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Projected New Year Reading

Happy New Year everyone.

As I mentioned before the good lady suggested I should take part in her blog friend Peggy Ann’s Read Scotland Challenge. This post is about what I intend to read. (Whether I will actually get around to it all is another matter. There is the small matter of a review for Interzone to be got out of the way as a first priority and other reading to be done.)

When it came up I looked on this project partly as a chance to catch up on Scottish classics I have so far missed. In the frame then is Lewis Grassic Gibbon’s A Scots Quair trilogy – I have read most of his œuvre but not this, his most well-known work. The televison series made of it in the 1970s has been in my memory for a long time, though. I also have his Persian Dawns, Egyptian Nights in my tbr pile and a collection of shorter pieces under the title Smeddum many of which I have already read. I have not managed to source his The Calends of Cairo and doubtless if I did it would be horribly expensive.

Another Scottish classic I haven’t read is J MacDougall Hay’s Gillespie, which lies on my desk as I write this but, according to Alasdair Gray, has the “worst first chapter that ever introduced a novel worth reading.” I consider myself warned.

If I can get hold of a copy then John Galt’s The Member and the Radical will go on the list.

As far as modern stuff is concerned there are multiple novels by Christopher Brookmyre and Allan Massie on my shelves and as yet unread, two by Alan Warner, Andrew Crumey’s Mr Mee and James Robertson’s latest The Professor of Truth.

Plenty to be going on with.

We’ll see how it goes.

The Hoose o Haivers by Matthew Fitt, Susan Rennie and James Robertson

Itchy Coo, 2002, 90 p.

The Hoose o Haivers cover

This slim volume contains retellings of tales from Ovid’s Metamorphoses, reimagined in a living, vibrant Scots.

The first piece, The Hoose O Haivers by James Robertson introduces the eponymous Hoose, a place where earth, sea and sky meet and the whole world can be seen. A house of rumour and tale telling, of scoom, scandal, clatter, claik, crack, claivers, clish-clash and clype.

Phaethon’s Hurl in the Sky by James Robertson
Phaethon, the mortal son of Phoebus the Sun god, boasts so much about his father that he is challenged to prove the relationship. He asks to drive Phoebus’s chariot across the skies. The task is beyond him.

The Weavin Contest by Susan Rennie
The goddess Athena hears of Arachne’s skill with weaving and challenges her to a contest. She doesn’t like the result.

King Mehdas by Matthew Fitt
Takes as a starting point Midas’s famous greed for gold but elaborates on the theme of his thoughtlessness.

The Cave o Dreams by James Robertson
Is where Hypnus sleeps and where all manner of dreams lie. But when his son Morpheus comes to you, is what you see real?

Echo An Narcissus by James Robertson
Echo and Narcissus.

Ariadne in the Cloods by Susan Rennie
Tells of how Ariadne helped Theseus to slay the Minotaur and escape the Labyrinth but then her dancing attracted the attention of the god Dionysus who took her up to Olympus where she dances on the clouds still. With a side serving of Dædalus and Icarus.

The Man That Made a Meal o Himsel
Starts with a discussion on the pronunciation of Erystichthon’s name before relating how he angers the goddess Ceres by cutting down her favourite oak tree. She then arranges for him to be afflicted with constant hunger, which no amount of food can assuage.

Orpheus an Eurydice by Matthew Fitt
Orpheus and Eurydice.

The Aipple Race by Susan Rennie
Atalanta can run so fast she can dodge even Eros’s arrows. These miss her and go on to hit others who as a result moon over her. One such, Hippomenes, engages the services of the goddess Aphrodite who provides him with enchanted apples to distract Atalanta so that Hippomenes can beat her in a race and so marry her. His lack of gratitude for this annoys Aphrodite.

The Twelve Trauchles o Heracles by Matthew Fitt
The labours of Hercules. Trauchles however is more nuanced than labours. A trauchle is an unavoidable and difficult task that “ends up daein yer napper in.” This story contained the wonderful phrase, “fair ripped Hera’s knittin’,” (which can be rendered much less pithily as “discommoded Hera greatly.”)

The Hoose o Pythagoras by James Robertson
Is a companion tail to The Hoose O Haivers’s tip. A discussion on the necessity of change and on whether the fantasies in this book are any more unreal than things we commonly take for granted.

This is a delightful little book but anyone without experience of spoken and written Scots will likely struggle with its content. The writing does however show what a vital, earthy and vigorous language Scots can be.

