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Rob Roy by Sir Walter Scott

Oxford World’s Classics, 2008, 505 p including advertisement to the first edition, author’s introduction, postscript, Scott’s notes, editor’s notes and glossary + xl p acknowledgements, introduction, note on the text, select bibliography, a chronology of Sir Walter Scott and a map of Rob Roy’s Country.

One of the 100 best Scottish Books

 Rob Roy cover

Well, this is odd. The book’s title is Rob Roy and while that gentleman does appear within it it is not until over 100 pages in that he first crops up and even then his name is not revealed as such. The narration is in the first person by one Francis (Frank) Osbaldistone, son of a self-made man in London, who has been disowned by his father for not going into the family business and banished to the ancestral home in Northumberland. It is on the journey north that Frank encounters a certain Mr Campbell as well as a Mr Morris who is over protective of the contents of his luggage.

At Osbaldistone Hall (whose inhabitants, unlike the proud Protestant Frank, are all, barring their Scottish gardener, Andrew Fairservice, Catholics) Frank meets and falls under the spell of the unconventional Diana Vernon, the niece of his uncle Sir Hildebrand, and encounters the villain of the piece, his cousin Rashleigh. Both contrive to save Frank from the charge of robbing Mr Morris by enlisting the aid of Mr Campbell. At the Hall Frank notices unusual goings-on at night but his deference to Diana ensures he does not inquire into their nature too closely.

After some longueurs at the Hall the plot kicks into gear when news reaches Frank of the potential ruin of his father which requires he travel to Glasgow to enlist the help of his father’s trading partners to recover sums of money Rashleigh has spirited away. Here he again encounters Mr Campbell, whose true nature as Rob Roy is finally revealed. Bailie Nicol Jarvie also becomes his travelling companion as they venture into the Southern Highlands where various perils to do with the planning and thwarting of the 1715 Jacobite rebellion are surmounted. During these, Rob Roy’s wife, Helen MacGregor, is presented as a fearsome creature (one of Scott’s notes suggests she had good reason to be so) and the Highlanders as some sort of equivalent of North American natives.

Even in all this Rob Roy still appears almost peripherally and as a character fails to spring to life. Another oddness is that Frank’s agency throughout the tale is limited to that of onlooker. (Spoilers follow.) Frank’s success in his quest to recover his father’s fortune owes more to Diana Vernon and Rob Roy than his own efforts and his father turns out in any case to have all but made good his reverses himself. In the latter stages of the book a quite frankly (ahem) ridiculous combination of circumstances sees all obstacles to Frank’s future fortunes and happiness removed. This is all carried through with a degree of prolixity in the prose which may be typical of early nineteenth century novels in general and Scott in particular but presents something of a barrier to modern readers. Perseverance reduces that problem, though.

Scott’s status as the begetter of the historical novel as a genre is founded on tales such as this and Kurt Wittig regarded him, along with Robert Burns, as at the high water mark of Scottish literature.

Pedant’s corner:- In Ian Duncan’s introduction: premiss (I prefer premise.) Otherwise: stupified (stupefied,) “domini regis” followed immediately by “Damn dominie regis” (one or the other spelling of domini surely?) acquaintance’ (acquaintance’s) and the archaic spellings dulness, tædium, sate (though sat appeared once,) Bagdad, fagots (faggotts,) winded (wound,) jailor (or is this a conflation of jailer and gaolor?) Bucklivie (Buchlyvie,) and Aberfoil (Aberfoyle.) Sprung, sunk and rung were used consistently where sprang, sank and rang are the modern usages.

How to be Both by Ali Smith

Hamish Hamilton, 2014, 383 p

How to be Both cover

The conceit of this book is that it contains two stories separated in time by five centuries but which can be read in either order. Two different versions – indistinguishable from either the cover or the publishing details – were printed at the same time but with the story orders reversed one to the other. The stories’ connection is via a mural in the Palazzo Schifanoia, Ferrara, Italy painted by one Francesco del Cossa about whom little is known. In fact nothing was known about him until a letter from him to his employer was discovered four hundred years after his death which demanded higher payment for his work than others on the project were to receive. In my edition the first story is that of Francesco (though the Italian spelling Francescho is used throughout it; Smith frequently uses Italian-type spellings in this section – azzurite for azurite etc ) told as “his” stream of consciousness at a point in time when “he” may be dead, in purgatorium. The inverted commas are cause (the author unfailingly employs this version of the conjunction) Smith imagines Francesco as a woman. There are internal details of del Cossa’s paintings which argue for this possibility. The first and last few pages of Francesco’s tale are laid out in a typographical manner more akin to experimental poetry than prose. This made the narrative more tricksy and difficult to get into than it need have been but once Francesco’s story had been embarked on and the relationships within it established this barrier disappeared. Another narrative quirk here is the parenthetical interjection of the phrase ‘just saying’ at various points in Francesco’s tale. As is usual in Smith’s books, in How to be Both as a whole, the right hand margin is never justified.

