Archive for the ‘A Scottish Literature’ Category


January 23, 2016


One of my reading resolutions for 2016 is to read more Scottish literature (the other is simply to read at least one classic each month). During the late eighties and throughout the nineties I read most new Scottish novels or short story collections which fell under the category of ‘literary fiction’. This meant encountering Alasdair Gray and James Kelman (who had first been published at the beginning of the eighties), Irvine Welsh, Janice Galloway, A. L. Kennedy, Ali Smith and writers now less well known (for example Jeff Torrington, whose Swing Hammer Swing! was recently reprinted by Vintage Classics; or James Meek who later found fame with The People’s Act of Love). It’s also the reason I possess a copy of Iain Rankin’s first novel, The Flood, published by Edinburgh University imprint Polygon. In fact, Polygon was responsible for the first (UK) publication of Kelman, Galloway and Kennedy; Gray’s Lanark was published by Canongate, also based in Edinburgh. Of course Polygon is no more and Canongate is largely indistinguishable from other UK publishers (bar its Canongate Classics series).

However, the main reason I drifted away from Scottish fiction was the feeling that it wasn’t very interesting anymore. Rankin must take at least some of the blame for this: ever since he decided to become a great crime writer rather than a great writer, an army of Scottish writers have followed in his wake, so much so that a new sub-genre, Tartan Noir, has been created. I was recently surprised to discover my view was shared by Adrian Searle, founder of Freight Books, one of a number of exciting new Scottish publishers:

“Saying Scottish fiction is boring is, of course, a vast generalisation, and I wouldn’t be in this business if it was all like that, but as someone who reads large amounts of Scottish fiction as part of my job, I’ve come to believe that, as a literary culture, we’ve become infantilised. We set the bar of quality lower for our own literature than that from elsewhere.”

Ironically, Freight is at the forefront of some interesting new voices in Scottish fiction, a prime example being Kirstin Innes’ Fishnet, winner of last year’s Guardian Not the Booker Prize. Fishnet is a novel about prostitution; that is, as well as doing everything else a novel does, it unambiguously sets itself up to explore this particular issue and our attitudes to it. Clearly there is danger that this function overwhelms the narrative and that the novel becomes little more than an outlet for the author’s research; that this doesn’t happen is testament to Innes’ skill, in what is her first novel.

Innes has the confidence to begin with a series of short, disconcerting chapters, the first a prelude to the main story, in which two young women wake up after a night spent in a hotel room with a DJ. One is clearly more innocent than the other: “Cam, he left us like, cash…” Innes disguises the identity of the first girl by using the second person, at the same time demanding that the reader place themselves in her position. This is followed with a brief glimpse of the first person narrative which will make up the majority of the novel describing a scrapbook of missing persons. Before we can become acquainted, however, we encounter a third section entitled About Me… – a series of adverts for female escorts:

“Whatever your looking for a brief encounter or a longer date, Sabrina offers a truly sophisticated girlfriend experience!!!”

From this point on the novel is largely told by our first person narrator, Fiona Leonard, whose sister Rona (we discover) went missing seven years before, but it will continue to be interrupted with material from the internet, in particular the blog posts of certain sex workers Fiona comes to follow, one of those rare occasions where the use of a blog genuinely enhances the novel. Fiona’s monotonous, dead-end job largely consists of making photocopies, phone-calls and tea. She lives in the flat above her parents, who help her look after Beth. Since her sister went missing her life has narrowed to work and child. Two coincidences connect her to the world of prostitution: new information she discovers about her sister on a hen night in the town where she last lived; and the involvement of her construction company in the closure of a refuge. Fiona’s journey into that world becomes our own as she seeks understanding as well as information.

Innes is careful not divorce the issue of sex work from that of gender politics: from the hen party onwards the novel shows an astute awareness of the roles women are given and adopt. The male gaze is never far away:

“Heather came tottering over. We’d dressed her in a white basque and pink fishnet stockings tonight, veil, tiara and a pink garter to hang her L-plates off. The men were watching her from their corners, watching her wobble and shake.”

