Lost Books – A Field Full of Folk

It would be unfair to describe Iain Crichton Smith as a neglected Scottish writer as his poetry and short stories are still widely anthologised and taught, but almost all his novels (of which he wrote eleven) remain out of print. Only his first, Consider the Lilies (about the Highland Clearances) has established itself as the kind of classic that remains always available. A Field Full of Folk was published in 1982 in the middle of his novel writing career (Consider the Lilies appeared in 1968, and his final novel, An Honourable Death in 1992). It might be described as more accomplished than spectacular, creating a picture of vanishing rural life with a mixture of cynicism and sentimentality.

As the title indicates, this is a novel with a large cast and no central character. The villagers do assemble in a field at one point for a church picnic, but the field full of folk also represents a wider vision of the world where disparate individuals manage to coexist. It wouldn’t be a Scottish novel without a minister, and the first character we are introduced to is Peter Murchison who feels his faith fading, though he does not connect this to the news he has incurable cancer:

“It’s not that I’m afraid of dying, it’s rather that I’ve lost my faith. Not only that. But I feel that I’ve not lived. I do not understand the world.”

In many ways, the novel attempts to provide an answer to Murchison’s questions. Its short chapters introduce us to a variety of characters, most of them elderly. There is Mrs Berry, a widow who had “not allowed herself to become sad and mournful:”

“She would meet Angus, her policeman husband, when the time came for her to do so.”

In contrast, David Collins has never married and regrets his lost youth (“In those days it seemed he was a giant who would never be slowed by old age or anything else”); he lives alone with his memories of the war and his prejudices against Catholics and the Germans. Annie, although eighty, still searches for spiritual truth: having given up on Christianity she is now looking to the East. Murdo is an ex-postman who tends his garden and notes standards dropping. All give the impression of a dying way of life, something that is highlighted by the novel’s only real action:

“That girl Chrissie had run away from her husband and had only taken her radio with her…It was said she had gone to Glasgow with that fellow who had sometimes visited her husband during the tourist season.”

Chrissie is fleeing from the boredom of village life. The fact she takes only a radio with her suggests both her loneliness and her attachment to modernity. The novel then follows two journeys, both of self-discovery: Chrissie’s discovery of what kind of life she wants to live; and Murchison’s rediscovery of his faith.

Not unsurprisingly, Chrissie decides to return home:

“After a while the train moved again, and in a strange way she knew she was going home. It wasn’t anything she could put into words. The feeling must have emanated from the familiarity of the landscape but she knew that it was deeper than that. In spite of her fear she felt a rightness in the place that she was.”

On returning to the village she goes to Mrs Berry rather than her husband. Her earlier condemnation (“Why, she wouldn’t have left Angus for a million pounds”) disappears as she immediately reassures Chrissie that “everything will be alright.” Smith’s central theme of compassion is also highlighted towards the novel’s conclusion when the village picnic, symbolic of the village’s unity despite their differences, is ended by one of the villagers receiving news that her son has been killed in Northern Ireland. For once Murchison feels no doubt:

“And then he himself was there, he was in the sacred ring of pity and help, he was holding out his hands for the telegram, he was reading it, he was putting his hands on hers, he was saying, ‘We must take you home.’”

A Field Full of Folk now seems a curiously old-fashioned novel – its rural setting, elderly characters and omniscient narrator – but its final words offer a riposte to those early Thatcher years:

“…we are each in the care of the other.”

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One Response to “Lost Books – A Field Full of Folk”

  1. Lost Books – Goodbye, Mr Dixon | 1streading's Blog Says:

    […] never to be seen again. Iain Crichton Smith has featured already as an author of Lost Books (with A Field Full of Folk) but as all but one of his novels are out of print (the classic Consider the Lilies), he has plenty […]

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