Book Haul

On Saturday we went to the Christain Aid booksale which is held every two years at St Andrew’s and St George’s Church, George Street, Edinburgh. It was mobbed.

This was my haul:-

Book Haul

The Hoose O Haivers took my fancy just because of its title – it contains short stories by Matthhew Fitt, Susan Rennie and James Robertson.

Rhoda Lerman’s The Book of the Night is a Womens’ Press SF publication from 1986.

The Art Nouveau and Art Deco book was spotted by the good lady (who herself bought 13 books!) It has some lovely illustrations.

Fleck is a verse comedy by Alasdair Gray.

Palace Walk is the first of Naguib Mahfouz’s Cairo trilogy.

Goodness knows when I’ll get round to reading them.
The Hoose O Haivers and Fleck are quite short so I could fit them in easily enough I suppose. The Mahfouz looks like a long project though.

The book sale continues till Friday.

And The Land Lay Still by James Robertson

Penguin, 2011, 671p.

 And The Land Lay Still cover

This is an ambitious novel which attempts to encapsulate the Scottish experience from the Second Word War till the aftermath of devolution – an endeavour in which it succeeds admirably. As such it can be at times something of a history lesson but the outlaying of political events is almost incidental, the focus is always on the characters and their relationships both with each other and the nation as a whole.

Set mainly in and around the fictional Central Scotland towns/villages of Wharryburn and Drumkirk but never fearing to venture further afield, there is a multiplicity of narrative viewpoints. We have photographer Michael Pendreich, son of his fellow photographer father Angus; Don Lennie and his friend, a troubled former Far East PoW Jack Gordon; the original Mr Bond, an employee of the Secret Service, who is given the job of monitoring nationalist sentiment in Scotland; journalist Ellen Imlach; Tory MP David Eddelstane and not a few others. The plot hangs around an exhibition of his late father’s work which Michael is arranging. The various characters’€™ stories are intertwined and overlapped, elaborated and refined; all against the unfolding backdrop of the ups and downs of the campaign for an independent Scotland from the removal of the Stone of Destiny from Westminster Abbey in 1950 and its return in Arbroath Abbey onwards. Along the way Robertson allows some of his characters to express that socialist viewpoint and analysis of affairs which is rarely heard nowadays but was at one time so common. The book illustrates how much has changed in such a relatively short time.

At once nostalgic and elegiac, at times verging on the mystical, And The Land Lay Still is nevertheless somehow right. To anyone who lived through the latter half of the twentieth century in Scotland, the background events will strike resonances and evoke memories (even of things all but forgotten.) There is, too, a sense of roads not taken, of unfinished business, of resolutions to be made.

The writing is measured, assured, agreeably subtle and, despite the page length, economical.

For anyone interested in the recent Scottish experience or in Scottish literature in general this is a novel that should not be missed.

Close by James Robertson

B+W, 1991. 144p.

(The cover shown on the right is different to my copy’s. My Library Thing link showed the correct one.)

This is a collection of 19 short stories -€“ some very short indeed. Their settings lie mainly in Scotland and explore a variety of domestic and other situations but a few consecutive ones are set in the USA (where some gentle fun is poked at USians feeble grasp of the geography of the wider world) and one features Australia.

The most successful are the longest two A Little Irony, where a female artist uses photographs of her narrator boyfriend’s penis in an exhibition, and What Do You Want, How Do You Feel?, about a marriage going through a rocky patch. These feel more rounded perhaps because their length gives room for character exploration. The latter also comes closest to providing the standard twist that people used to expect of a short story.

The social background of Bottle, wherein ne’er-do-weels are employed inside bottle banks, could almost be read as SF. As indeed could Problem, where a man’s wife reveals that she is in fact (or has somehow become; it’s not quite clear) a man. Within the story this sort of transformation appears to be a wider social phenomenon.

Robertson can certainly create atmosphere. The first story, Border, isn’t about much (a young boy travelling north by train looks for the border point after Berwick) but says it well.

If I have a criticism it is that a lot of the stories tend to peter out rather than end. Indeed there is one which finishes with the words, “Any time now something would happen.” Isn’t it the happening that a short story should be about?

Despite this stricture, Close is a well rounded and diverse collection.

Joseph Knight by James Robertson

Fourth Estate, 2004. 372p

Joseph Knight cover

Based on a legal case brought in the eighteenth century, celebrated at the time but soon forgotten, this novel pushes a fair number of Scottish buttons, with settings from Drumossie Moor, 1746, (Culloden) to the Perthshire of 1802, taking in Dundee, Edinburgh and the Scottish Enlightenment – complete with cameo appearances from Boswell and Johnson – before ending up in Wemyss, Fife, in 1803. It also ranges all the way to the Jamaican sugar plantations and back.