Fishnet succeeds on every level: as a character portrait, a missing person thriller, an exploration of sexuality, and a re-evaluation of sex work (and work in general) If it doesn’t at least give you pause for thought, you must have come to it very enlightened indeed.

The Master of Ballantrae

November 13, 2015


Today, as you may or may not know, is Robert Louis Stevenson Day – the author of, not one, but two tales which have buried their way into the popular imagination (Treasure Island and The Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde ). As for the rest of his work, however, Kidnapped aside, it is far less read – and has, at times, fallen out of print as well as out of favour. It’s true that he probably didn’t aid his partnership with posterity by writing in so many genres – including both fiction and poetry for children – and by co-authoring three of his novels with his stepson, Lloyd Osborne. Two others were left unfinished at his relatively early death. Only recently has he begun to be re-evaluated, perhaps in response to the love so many other writers have for his work.

The Master of Ballantrae, written in 1889, contains many of the elements familiar from his two most famous books: pirates, sea voyages, exotic locations (though ostensibly a Scottish novel, we are transported to both India and America) and an initially straight forward but increasingly ambiguous battle between good and evil. In The Master of Ballantrae this takes the form, not of a divided individual, but of two warring brothers.

The catalyst for their enmity is the Jacobite Rising for 1745: the Duries, like many other families, hedge their bets by sending one son to fight with Bonnie Prince Charlie and having the other swear his allegiance to King George. The more prudent choice would be for the younger son to go off to fight, but in this case the elder, James – the Master of Ballantrae – insists he should go, and the matter is decided on the toss of a coin, suggesting James’ love of risk and belief that chance will always favour him. In his conceited view of himself he assumes his brother, Henry, is simply jealous:

“And there spoke Envy! Would you trip up my heels – Jacob?”

The reference to the Biblical story of Jacob and Esau is appropriate as James has just rather impulsively given up his birthright (the inheritance of his father, Lord Durrisdeer’s, title) should the Pretender’s uprising fail. When the decision is made that it will be James who goes to war, Alison (the woman he is to marry) throws the coin “clean through the family shield in the great painted window,” a breach which is never repaired.

The Jacobite adventure ends at Culloden, yet, in his absence, the Master’s reputation soars as Henry’s declines:

“Mr Henry began to be shunned; yet a while, and the commons began to murmur as he went by, and the women… to cry out their reproaches to his face. The Master was cried up for a saint.”

Eventually an Irish soldier, Colonel Burke, brings news of James – he is in France and in need of money. From that point on, the Master cannot be shaken off – like the bad penny which decided his fate, he will always reappear, tormenting Henry in any way he can. The story becomes one of James’ persecution of Henry, and Henry’s attempts to free himself of it.


Stevenson is excellent on the increasing tension within the family. The novel includes a number of set-pieces which even now might make the hairs on the back of your neck stand up. The Master is a wonderful character – I did wonder whether the term was synonymous with the devil (though I can’t find any evidence of this) as there is something satanic about his pursuit of Henry. Utterly without scruples, he is also dangerously charismatic, so much so that even the Mackellar, the servant who tells much of the story, and a strong partisan for Henry, feels his charms. In contrast, Henry can seem rather dull – but as that is how other characters perceive him to his disadvantage, Stevenson may be intentionally placing the same temptation before the reader. Wherever the Master goes he gains loyal followers – but will sacrifice them without a thought when necessary. As the novel progresses, however, it is who is Henry is increasingly changed, becoming intent on his own revenge; in this we see the moral issues which Stevenson always puts at the centre of his adventures.

The Master of Ballantrae may not have lasted in the popular imagination like Treasure Island and The Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde, but in some ways it is all the better for that as the reader does not approach it with familiarity. Anyone looking for ‘A Winter’s Tale’, as it is subtitled, with suspense, shock, adventure and intrigue, will find it here.