The modern narrative is that of Georgia (Georgie Girl, aka George) whose mother (now dead) had developed an interest in del Cossa’s mural and took George and her brother Henry to see it in Italy. The mural and del Cossa’s work in general become a fascination for George.

Smith’s intentions are perhaps summed up by the passage about “how to tell a story, but tell it more than one way at once, and tell another underneath it up-rising through the skin of it.” Apart from the pseudo-poetry her prose flows extremely easily.

I’ll never know now of course but I doubt whether the connections between the two versions of the book would work as well if read with the modern section first.

Pedant’s corner:- doing the minimum of sinop (??) Back and fore (one of Smith’s perennials, but it seems it’s a North of Scotland usage,) some words in the internal dialogue of George’s narrative lack apostrophes; (its, howre, whenll etc.) “It was called, in French, A Film Like The Others.” (A Film Like The Others is its title in English. In French it’s “Un film comme les autres.”)

Black and Blue by Ian Rankin

Orion, 1997, 399 p including 2 p Afterword and 1 p Acknowledgements.

This novel appears in both the 100 best Scottish Books list and in the Herald’s “100” best Scottish Fiction Books.

 Black and Blue cover

It is the eighth of Rankin’s Rebus novels and sees Inspector John Rebus, banished to Craigmillar for various indiscretions, and investigating the suspicious death of Allan Mitchison, an oil worker who had made unfortunate connections. It is not long before Rebus is once more ruffling feathers, both of his superiors and of the criminal fraternity. His nose for the truth and the links he makes to a current serial killer nicknamed Johnny Bible (because of the similarities of his murders to the famous Bible John case of the 1960s) leads Rebus to Glasgow, Aberdeen, Shetland and an oil-rig in the North Sea. Meanwhile he is incidentally trying to deal with his over-fondness for alcohol and also being stalked by a TV crew looking into a possible miscarriage of justice from early in Rebus’s career. It’s all admirably well plotted and suitably twisted and turned. If a bit too much when Rebus himself is questioned for one of Johnny Bible’s murders.

Where it broke down for me was the interpolation into the story of “Bible John” himself, returned to Scotland from time spent in the US where he had married, now an executive in the oil business, not at all pleased that some upstart is stealing his thunder, and whose viewpoint we inhabit at the end of several of the chapters. I think my unease would have been the case even without the renewed interest in Bible John which struck between the writing of Black and Blue and its publication and the later possibility that Bible John was/is convicted killer Peter Tobin. To me it seemed Rankin portrays his “Bible John” as a more intelligent, even thoughtful, individual than he in fact was/is.

On Aberdeen’s dependence on oil money Rebus reflects that the oil won’t be there for ever. “Growing up in Fife Rebus had seen the same with coal: no one planned for the day it would run out. When it did hope ran out with it.” True as far as it goes. Except the coal didn’t run out: there’s still plenty coal under Fife or the Firth of Forth. It was government policy to shut mines – mostly to destroy workers’ rights and trade union influence.

Yes, it deals with one of the most high profile Scottish criminal cases of the twentieth century and has Tom Nairn’s dictum on the conditions for Scotland’s rebirth as a section’s epigraph but I can see no compelling reason why this book should be in a top one hundred.

Pedant’s corner:- halogen orange (of street lights? Sodium orange, yes,) there were a couple (was,) there were a few (was,) a team were (was,) – the text is littered with singular nouns followed by plural verbs – Geddes’ (appeared several times, yet once we had what I would prefer, Geddes’s,) there were dozens fit the description (fitted,) popadums (it’s usually poppadums,) Stevens’ (Stevens’s,) disks (even for computers the British English is still discs,) dishels, (???) thirty-five mils (mil; an abbreviation subsumes its plural, even when it’s written as it’s spoken,) ‘Laying low.’ (Lying low; but it was in dialogue and lying low appeared in text later,) Forres’ (Forres’s,) sat (sitting,) McIness’ (McIness’s.)