Though we don’t hear from or see him (except for two words of dialogue or in the pages of a notebook) until nearly halfway through, and then only incidentally till the last section, the character of Joseph Knight hangs over the book – almost like a ghost.

The tale is carried to fruition by Archibald Jamieson, who is engaged by Sir John Wedderburn, sometime Jacobite rebel and refugee from Culloden, later sugar planter and bogus doctor in Jamaica, long returned to Scotland a wealthy man and now owner of Ballindean Estate, to ascertain the whereabouts, or remaining earthly existence, of Joseph Knight, once Sir John’s personal possession (brought to Scotland as a marker of success) but who petitioned the Scottish courts in the 1770s to attain his freedom. Jamieson learns of the Jamaican episodes via a journal given to him by Sir John’s daughter but written by her long deceased uncle during his sojourn on the island. Despite at first finding no trace of him and assuming him dead, Jamieson nevertheless becomes fascinated by Knight.

The book is structured in four sections, two much shorter book-ending the longer middle pair: Wedderburn, where Sir John ruminates over his life from the windows of Ballindean with its fine views over the policies down to the River Tay; Darkness, mostly concerned with the life Wedderburn and his brothers led in Jamaica; Enlightenment, wherein the court case on which the book depends is led up to and described; and Knight, a somewhat melancholic coda.

The narrative is multi-stranded with various viewpoint characters in each section, all of whom are portrayed in their roundnesses. If anyone needs a demonstration of how to carry this off Joseph Knight is the perfect example.

There is a peculiarity. Robertson has his characters use the word “neger” to describe black slaves (and freemen.) Perhaps that is indeed how the n-word was pronounced in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries but it still seemed a trifle odd, as if he was somehow afraid to outrage modern day readers.

Dealing as it does with those novelistic biggies life and death, plus freedom, servitude and the peculiar institution of slavery – but not so much with sex – it’s not surprising that Joseph Knight garnered such praise; not to mention the Saltire Scottish Book of the Year Award. It does, however, lose focus a little in the two long sections. In particular the scenes involving Boswell were not entirely necessary.

The characterisation is superb, however; all the people portrayed, even minor characters, seem idiosyncratic living, breathing beings and Robertson’s ability to inhabit the minds of his centuries-gone agonists sympathetically is striking. The only exception to this is Knight himself, who remains a shadowy figure.

But even this is appropriate. It is his absence from the main lives depicted here, the void he left, that they circle around.

This is a fine book: perhaps not so good as Robertson’s first, The Fanatic, but certainly surpassing his later the testament of Gideon Mack.

the testament of Gideon Mack by James Robertson

Penguin, 2006. 386p

Gideon Mack

From the first sentence of the framing device – a consideration by a publisher of a submission from a journalist – I felt on familiar territory; Scots Gothic. Echoes of Hogg’s Confessions Of A Justified Sinner – explicitly referred to in the main text – Stevenson’s Jekyll and Hyde and Angus McAllister’s Canongate Strangler abounded.

Yet this was something of a tease. The actual testament of the main narrator, Gideon Mack, a Church of Scotland minister, is a more or less straightforward contemporary tale of the unfolding of his life from childhood through adolescence, university and marriage with only the merest infiltration of weird when, out on a run, he encounters a standing stone that previously had not been there. Not till well into the book’s 386 pages do we encounter any darker mysteries.

Early on there is one glorious Scottish joke when Mack’s rigidly Presbyterian father allows television into the house in the mid 1960s in order to watch the news and football (but emphatically not any trashy American shows such as Gideon’s school friends enjoy) yet still treats it with suspicion. “…and glowered at it in the parlour… as if it were only a matter of time before it did something outrageously offensive.” Which, of course, it did.

At the book’s crux – the turning point of the story is actually revealed by the fictional publisher in the prologue part of the frame so this is not a spoiler- Mack falls into a gorge called the Black Jaws while trying to save a dog and disappears for three days during which time he later claims to have met the Devil.

Taken on its own, Mack’s testament, while an enjoyable account of his crabbed childhood, his unsatisfactory adult life and the compromises with his lack of faith which are implicit in his choice of profession, is not really Gothic enough to carry the central conceit. The framing prologue and epilogue do something towards redeeming this, but do not do so entirely.