November 17, 2013


It’s probably safe to assume that if you call your first novel An Abridged History of the Construction of the Railway Line between Garve, Ullapool and Lochinver that your primary concern is not to write a bestseller. If anything, its author, Andrew Drummond, seems fascinated by obscurity, from the artificial language of Volapuk to the ancient city of Novgorod. Drummond is a Scottish writer who has never quite broken through to the mainstream, perhaps partly because his novels have all be published by Scottish imprint Polygon, but also because (from the title onwards) they can seem wilfully eccentric.

Elephantina, while not quite in competition with J.J Abrams’ S, appears in the guise of a leather bound Victorian novel. Drummond joins the long Scottish tradition of Scott and Hogg (and more recently Alasdair Gray with Poor Things) of presenting the story to us as an 18th century manuscript, edited and annotated by a 19th century hand. The manuscript is the work of Gilbert Orum, an impoverished engraver from Dundee who is commissioned by Dr Patrick Blair to work on a series of illustrations of an elephant which has come into his possession:

“An elephant, I asked Menteith (Blair’s servant), here in Dundee? How came it here? What purpose had it in dying here?”

The elephant, touring the British Isles as a creature of wonder, finds itself dead in a ditch in Dundee and only just saved from destruction and division at the hands of the local populace by Dr Blair’s intention to examine the cadaver and preserve the skeleton. Orum’s plans are more self-serving as he pays off his considerable debts in the town using parts of the corpse: he sells a foot to the fishmonger as bait; the kidneys to the butcher; and to Mr Sutherland, the candle-merchant, he sells “thon pairts of a female Elephant which – ye ken – thon pairts.”

If it is the earthy, everyman nature of Orum’s narrative that gives it humour, this is accentuated by the prudish, uptight annotations of the editor over one hundred years later. The following reflects his general political outlook:

“The glory of Great Britain is not built upon barley and oats or whisky and rum, but upon a Christian Stalwartness among officers and gentlemen, and Native Ruggedness among men of the poorer classes.”

The novel itself has a political background, set as it is in the year leading up to the union of England and Scotland (which occurs in the novel’s final chapter). Dr Blair is much against this, the one thing which the editor cannot forgive him for, dismissing it instead as an anomaly of the time. (Just as we, of course, dismiss his own attitudes). Presumably the fight over the elephant in Dundee is in some way reflective of self-serving attitude of many of those responsible for the union – certainly greed is a recurrent theme of the novel.

The elephant finally takes pride of place in a Hall of Rarities in Dundee. If there were a literary equivalent, then that perhaps is where Elephantina should be placed, as something eccentric but entertaining, a foolish but fascinating undertaking that is well worth the price of admission.

The Professor of Truth

November 11, 2013


James Robertson also features on the 50 best Scottish books of the last 50 years list. Surprisingly, it is his 2003 novel Joseph Knight rather than his playful evocation of James Hogg, the more celebrated Testament of Gideon Mack. If that is Robertson’s stand out novel, however, it is only because he engages so nakedly with Scottish literature rather than Scottish history. Robertson is always an ambitious writer, no more so than in his previous novel, As the Land Lay Still, an attempt to describe Scotland’s twentieth century in fiction. Robertson’ latest, The Professor of Truth, while depicted on a smaller canvas, is just as urgently concerned with Scotland’s past. Taking the Lockerbie bombing in 1988 as his starting point, he has created a fictional version of events from the conviction that the truth has yet to come out.

His central character is a university lecturer, Alan Tealing, who lost both his wife and daughter in the bombing. Twenty one years later, Tealing has not been able to let go, despite pleas from his own family and that of his dead wife. The novel begins with the death of Khalil Khazar –the fictional version of al Megrahi – but Tealing is certain Khazar was innocent:

“Everything is still as it was, we are no closer to finding out the truth about who really killed all those people twenty-one years ago, who killed my wife and daughter.”