The Just City by Jo Walton

Corsair, 2015, 368 p including iv p Thanks and Notes.

 The Just City cover

The God Apollo cannot understand why Daphne prayed to Artemis to turn her into a tree rather than mate with him. As a result he resolves to become mortal for a while in order to learn about volition and equal significance (ie according to others their right to self-determination.) His half-sister Athene suggests he go to Kallisti, the part of the Mediterranean island of Thera which will be destroyed when the volcano erupts, where some people are attempting to set up a society based on Plato’s Republic. Here, overseen by masters (Plato-loving scholars drawn from throughout human history – not all of whom are men, despite their title) are brought ten-year old children bought from slave markets to be moulded by Plato’s rules with the intent that they strive to be their best selves and so produce philosopher kings – people who truly understand the truth, agree on what it is, and pursue it – either of the children themselves, from whom the contents of the Republic are to be withheld until they are fifty, or their offspring. Robots from our future do all the work of maintenance and food production. All the children and most masters have their original names replaced, even Cicero. Into this so called Just City after five years comes Sokrates – the only master there who had not in some way requested it. He, of course, questions everything, including the robots.

The narrative is divided into three viewpoints: that of Apollo, incarnated on Kallisti as Pytheas; a slave girl, Simmea; and Maia, a woman born in nineteenth century Harrogate. Between the three this gives Walton the opportunity to discuss not only Plato’s ideas but also issues of free will, the rights of individuals and the nature of sentience. In the midst of this she has Sokrates inquire, “‘If you pursue happiness….. do you get closer to it or further away?’” and Athene, in human form as Septima, “‘most women might as well not exist for all the contribution most of us get to make to history.’”

When the children reach the age of sixteen a system of temporary marriages, whose participants should appear to be randomly selected for each other but really to ensure only the most fit reproduce, is instituted. Human nature being what it is, some couples pair up outside this system, against the rules, and sneak off to do what couples do. Simmea adheres strictly to the rules but Pythea, who is attracted by her mind (she is flat-faced, flat chested and buck-toothed) in the end wants her for himself, as does Kebes, who resents the whole process in Kallisti as being no better than the slavery the children were removed from.

Walton also portrays incidents which underline the thrust of her novel and the arguments it makes. Some of these are perhaps just a little too programmatic. For example, Maia is raped by Ikaros, though he doesn’t understand his actions as rape. Plato wrote that defective babies or those of defective parents should be exposed – a common practice in the classical world. Despite her misgivings, Maia does expose a hare-lipped child.

The Just City is interesting, thought-stirring stuff. Unfortunately, after a public dialogue between Sokrates and Athene, the novel stops rather than concludes. There is a sequel though, The Philosopher Kings, which I shall search out.

Pedant’s corner:- there were a whole host of reasons (there was a host,) the Tech Committee have decided (has decided,) a full stop at the end of a question, to extend this out to everyone (no “out”,) somebody who had never showed cowardice (shown,) said as got dressed (as he got dressed,) Creusa (Kreusa,) ‘we can fix it would be much better’ (fix it it would be,) had rarely seem him (seen,) the crowd were making (the crowd was.)
Walton employs k where c is usually written in English for Greek names, hence Patroklus and Sokrates, but still uses the c in the phrase Socratic dialogues, she also in her note on pronunciation at the end says “ch” is a hard sound as in Bach or loch; in my experience Scots do not pronounce loch – nor Bach come to that – in such a way.

Murder at the Loch by Eric Brown

Severn House, 2016, 208 p.

 Murder at the Loch cover

If you want an example of how character can be established with economy look no further. Brown does this with facility. Witness how much we learn about Gabriel Gordon from the reactions of Sophie, living in an artists’ commune in London, to Maria Dupré seeking him out. This, in the third of Brown’s Langham and Dupré mysteries, is in part of the narrative where Maria is looking into Gordon’s background while Don Langham is investigating an attempted murder at a hotel in the Scottish Highlands. Langham’s wartime comrade, private detective Ralph Ryland, enlisted his aid when their wartime commanding officer Major Gordon, who now owns the hotel, called for assistance after he and a guest were shot at while they were involved in work on a project to raise the wreck of a German Dornier aeroplane which had crash landed in the nearby loch in February 1945.

