invisible network.

Serge’s precocious older sister, Sophie, is the darling of the vibrant Versoie household.

Her aptitude for natural sciences lands her a place at Imperial College, but her early flowering passions soon give way to deeper, darker intrusions, leading to her death by cyanide after just two terms at university.

Framed against a backdrop of Marconi and Amundsen, the motorcar and the gramophone, our young (anti) hero begins a picaresque journey that owes as much to John Berger’s G, as it does to Thomas Pynchon, McCarthy’s closet stylistic reference point.

But where Berger’s titular G progresses from alienation to class consciousness, Serge is shiftless and impotent; wandering from London to Egypt, via the Great War, but finding fulfilment only with sex, drugs and death.

C is less a celebration of modernism than a forensic dissection of its failings, both as a literary movement and a great civilising project.

Shamans and quacks abound, while Carrefax senior’s faith in radio waves leads him to believe that they can exist across space and time: ‘‘We could pick up the words, the very vowels and syllables, spoken on the cross . . .”

Before our eyes, the early optimism of the 20th century gives way to dark, visceral forces.

McCarthy has said that C grew out of earlier research on Howard Carter and Lord Carnarvon, the discoverers of Tutankhamun, and Serge spends the final quarter of the book working undercover in a fevered Egypt on the brink of independence.

‘‘You’re our attaché for detachment – our deattaché ,” he is told on arrival in Alexandria, and by the end of the tour of duty his detachment is final.

A devotee of Jacques Derrida and Paul Virilo, McCarthy’s is an unabashedly literary oeuvre, but while post-modern flourishes abound, the writer nevertheless succeeds in weaving elements of disparate sub-genres – youthful sexual awakening; war drama; spy romp – into a compelling, if not easily comprehendible, whole.

By turns dazzling and disarming, Tom McCarthy has shown reports of the English novel’s demise to be premature.

C has scope, vision and execution; surely not even Gabriel Josipovici could complain if such a bold statement were to walk away with the Man Booker come October.