Where the novel departs from reality is in the appearance of a shady American character, Nilsen, who arrives at Tealing’s door. Nilsen worked at the crash site creating the “narrative” of what happened. In a novel that is about facing death, Nilsen is dying of cancer and has come to tell Tealing (some of) what he knows. In particular, he gives him information on the whereabouts of the witness, Parroulet, that placed Khazar at the airport where it is claimed the bomb was loaded (“ingested”) onto the plane. Tealing has always believed that this witness was pressured to identify Khazar thus preventing any further investigation.

If this makes it all sound a little le Carre, Robertson also uses Nilsen’s visit to tell us about Tealing’s life. This is where, as a novelist, he can give the story a dimension that another book about Lockerbie couldn’t. One small but telling moment is when Tealing sees a father and daughter playing a game looking at the pictures in a newspaper on the bus. Not only does it bring home to him his own lost relationship but the girl’s innocence in the face of world disasters. (Her comment on an article about floods is, “Why are they swimming?”)

This first section of the novel takes place in snow and ice, presumably reflecting the way in which Tealing’s life, and also to some extent his emotions, have become frozen. In the second section the action moves to Australia as Tealing goes in search of Parroulet. Obviously to say much about this would rather spoil the thrilleresque elements of the novel, but Robertson’s decision to set this during a season of fierce bushfires is a stroke of genius. Not only does it balance the symbolism, expressing both the potential of cleansing or destruction, but it emphasises the wider themes of facing up to both death and life.

In his comments on his choice of Joseph Knight, Stuart Kelly talks about how the past in Robertson’s novels is “urgent, pressing and angry.” That is certainly true of The Professor of Truth. The novel’s success, however, lies in it not only working as a political expose, but as a moving character study of loss.

The Panopticon

November 6, 2013


Having neglected Scottish literature for a number of months, despite my best intentions at the start of the year, I was reminded of my earlier aims by Stuart Kelly’s list of the 50 best Scottish books of the last 50 years – now the subject of a public vote. The books within the list seem admirably spread out over the previous five decades – around the same number from the last ten years, for example, as from the 1980s. However, it did strike me that this included recent novels from established writers such as James Kelman and A. L. Kennedy whereas in the 1980s we find early (or first) novels from Alasdair Gray, Iain Banks and Janice Galloway. Of the newer novels, there was one which I had heard widely praised – Jenni Fagan’s debut The Panopticon, published in 2011 – and if I didn’t actually have a copy already! I prevaricated no longer and read it.

Luckily, The Panopticon proved to be as assured as its press suggested. It tells the story of a fifteen-year-old girl, Anais Hendricks, who has spent her life in the care system. Her only successful adoption ended with the murder of her foster mother. We find her joining yet another institution, the Panopticon, with the suspicion hanging over her that she has attacked a policewoman and put her in a coma. The novel charts her time at the new home, the friendships she creates, and the lives of the other children there.

Fagan tells the story in Anais’ voice – a necessity, really, if the narrative is not to be suffused with a value system that she is not part of. This is not an easy trick as Anais’ intelligence means we have elements of dialect (“tae”) and slang (“paedo”) alongside lines such as:

“The smell of wet grass filters in the window – bark swollen by rain, mulch, autumn, a faint wisp of woodfire.”

Initially I found this a little jarring, but such is the strength of Anais’ character I soon accepted her voice.

Anais is wonderful creation: strong but vulnerable doesn’t do her justice sounding as it sounds like the cliché of a lazy blurb writer, yet Fagan demonstrates both aspects of her character with an unflinching honesty. Just as Anais makes no attempt to encourage others to like her, the author makes no compromises in her portrayal. Her strength is not only physical – though we see at one point a rage descend on her in which she loses all control – but mental (I want to say spiritual, though the religious connotations of that word would mislead), a determination to be unbeaten. Fagan demonstrates her vulnerability in the very way she enables herself to go on, something she calls the birthday game, where she imagines alternative lives for herself:

“Imagine Paris. Imagine being born a beautiful, lucky wee girl with a beautiful mum, who I’d met, who I lived with; one who made pancakes, and drank gin, and listened tae jazz.”