The inhabitants of the hotel, not only Gabriel Gordon but also Hungarian emigré Renata Káldor, the German Ulrich Meyer – an expert on World War 2 aircraft – a Professor Hardwick (who is delving into the hotel’s history of paranormal phenomena) and Major Gordon’s ward Elspeth Stuart (with whom Gabriel had a fling before the Major put a stop to it) provide plenty of scope for suspicion.

The splitting of Langham and Dupré is a device Brown has employed before and is a useful tool when background information has to be sought from different locations many miles apart. It also handily allows both to be placed in jeopardy separately. Here the fifties setting yields a benefit to raising tension in that communication between the pair has to be by an unreliable telephone connection. The book also sees the welcome return of Langham’s literary agent, Charles Elder, released from jail, where he made a new friend. (It remains to be seen whether this will be a wise liaison.)

This isn’t quite a locked room mystery (though a winter snow storm makes it more or less a hotel in lock-down one.) However, the actual murder when it occurs – with which another years previously is connected – comes close to the classic scenario. And there is nothing gratuitous here. Brown adheres pretty closely to the template and feel of the stories he is echoing. If at times his Langham and Dupré mysteries may seem to have a soft edge that isn’t necessarily a drawback. Those fifties crime stories were primarily entertainment and still are.

Pedant’s corner:- Inverness is described as a “little town.” In the 1950s? “Soon they were tooling along,” (tootling?) “economical with the truth” (in dialogue – but was it in use in the 1950s?) “a crack at the Bosch!” (Boche,) “a Hungarian who had fled her homeland when the Nazis invaded” (I think the Nazis already had a presence there and so took over rather than invaded, but they certainly occupied the country in an attempt to prevent it changing sides as Romania had just done,) jerry-rigged (jury-rigged,) Camus’ (Camus’s,) “it appeared as first glance” (at,) primeval (I prefer primaeval,) “She said It was unlikely” (insert quote marks or make “it” lower case,) of the Loch Corraig Castle (of Loch Corraig Castle,) “drawing is revolver” (his.) Plus sixteen instances of “time interval later” (but two of these were in dialogue and another two not very glaring.) Also one “within minutes.”

The Long Way to a Small Angry Planet by Becky Chambers

Hodder, 2015, 416 p plus 10 p extract from a sequel, a 2 p reading group guide and a 2 p special note from the author.

 The Long Way to a Small Angry Planet cover

Rosemary Harper is fleeing from her past life, having paid more than handsomely for the privilege, not to mention for a new identity. She is taking up an administrative job on the Wayfarer, a spaceship whose function is to punch holes through space to create pathways for other ships to travel by. Despite Rosemary’s doubts about her abilities she is accepted readily by the multi-species crew – barring only one member (there always has to be one) – the algaeist (ship’s engineer basically) who is something of a loner and not too friendly with anyone.

The tonal qualities of the narration are a little odd. Terms like grounders for planet dwellers and spacers for those who travel between solar systems are somewhat unimaginative (and utterly retro,) while artigrav is a horrible coinage. Give it a specific name and thus derivation instead of a generic description. Other aspects of the narrative, too, are irritating. There are frequent discussions amongst the crew about food which seem interminable. Their swear word of choice is “Oh, stars.” Even in moments of crisis there are very few instances of stronger expletives – and two of these were by a non-crew member. Without exception information dumping immediately follows on the mention of something we haven’t encountered before. Rosemary’s supposedly carefully hidden secret she blurts out at the first hint of its possible revelation. The only thing resembling a plot is a commission for the Wayfarer to travel to the galactic core to forge a tunnel back to local space. I suppose it is this that constitutes the titular long way for the Wayfarer makes numerous stops on the journey to the core, is once invaded, and boarded by friendly aliens on another occasion. Throughout there is no sense of urgency about the impending mission, no keenness apparent to get to the job, nor any hint of penalty for delay. On the planet Cricket (sadly not named after the sport but the insect) some of the crew are forced by a swarm to utilise the shelters against such an occurrence but the chapter just ends and the next one starts back on board the ship with nothing more said about it.

The universe of Chambers’s novel has a variety of alien species and both strands of humanity are relative newcomers to, and very minor players in, galactic society. Exodans fled Earth some time back but those who remained also now have access to the galaxy. The Toremi at the core are the most interesting aspect of the book but disappear from the narrative within a few pages, merely providing the impetus for the crisis of yet another crew member.

