Archive for the ‘Lewis Grassic Gibbon’ Category

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.

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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.

Sunset Song

February 24, 2013

sunset song

Unlike Fionn MacColla, Lewis Grassic Gibbon (real name James Leslie Mitchell) was prolific – so much so that it might be said to have been to his detriment – but he too can be said to have been lost to Scotland by his early death at the age of thirty-four. By that time he had produced ten novels, as well as a number of other books. His range was astonishing – from the historical novel Spartacus to the science fiction of Gay Hunter and Three Go Back. His continued fame, however, rests on the trilogy A Scots Quair, which he began with Sunset Song in 1932. The novel has since been adapted for stage and screen and embedded itself in the Scottish curriculum.

Sunset Song is also set at a time of change for Scotland, that of the First World War. As the title, and the recurring song in the novel (almost a theme tune), the elegiac ‘Flowers of the Forest’, suggest, this is a time, like that of the Highland Clearances, when an old way of life will disappear. That way of life is intrinsically connected to the land: Gibbon divides his novel into sections moving from ‘The Unfurrowed Field’ to ‘Harvest’. These section represents not only the rhythms of the land (though the novel is set over a number of years) but the maturing of its central character, Chris Guthrie, who begins the novel as a young girl, but ends it as a widowed mother. (It will not surprise you to learn that she has a child in ‘Harvest’, but this is also the section that deals with the war, presenting harvest as an entirely different kind of metaphor).

Chris Guthrie is one of the most important (and loved) characters in Scottish literature. So realistic was Gibbon’s portrayal of a female character that some (apparently) though the pseudonym disguised a female writer. It seems likely that Gibbon chose a female protagonist to create some distance in a novel that was clearly very personal for him (he had previously written under his own name, and had written an earlier semi-autobiographical novel in The Thirteenth Disciple covering much of the same time period). But Chris also represents Scotland itself, and allows Gibbon to show us not the First Word War, for example, but its effect on Scotland both on an individual and national level. When her husband, Ewan, appears on leave prior to being sent to the Front, she finds him a changed man:

“But it wasn’t Ewan, her Ewan, someone coarse and strange and strong had come back in his body to torment her.”

Other characters we have come to know over the course of the novel like Chae Strachan are also victims of the war, as is the land itself: the woods are cut down for a quick profit ruining the land for farming.

From the beginning Chris also demonstrates that recurrent theme of the tension between education and family, something that has haunted Scottish literature throughout the twentieth century linked as it is to language:

“So that was Chris and her reading and schooling, two Chrisses there were that fought for her heart and tormented her. You hated the land and the coarse speak of the folk and learning was brave and fine one day; and the next you’d waken with the peewits crying across the hills, deep and deep, crying in the heart of you and the smell of the earth in your face, almost you’d cry for that, the beauty of it and the sweetness of the Scottish land and skies.”

Like many of those characters who find themselves in this position, Chris also suffers from a tyrannical father who puts his lust before his wife’s life and drives his son to emigrate. But Chris is a character who makes choices, choosing to marry and stay on the land after her father’s death when she does not need to.

What makes this novel revolutionary, however, is the way it is written. Gibbon not only adopts a register that allows him to integrate a number of Scots words into the language, but a point of view that permits him to roam from a communal voice (which is frequently gossipy and cynical) indirectly into the consciousness of Chris. The communal voice adds a strain of humour to the novel and allows Gibbon to demonstrate both the camaraderie and small-mindedness of the place, which becomes a character in itself.

The novel ends with the unveiling of the Kinraddie war memorial by Chris’ new husband, Robert Colquohoun, a minister – well, there had to be one – allowing Gibbon to take his trilogy forward into its second part, Cloud Howe.