She also imagines she is being watched by the Experiment – a nod, no doubt, to the fact that all these methods of dealing with children in care are little more than experiments and that Anais’ paranoid fantasy is actually quite close to the truth.

At the novel’s conclusion, I was reminded of Douglas Dunn’s poem A Removal from Terry Street where he sees that the movers are pushing a lawn mower and wishes them grass. I couldn’t help but wish Anais Paris.

A Disaffection

June 24, 2013


If Mr Alfred M.A.’s examination of the education system can be described as cynical, then where does that leave James Kelman’s A Disaffection? In it, English teacher Patrick Doyle is immediately characterised as “sickened” by his job; he wonders if he is “The Staffroom Cynic” or just “embittered,” viewing education as a tool of the state:

“You are here being fenced in by us the teachers at the behest of the government in explicit simulation of your parents, viz. the suppressed poor.”

Like many of Kelman’s characters, Doyle lives his life in quiet desperation:

“…all those failed plans and principles and ideas for the future, all those ways ahead. And now here he was, a teacher – still a teacher! What was to be done. Nothing.”

Whereas in most novels a basically happy character is acted upon or takes action in such a way as to threaten their happiness, in Kelman’s early novels a basically unhappy character frets about their unhappiness while nothing changes: there is no inner decisiveness or fortuitous outer circumstance to alter their life. Often Kelman teases us with plot devices from conventional fiction which come to nothing. Two of these are used in A Disaffection: Doyle’s announcement that his is going to quit his job and his attraction to fellow teacher, Alison. Doyle’s exclamation in the staffroom – “That’s how I’m bloody leaving” – is more a cry of despair than a decision to direct his life in a new direction.

“He was finished with it, finished with it; he was just finished with it.”

These sentiments appear as early as page 15 but, at the novel’s conclusion over 300 pages later, he is still a teacher. The only change which might actually occur is a transfer to another school which he cannot remember requesting.

Similarly his relationship with Alison seems rooted in despair rather than affection:

“Because what would happen if he broke down! What would happen if he laid his head onto her lap! Into her lap. Snugly.”

Hope comes in the form of a pair of pipes that he discovers abandoned at the arts centre – “ordinary pipes like the sort used by plumbers and electricians.” Only in his desire to play them does he find any kind of fulfilment:

“What could it be? …This astonishing accomplishment he would achieve on a pair of discarded pipes, found dumped behind the rear fire escape of the local arts centre.”

The pipes encapsulate Doyle’s desire for expression – with a link to his working class background which he worries about having abandoned and an ironic nod towards the Pied Piper. Needless to say, his hopes they will somehow articulate his feelings – for example, towards Alison – are unfounded. They cannot counter-act Goya’s late, dark paintings which also fascinate him and best encapsulate the mood of the novel.

This, then, is not a book to make you feel good about life – but it is also not at all cynical. Kelman is a writer who never shows contempt for his characters, a vital ingredient of cynicism. If anything, Doyle cares too much, made inarticulate by the rawness of his rage against the cynical world he lives in.

Mr Alfred M.A.

June 1, 2013

mr alfred2

Where Robin Jenkins left Tom Curdie’s redemption ambiguous throughout much of The Changeling, George Friel takes a much bleaker view in Mr Alfred M.A. Friel, too, worked as teacher in Glasgow while he wrote, publishing five novels between 1959 and 1974 (he died in 1975; his first novel, The Bank of Time, appeared when he was almost fifty). Mr Alfred M.A. is generally thought to be his best novel: it made The List’s list (trying saying that in a hurry) of the 100 Best Scottish Books of all Time; in his introduction to the 1987 Canongate edition Douglas Gifford describes it as “one of the greatest of Scottish novels”.