This isn’t a novel. It’s a series of barely connected episodes. It’s difficult to resist the conclusion that Chambers is so much in love with her universe she wants to show us every bit of it, regardless of whether her stops along the way follow any sort of logic rather than existing merely for the sake of themselves and to be shown off. Things happen merely to illustrate facets of Chambers’s vision. Sure, we get interspecies sex (two instances, two different couples) but I note in both cases there is no delving into the nitty gritty. We aren’t even invited to speculate on the mechanics. It is as if there is an assumption that these are universal; but they won’t be. Can’t be. (And where do pheromones fit in in this context?) There is no economy, no standing back, little evidence of the sacrifice of authorial darlings.

Yes, the title is The Long Way to a Small Angry Planet but it is a very long way indeed. (And a very short stay there.) Perhaps if Chambers had stuck to the back story of one or two of the Wayfarer’s crew this might have been less noticeable but she gives us them all. And, yes, the members of the crew all look out for each other – even in extremis, for the algaeist – but this isn’t enough to sustain interest. It only highlights the lack of story. Had there been an underlying theme, a point to the meanderings, a grappling with an issue or two then there might have been positives to be taken. As it is, this is a very light read indeed.

There is one of those naff “extract from” passages after the book’s conclusion, from its sequel A Close and Common Orbit, but I really can’t see where Chambers can go with this. She’s already told us the background to every single one of her ship’s characters. Look on the bright side though. A Close and Common Orbit might actually have a plot.

Pedant’s corner:- On the back cover blurb; reptillian (reptilian.)
Otherwise:- ambiance (ambience,) acclimate (acclimatise,) liasing (liaising,) “we’re not kit out for it” (kitted,) unfased (unfazed,) “every shop had different lighting mechanisms to help distinguish themselves from the others” (to distinguish it from the others,) kaleidescope (kaleidoscope – the correct spelling also appeared later on,) “hands were shook” (shaken,) maw (a maw is a stomach, not a mouth,) “curling inward at rigored angles” (? ) “’Our ship is less than an hour out from yours, but we could half it if you meet us in the middle,’” (halve; and spaceship trajectories just DO NOT WORK IN THIS WAY. They are not like cars; you cannot just change a spaceship’s course on a whim,) Jenks’ (Jenks’s, which did appear later,) theirself (themself surely?) automatons (automata,) Encaledus (Enceladus?) “The length of the elevator cables were …” (The length was.) “Her feathers were beginning to lay flat,” (to lie flat.) “She was on her feet before she knew it.” (That’s just impossible.)

A Method Actor’s Guide to Jekyll and Hyde by Kevin MacNeil

Polygon, 2011, 219 p.

 A Method Actor's Guide to Jekyll and Hyde cover

As a Scot I could only warm to a novel that begins – as this one does – with the sentence, “I’m in two minds.” Two minds, duality, or, as the front cover blurb here has it (medically inaccurately I would think) schizophrenia, has been a running theme in the Scottish novel from James Hogg’s brilliant Private Memoirs and Confessions of a Justified Sinner through Robert Louis Stevenson’s The Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde to Angus McAllister’s The Canongate Strangler and beyond. The book has not one, not two, not even three but no less than eight prefatory quotations and its Part One is entitled “The Unbearable Likeness of Being” where our protagonist is named Robert Lewis; an actor cast in the lead role – roles – in a new stage version of The Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde, at least until a new cast member appears. He is attracted to the lead actress Juliette but her interests seem to lie elsewhere. However he has suffered an accident on his bicycle and his tale may be an hallucination – especially given Part Two, “That Small Theatre of the Brain, Lighted,” which starts with Julie’s Narrative. As she waits in the hospital where her man (a writer who suffers from depression) is fighting for his life after an accident on a bicycle, Julie writes down his tale to give her comfort. He is tended to by Nurse Stevenson. The narration flips over to the man halfway through. He has the sense of, “Everything being nested inside something bigger. Images, stories, identities,” and refers to his writing as method imagining.

An unreliable but knowing narrative then, which nevertheless gives MacNeil the opportunity to comment on the state of Scotland, “Edinburgh. Home to a national parish council, an almost powerful parliament indolently bustling with her irreconcilable flow of accurate rumours and unreliable press releases. The tiny capital of our proud-to-be-humble and fighting-to-be-fought-for nation that isn’t a nation, where our Old Testament God has cursed us with a fear of failure and blessed us with a fear of success,” on being Scottish, “I went because I expected to learn how to further extend my range of emotions, harness those joyous emotions for which we Scots are so uncelebrated,” and the national sense of incompleteness, “There is no Scotland. No Edinburgh. They exist in the plural. These are places that have not yet found their true and lasting selves.” Duality isn’t quite enough to contain all Lewis’s (or Scotland’s?) dichotomies: “I contain multitudes.”