Perhaps Robertson meant to contrast modern normality with the sudden incursion of the old certainties – a C of S minister who had talked with the Devil would have had no quibblers in earlier centuries – and to emphasise how the past lingers and lies in wait to trap us. However, the encounter with the Devil (if it was he) is almost matter of fact – with only two insertions of strangeness, one when Gideon hirples to a sort of manhole cover above what could be Hell but could be just as easily be magma and the other when the Devil heals Gideon’s damaged thigh by the laying in of hands. (Yes; not laying on.) These passages feel divorced from the remainder and do not sit well with the main thrust of Mack’s narrative even though he is supposed to be relating it all as a result of his experience. Though having read the prologue we know it is coming, in the testament the meeting with Satan is not really effectively foreshadowed, despite some retellings of an old myth about what may lie beneath the Black Jaws.

There are occasional footnotes where the publisher comments on various statements in Mack’s narrative. Some might find this irritating but I didn’t mind.

The epilogue signals that Mack’s testimony is unreliable. Do we really need this spelled out? He does claim to have met the Devil after all. (Speaking of spelling, I would like to know why, in a book by a Scotsman, from a British publisher, is “mediaeval” rendered in the American way?) The final paragraph may have been one twist too many, however.

In the end we can make up our own minds as to whether or not Mack was deranged or suggestible, or if he really did meet the Devil lurking somewhere below a Scottish gorge.

In sum the testament of Gideon Mack is not as impressive an achievement as Robertson’s The Fanatic but for anyone interested in contemporary Scottish fiction, or indeed Scots Gothic, it’s a worthy addition to the canon. And it is eminently readable. It did keep me turning the pages late at night.

The Fanatic by James Robertson

Fourth Estate, 2001

The Fanatic cover

I had a strange sensation when I started reading this book. It’s not as if I haven’t read novels using Scottish vernacular before so I don’t understand why its use in this book in particular should have made me feel quite so much like I was settling into a warm bath.

The temperature soon became hotter, however, as the novel skips between a more or less contemporary setting in Edinburgh and the Scotland of the Seventeenth Century, specifically the Covenanting times after the Restoration. Here the dialogue is in very “braid Scotch” indeed.

These chapters set in the 1670s are harder going, not just due to the language but also because the historical figures and events described have not been so thoroughly mined as others in Scottish history. (They were mostly unfamiliar to me at any rate.) The book is also notable for containing my first encounter in print, or as a noun, with the word “whang” which I had only met previously as a verb.

The Edinburgh sections are set just before the General Election of 1997, when Andrew Carlin is cajoled into taking part in one of those Ghost Tours of the Old Town, impersonating a Major Weir for whom he develops an instant interest and whose life he attempts to research.

Carlin is a loner, a bit of a misfit, who is nonetheless sympathetic. He talks to his mirror and it answers back, pithily and challengingly, so much so that Carlin begins to wonder if he is delusional, and so did this reader.

Researching Weir, Carlin comes upon the story of James Mitchel, a Seventeenth Century religious fanatic who attempted to assassinate the Bishop of St Andrews. There is a strange prefiguring here of our modern preoccupation with religious terrorists (the book was first published in 2000 and hence before Al Qaida came to general attention; perhaps Robertson sniffed the Zeitgeist.)

Since the twin narratives do not marry up till late on (though we know they must) the figure of Weir as Carlin’s primary focus initially seems disjointed, as it is Mitchel’s life story we are given in the 1670s sections, where Weir is only a marginal figure.

Robertson has done a power of research and the historical detail appeared to me to ring true but the multiplicity of Seventeenth Century characters at times made proceedings there difficult to follow.

The hard, religious certainties of the Seventeenth Century are thankfully not so prevalent in modern Scotland (though some remnants still exist.) The mindset of someone who will submit to torture for the sake of his beliefs is out of kilter with these self-interested times, in the Western world at any rate. This renders the motivations of some of the historical characters more opaque than the modern ones (though not less acceptable within the setting.) Others are just as venal and petty as in modern times. It is to Robertson’s credit that he can bring them all alive for us.

The past shown here is not a world where I would find it congenial to live. However, real world events subsequent to the book’s publication have made the incidents in the novel seem more timely; particularly those dealing with how people in power treat those who have none.

It is not a straightforward read but I would recommend “The Fanatic” to anyone with an interest in Scottish history and to the general literary reader; but sadly those without a Scottish background may struggle.

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