The novel tells the story of an ageing school teacher on a downward trajectory. Mr Alfred (it seems only fair to give him his full title as this is how he is referred to throughout, an ironic sign of respect in a society without any) is given only the lowest of the boys’ classes to teach. Unmarried and seemingly friendless, he spends much of his spare time drinking. His descent begins when he strikes a particularly unpleasant boy, Gerald, who is unfortunately indulged by his mother (the novel opens with her chastising (physically, of course – this is the seventies) her younger daughter, Senga, for not making her brother’s tea). Provoked by Gerald’s insolence, he smacks him across the neck – “He knew at once he shouldn’t have done it.” Not because teachers are not allowed to strike children, simply because they must use a leather tawse or belt to do so.

Gerald’s mother predictably complains and, though mollified by the Headmaster, the writing is on the wall for Mr Alfred (literally – but more of that later). There is little doubt in the novel that Gerald is ‘bad’ – no need to maroon him on an island to turn him into a savage. But he’s also sleekit – he encourages others to fight rather than fight himself; Mr Alfred sees him slip a knife to one such aggressor after school one evening. He breaks up the fight and seeks to punish Gerald the next day but Gerald refuses to take the belt. So begins a stand-off that Mr Alfred ultimately loses. Humiliated, he is given a girls’ class instead, and enjoys a few weeks of happiness thanks to an infatuation with one of the girls in the class:

“But Rose was different. She was clean and tidy. She looked human, even intelligent. Before the week was out he was thinking she looked pretty as well.”

Soon Rose is running errands for Mr Alfred and money is changing hands. It is a sign of the novel’s cynicism that Mr Alfred cannot decide if his attraction to the twelve year old girl is sexual:

“He argued with the man inside that it was only a desire to give her all the love he had. Not a stupid lust, but an erotic urge to an impossible act of gratitude.”

Mr Alfred is not a good man (but then Forbes desire to do good hardly ended well in The Changeling) but neither is he a bad man. A teacher that cannot teach, a poet that no longer writes poems, he is a man without dreams, only the anaesthetic of alcohol. Friel uses him as an everyman, subjected to the disintegration of society. All stories in the novel end unhappily, including a Romeo and Juliet style sub-plot involving Rose’s sister.

The Writing on the Wall was Friel’s original title for the novel (it remains the title for its final part), and the spread of graffiti throughout Glasgow comes to represent social collapse. In a drunken dream sequence (where Friel’s debt to Joyce can most clearly be seen) Mr Alfred meets Tod (fox in Scots, but also the Devil) who reveals that the proliferation of ‘Ya Bass’ is the beginning of the end:

“I don’t want to conquer Europe. I want to destroy it. Destroy its schools and libraries and public telephones. …you can’t fight me. I’m not invading you. I’m already inside.”

Mr Alfred M.A. is a novel infused with nihilism. There is a strong tradition in Scottish literature of education as an escape route form poverty. If The Changeling questioned this, Mr Alfred M.A. says clearly: there is no escape.

The Changeling

May 22, 2013


Teachers play an unusually prominent role in Scottish fiction. Jean Brodie is, of course, the archetype, but many other novels feature a ‘dominie’ as a central character. This is perhaps partly the natural consequence of so many Scottish writers being teachers, including Robin Jenkins. He began his teaching career in Glasgow’s east end in the 1950s, a setting not unlike that of The Changeling, which remains his best known novel after The Cone Gatherers.

The plot of The Changeling has dated somewhat, though the issues it raises have not. Charlie Forbes decides to take a promising pupil from a poor background, Tom Curdie, on holiday with his family. Nowadays they would find themselves the subject of a nationwide manhunt, but in those more trusting times we have to take Jenkins word for it that this, while unlikely, was not impossible. (Curdie’s family do appear at the end in an attempt to blackmail Forbes with hints of paedophilia, but only to demonstrate their own baseness).

Forbes is a man who wants to do good – he is, to quote the title of another of Jenkins’ novels, a would-be saint. He is not, however, presented as a heroic figure – Jenkins intends to make us aware that doing good is more complex than it might at first appear. Look at this early description of his feelings for Tom:

“With his leer of sympathy he contemplated this small, smiling, incommunicable, deprived morsel of humanity.”