Along the way MacNeil throws barbs at the instrumental approach to acting, “‘The greatest deception the devils of method acting ever perpetrated was the myth that method acting is anything better than actual acting,’” and the insecurities of the profession, “‘Jekyll and Hyde. Which. One. Are. You. Being. Now?’”

He also tells us, “Stevenson did not create Dr Jekyll/Mr Hyde. He revealed them. Him. Them. He shed the right amount of shadowy light upon that which is within us all.”

That front cover blurb says, “May well be the last, and funniest, word on Scotland’s national schizophrenia.” While I doubt it will be the last such word it certainly has its moments. I’ll be looking out for more MacNeil.

Pedant’s corner:- vocal chords (cords,) “a quickening bourne out of sudden love” (born out of makes more sense,) smartass (smartarse,) “‘The neutrons in the nerves are responding.’” (That would be neurons; but the speaker is confused,) “I have plants out back” (USian; out the back or in the back is more usual in Scotland,) “to help leverage myself up” (to help lever myself up.)

The Quarry Wood by Nan Shepherd

Canongate Classics, 1987, 223 p including iv p introduction and iii p glossary of Scots words. Canongate Classics 4. First published 1928.

 The Quarry Wood cover

From a young age Martha Ironside loved books, so much so she kicked her great-aunt Josephine for taking her from them. Her mother – a looker in her youth – had married (beneath her the aunts said) her father for love. But Martha is an Ironside and takes after him in looks. In Aunt Josephine’s words she is “’as ugly a little sinner as ye’d clap e’en on in a month o’ Sabbaths.’” And it is true that, “’Men have decreed rights to beauty that reason need not approve.’” Not that it matters to Martha as she knows what she wants – to go to University and become a teacher. Perhaps surprisingly it is her father who is the one eager not to deny the child her further education.

At university Martha is attracted to and a little intimidated by people who cleave to the life of the mind, the seemingly confident Lucy Warrender, and Luke, who is married to Martha’s friend Dussie. Her interest in Luke eventually develops into something deeper but can never be fulfilled. Yet their one close, more or less innocent, encounter in the Quarry Wood late at night will later give rise to gossip. Luke and Dussie remain Martha’s friends but have by that time long moved to Liverpool to avoid any possibility of blandishment.

Martha’s post university life as a teacher in a school twelve miles from her home is complicated by the growing infirmity of Aunt Josephine who is reluctant to take a woman in to look after her. Martha steps into the breach, bicycling back and forward each day. The arrival from South Africa of Roy Rory Foubister, the son of the man who disappointed Aunt Josephine long ago, stirs up both memories and hopes for Aunt Josephine.

Another of the aunts, Jeannie, is all too recognisably self-righteous. “She had carried her habit of bigotry from her religion into the minutest affairs of daily life; and surer every hour of her own salvation, grew proportionately contemptuous of the rest of mankind.”

The Quarry Wood is told in English larded with Scots words but, as the phrase quoted in the earliest paragraph above demonstrates, the dialogue presents us with unapologetic, uncompromising North East of Scotland dialect. Shepherd’s fine descriptions of landscape are entirely at one with the traditions of the Scottish novel. Her evocation of weather, though, is exceptional.

Pedant’s corner:- Birelybeg (spelled elsewhere Birleybeg,) “he could have showed them off (shown,) that Warrrender creature (Warrender,) “how little she had seen of Harrie recently and how seldom she had visited her thoughts” (context suggests how seldom he had visited her thoughts,) back and fore (a north of Scotland usage then,) “had know heartache too” (known,) exhilirated (exhilarated,) baack (back,) an end quote missing.

In Another Light by Andrew Greig

Pheonix, 2004, 510 p.

In Another Light cover

Love, sex and death again; but literature’s subject matter doesn’t get any bigger. And Greig deals with them superbly.