‘Leer’ is Jenkins’, suggesting Forbes’ sympathy is not entirely genuine, and that he may be taking some pleasure in it; ‘morsel of humanity’ is Forbes, reducing Tom to what he represents. Forbes himself doubts his motivation:

“Without doubt, at the very back of his mind form the very beginning had been the hope that his befriending of this slum delinquent child might reach the ears of authority.”

Is it ever possible, Jenkins questions, to commit a selfless act?

Just as we can never quite pin down Forbes – well-meaning innocent or destructive meddler? – so too our impression of Tom is changeable. At one point he wants revenge on Forbes for his pity – “It would pay Forbes back.” When he breaks into the school he is careful to steal from Forbes’ classroom – if he didn’t it “would be like admitting he was grateful.” However, we also see his kindness to his younger brother. And how should we feel when on holiday he shoplifts despite having been given money to buy – is he simply reminding himself of who he is?

Predictably, like a changeling, Tom causes upset in the Forbes’ family. Often it is his good behaviour which draws unwelcome comparison with Forbes’ own children. One revealing scene occurs when they come across a rabbit suffering from myxomatosis. Forbes knows the humane action is to kill it but his attempt fails and he cannot bring himself to do more. It is Tom who has to end the rabbit’s life, only to suffer Forbes’ daughter’s critical eye:

“He did not seem at all conscience-stricken, either for killing the rabbit or just for seeing it.”

The scene demonstrates the moral complexities of the novel: Forbes wants to do right but cannot whole-heartedly (in merely hurting the rabbit he makes things worse); Tom does right but is suspect for his lack of emotional response.

Tom is an experiment in the nature / nurture debate, Forbes believes that by removing Tom from his environment he can change his nature. When his wife complains that Tom is a thief, he replies:

“Because of corrupting influences, surely. It’s those influences I hope to save him from.”

Slowly, painfully, the time away begins to change Tom – at one point he calls himself ‘Tom Forbes’ – but, as Jenkins realises , the problem with holidays is that you eventually have to go home. Is it fair to give Tom a glimpse of happiness and then take it away? The novel ends, like The Cone Gatherers, rather melodramatically, but that doesn’t detract from the fact that the questions it asks are as relevant today as ever.

Grey Granite

May 8, 2013

grey granite

Grey Granite, the final book in Lewis Grassic Gibbon’s A Scots Quair trilogy, takes us even further from the rural setting of Sunset Song to the industrial city of Duncairn (largely based on Aberdeen). After the death of her second husband, Chris has moved once again having bought into a boarding house in the city. This immediately allows Gibbon the mix of characters that he was previously able to achieve through smaller communities. It is noticeable that the communal voice of the other books is largely absent, replaced by a greater variety of individual voices, as community breaks down in the face of urbanisation.

Robert Colquohoun’s socialism having been seen to be a ‘pillar of cloud’ in Cloud Howe, Grey Granite explores communism as a possible future for Scotland through Chris’ son, Ewan. Ewan doesn’t begin the novel as a communist; an apprentice at Gowans and Gloag, he shows little interest in politics until the arrival of an English teacher, Ellen, at the guest house. Ellen interprets Ewan’s belief (similar to Gibbon’s) in a golden age before history (“a time without gods and classes”) as socialism, but even then his initial reaction is hostile:

“I don’t much care. It won’t come in our time. I’ve my own life to lead.”

As is so often the case, however, state oppression drives him towards radicalism. A bystander to a march of the unemployed being charged by police, he instinctively directs them to a brewery lorry full of empty bottles which they can use as missiles. Soon he is organising a strike at Gowans in protest at their involvement in making armaments, but it is the police once more who convince him that communism is the answer.