In In Another Light it is death which is the early preoccupation of Eddie Mackay, though love and sex do get a look in. Prior to the immediate events of the novel Eddie suffered from hydrocephalus as a result of a colloid cyst which meant fluid built up in his brain. He therefore feels the imminence of extinction everywhere, “‘Because I was nearly dead once and I’m trying to live with that.’” During his recovery from having a shunt fitted to drain the fluid from his brain to his stomach Eddie experiences the presence of his dead father, who according to Eddie’s mother had, long before she met him, been sent home in disgrace from Malaya after an affair with his superior’s wife. Eddie doubts the truth of this but sets out to find as much as he can about his father’s time in the colony. Eddie is working for a tidal generation project whose headquarters overlook Scapa Flow in Orkney. The jungle drums and the tangled relationships of Stromness become a running theme in the book. Of comments about his liaison with Mica Moar, another of Greig’s complicated female characters (a bit – but only a bit – like Kim Russell in Electric Brae) he says, “‘In my experience there’s only one way to keep a secret in a wee town’ … ‘Plant the sapling of truth in a forest of rumours.’”

This strand of the book, delivered in a first person past tense looking back over the path which brought Eddie to the final scene, with occasional present tense interludes setting that scene, is intertwined with a third person present tense narration of the voyage of his father Sandy, as he was then known, to Penang in Malaya and his brief sojourn there. Medical graduate Sandy hopes to improve the birth survival rates in Penang’s maternity hospital. The boat out is a hotbed of illicit goings on of which deeply moral Sandy is mildly contemptuous. The acquaintances he makes on the trip, US citizen Alan Hayman and the two Simpson sisters, Ann and Adele, “both beautiful, one a gazelle” the elder of whom, Adele, is married and chaperoning the younger, are fateful. A further sister, Emily, also on the boat, is still a child. Each chapter contains several sequences from both stories, generally alternating. The greeting, “‘Oh, there you are,’” bounces around the two narratives. Both strands are thick with metaphor. The descriptions of Orkney and Penang make them almost characters in themselves – particularly Orkney. Certain images also resonate between the two locations.

The text is seasoned with sly critiques of Scottish attitudes, “I was in joyous life-affirming Scottish mode that morning and no mistake.” “Scotland’s a place where everyone explains what is not possible, that it’ll all end in tears, we’re here to make the best of a bad job then die and get a good rest till we’re woken up to be informed we’re damned.” To Sandy’s traditional toast “‘Here’s tae us, wha’s like us? Gey few – and they’re aa deid’” Hayman says, “‘You guys, you can’t even celebrate without bringing death into it.’”

Eddie’s thoughts occasionally stray back to the subject of death. He raises with us the question of “How are we to live in the face of the sure and certain knowledge we will lose parents, friends, lover, the whole shebang and caboodle?” only to answer it immediately with, “Wholeheartedly. Of this one thing I am sure.” Later he tells us, “It’s such a simple and shallow thing, death, only there’s no bottom to it and no way across.”

He reflects that maturity is, “knowing you’ve more or less arrived at yourself and the world will keep changing but you won’t much, and then living with that,” while, “Pure lust, I’d noticed, eventually collapses under the weight of its own contradictions – rather like capitalism, but much quicker.” However, “We need meaning, I thought. The world might not have any, but we need it,” and, “Meaning is something we have to make.”

Greig’s numerous characters are all well drawn, their behaviour sometimes unexpected and contrary. I wouldn’t go quite so far as the cover quote (from The Times) “It will be a long time since a book has made you care as much.” Not for me. At least not since the same author’s Fair Helen. He seems to have a gift for it. Add in computer programmes for generating music from tidal movements, the compromises of secret service work in the colonies, a thoroughly worked through plot (which admittedly may be a little too neatly tied in,) the perennial failure of true love (or lust) to run smooth and the whole thing’s a delight.

Pedant’s corner:- “‘I’d left my [gas] mask back in the Mess’” (the Mess? In the trenches in WW1?) Brechin Pier (does Brechin have a pier?) “for a while neither of them speak” (neither speaks.) “Stacked alongside the reference books are a series of different coloured hardback files” (is a series,) baragraphs (barographs,) the phrase, “he was sad under his funny,” (seems to be missing a final word,) furlough (is more a USian usage,) “The Moonlight Band play foxtrots” (plays,) “a think about what the heck’s he’s getting into,” (what the heck,) sub-periphrenaic abscess (a google search for sub-periphrenaic yields only a quote from In Another Light: Andrew Greig,) whigmalerie (spelling of Scots words can be variable but this is usually whigmaleerie,) murmers (murmurs,) Theramin Dr Who electronic music (Theremin: also Dr Who’s electronic instrument wasn’t a theremin which as an instrument should be lower case,) “he scooped more peanuts down his maw” (I suppose it could mean stomach here,) “a group of macaque monkeys comes running” (a group comes,) “He’s stares” (He stares,) whispy (context suggests wispy,) tweaked it it (one it is enough,) an assortment of … appear (an assortment appears,) Siouxie and the Banshees (doesn’t she spell it Siouxsie?) vocal chords (it’s cords,) Arshak Sarkies’ (Sarkies’s,) for completeness’ sake (completeness’s,) light defraction (diffraction? refraction? or is this a portmanteau word Greig has invented?) became (in a present tense narration this should be becomes.)