He is arrested after another worker plants evidence on him under the misapprehension that he has left his sister pregnant. The police beat him savagely:

“…not Ewan Tavendale at all anymore but lost and be-bloodied in a hundred broken and tortured bodies all over the world, in Scotland, in England, in the torture dens of the Nazis in Germany, in the torment pits of the Polish Ukraine, a livid, twisted thing in the prisons where they tortured the Nanking Communists…”

This is the moment of conversion – from then on he is a communist – “a hell of a thing to be History, Ewan!” Jim Trease, the local communist leader, is explicit – it is not the workers in the factories who are the working class but people like him and Ewan.

While Gibbon’s sympathies clearly lie with Ewan, he sees his weakness: his coldness, his “grey granite glance.” As Ellen says to him, “…your heart’s not in it at all. Only your head and imagination.” This is most vividly displayed in his treatment of her, discarding her without a thought when he discovers she has signed a document promising not to be an activist any longer in order to keep her job:

“Go to them then in your comfortable car – your Labour party and your comfortable flat. But what are you doing out here with me? I can get a prostitute anywhere.”

With each novel in the trilogy, Gibbon’s vision gets a little darker as he looks for answers and finds none that satisfy. But those that stop with Sunset Song are missing out on a picture of Scotland in the first third of the twentieth century that is unsurpassed. We can only wonder what Gibbon would have gone on to write if not for his early death at thirty four.

Cloud Howe

March 6, 2013

cloud howe

In Cloud Howe (the second book in Lewis Grassic Gibbon’s A Scots Quair trilogy) Chris leaves the farm for the manse. Though Sunset Song was not without a minister or two, Cloud Howe opens with Chris married to the Reverend Robert Colquhoun, who conducts the memorial service for those that died in the First World War at the end of the first book. Robert is an unusual minister however, and not just because he marries someone who doesn’t share his faith; he is a radical who supports the General Strike, the historical event that forms the centre of this novel in the way that the Great War did with Sunset Song.

Together they move from the country to the small town of Segget, a town divided between its older inhabitants and those that have come to work in the jute mills:

“The spinners’ coming brought trade to the toun, but the rest of Segget still tried to make out that the spinners were only there by their leave, the ill-spoken tinks.”

The war still hangs over the novel; Robert served at the Front and was gassed. Now he seems torn between a bitter despair and the hope that he can help change the world for the better:

“…out of his mood and happy again, you knew that he knew he followed a dream, with the black mood REAL, and his hopes but mists.”

It is these ‘mists’ which give the novel its title, an echo of Exodus 3:21, “And the Lord went before them by day in a pillar of cloud, to lead them the way.” Cloud comes to represent the dreams that men follow, elusive and insubstantial. It is the workers’ leader, Jock Cronin, who articulates Robert’s disappointment:

“WE went to the War, we knew what it was, we went to dirt and lice and damnation: and what have we got at the end of it all? Starvation wages, no homes for heroes, the capitalists fast on our necks as before.”

Robert works with Cronin during the Strike, but it is quickly broken by the government, Ramsay MacDonald being the first of a number of turncoats, including Cronin himself later. Robert had thought it would be “the beginning of the era of Man made free at last”, his hope echoed in Chris’ pregnancy, a pregnancy she had avoided for almost ten years as a result of the War. As the Strike fails, so her child is stillborn.

The symbolism may seem laboured but that does not take account of the way the novel is written. Once again it is a mixture of communal narrative, full of gossip and back-biting, and Chris’ own third person viewpoint. The novel tells many other stories, reflecting the rich and poor of the town. We also see Chris’ son, Ewan, grow into a man, Gibbon’s interest in history (the Standing Stones of Sunset Song) seen in Ewan’s collection of arrow heads and other fragments of the past. The novel’s serious themes are coated in much humour and satire; the Strike itself takes up only a few pages towards the end. That the dream is over is shown in the novel’s final lines:

“…she went slow down the brae, only once looked back at the frown of the hills…seeing them bare of their clouds for once, the pillars of mist that aye crowned their heights, all but a faint wisp vanishing south, and the bare, still rocks upturned to the sky.”

Robert is dead, a victim of his gassed lungs, but Chris, Chris Caledonia as he once called her, endures.