Herland by Charlotte Perkins Gilman

The Women’s Press SF, 1979, 154 p, plus xviii p introduction by Ann Lane and i p notes. First published in 1915.

Herland cover

This is one of the earliest pieces of feminist Science Fiction, an attempt to imagine what a society without men might look like. In its form it is perhaps rooted in its time; on an expedition three men from the US hear rumours of a land of only women somewhere in the upper reaches of “a great river” – a land which no-one has ever seen but was said to be “dangerous, deadly” for any man to go there; and from which no man had ever returned – in other words a similar scenario to “Lost World”s of dinosaurs. That this is merely an authorial device to entice the men (and the reader) into Herland is revealed when they in fact travel by aeroplane into that mythical place, cut off by earthquake in the long ago, and find no danger but rather an initial sequestration along with a tolerant acceptance mediated by a kind of amusement.

As tends to be the way of these things all is couched as a remembrance by one of the three men, Vandyck Jennings, tracking his progress from a belief that there must be men somewhere in Herland and that social organisation without men must necessarily be lacking to an understanding of the dynamics and motivations of this strange country. But there are no men. The women in Herland reproduce parthenogenetically (how this happened is rather skipped over, being more like a miraculous occurrence than a demonstrable process but there would have been no Herland without it.) Social relations in Herland are such that violence and criminality do not occur. In effect they have been bred out. Roles – including childcare and education, though the latter is something of a life-long endeavour – are performed by those who have an aptitude for them and who specialise in that field. The contrast with the outside world is stark, especially in regard to the valuation of each member of society.

Initially the three are bemused by the appearance of their captors, “In all our discussions and speculations we had always unconsciously assumed that the women would be young. Most men do think that way, I fancy,” and – a telling aside – “‘Woman’ in the abstract is young, and, we assume, charming. As they get older they pass off the stage, somehow.”

The three do eventually form relationships with inhabitants of Herland (somewhat oddly the three women whom they first encountered on arrival) but with the difference in societal norms things do not go smoothly. Of the three intruders Terry O Nicolson is the one who thinks women like to be mastered. “His idea was to take. He thought, he honestly believed, that women like it. Not the women of Herland! Not Alima!” This conflict drives the novel’s conclusion and his banishment.

In his explanations of his world to those in Herland, Vandyck realises that, “Patriotism, red hot, is compatible with the existence of a neglect of national interests, a dishonesty, a cold indifference to the suffering of millions. Patriotism is largely pride, and very largely combativeness. Patriotism generally has a chip on its shoulder,” and religion’s “common basis being a Dominant Power or Powers, and some Special Behaviour, mostly taboos to please or placate.” His lead his companion Ellador to envisage sex as Vandyck describes its place in the outside world not, as with animals, for the one purpose of procreation but as specialised to a “higher, purer nobler use”.

Books such as this cannot be subjected to the usual reviewing criteria. The central focus of a novel about a utopia is that of the nature of the society described and how it differs from, and reflects on, ours. The idea is the substance of the novel. Though illumination of the human condition is not, such considerations as plot and character are secondary. Not that there is no character development in Herland: two of the three male adventurers who venture into this world come to their own terms with it. Nicolson the macho man of course does not. (Arguably he cannot, and without his following his instincts the events which led to Jennings providing us with this account would not have occurred.)

It might be argued that Herland is not Science Fiction. But if Science Fiction is the literature of ideas (often a reason for why some SF fails to produce rounded characterisation, but the SF background can be as much of a character as any humans in the story) then Herland definitely counts. Whatever, one hundred years on from its first publication Herland can still be read with facility. It still stands up. It still marks a contrast between what our society is and what it might aspire to.

Pedant’s corner:- lay of the land (lie of the land,) laying low (lying low: there was a “lie low” later,) sewed up (sewn up,) there were a handful (there was a handful,) “‘Don’t talk to be about wives!’” (me makes more sense.)

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