After the Dance

Selected stories of Iain Crichton Smith. Edited and with an introduction by Alan Warner. Polygon, 2013, 256p plus 4 p introduction. Borrowed from a threatened library.

 After the Dance  cover

Of the many characteristics Scottish literature habitually exhibits – a preoccupation with the dark side of human nature, a fascination with the devil (or at least manifestations of the supernatural,) a questioning of identity, a sense of being peripheral, or isolated, a lack of communication, a love of the land – humour does not come high on the list. The former do appear in these pages (to great effect) yet humour is also here, in spades; a reflection of the author himself, as Alan Warner’s introduction to this collection attests. Warner considers Crichton Smith’s creation, Murdo, to be one of the most unpredictable, and most welcome, characters in recent Scottish writing. I can only concur.

Born in the islands, Crichton Smith straddled Scotland’s own two cultures, Highland/island as contrasted to Lowland, Gaelic versus English. Adept with prose and as a poet, his Consider the Lilies is in the list of 100 best Scottish books. I’ll get round to that sometime.

Murdo Leaves the Bank sees misfit Murdo, kilt, red feather in his hair and all, leave the staid bank branch he had tried to liven up. Mr Heine is an ex-pupil who turns up unannounced to the house of his former teacher to commemorate his retirement. In The Play a new young teacher of English finds the only way he can enthuse his raising-of-the-school-leaving age class is to have them improvise. The Telegram is being carried through the village by the elder, watched by two women each dreading it is bearing news of the death of her son in the war. Murdo’s Xmas Letter details the exploits which he got up to during the year; including running a Scottish short story competition – “What I look for first is good typing, then originality,” – and a crusade for truthful In Memoriams – “May James Campbell’s randy bones rest in peace.” The Red Door has been mysteriously painted that colour overnight. When its owner discovers the change it causes him to reassess his life. The Button has loosened from the jacket of a man whose wife and himself had come not to speak to each other. The untidiness obsesses her. Murdo’s Application for a Bursary is to help write his novel about a private eye, Sam Spaid, who is a member of the Free Church. (“I do not see why the Catholics should have Father Brown and we Protestants nobody.”) From there it digresses. The Mess of Pottage is one of Sam Spaid’s cases. A man has left his overly religious wife. In the interview with her Sam ponders the delights of predestination, then follows the trail to the flesh pots of Inverness. The Old Woman and the Rat is a total change of style, as it relates the violent encounter between the two titular characters in the woman’s barn. So too, is The Crater; an account of a World War 1 trench raid and its aftermath while The House is the tale of the delayed construction, over five generations of the Macrae family, of a stone house.

On A September Day young Iain comes home by bus from his school in Stornoway and walks through the village. The talk is all of the international situation and his thoughts become suffused with images of war. The inhabitants are proud of The Painter despite his less than flattering portrayals of the village, until one day he starts to paint, dispassionately, a fight between Red Roderick and his father-in-law. In Church, an abandoned one, in a wood behind the lines, is where Lieutenant Colin Macleod chances upon a deserter dressed as a priest. The Prophecy he has been told about is unwound by an English incomer to a Highland village who muses, “Life is not reasonable, to live is to be inconsistent. To be consistent is to cease to live.” To test out the prophecy he constructs a shed. This leads to a clash between the young (who want to use it for dancing; well, we know what that leads to) and the local minister. In Do You Believe In Ghosts? Iain and Daial go out hunting for ghosts while A Day in the Life of… chronicles said day of a woman who never married, whose parents are dead and who takes pointless holidays. She wanders Edinburgh, thinks what about what her mother would have said of illuminated bibles in an exhibition she visits, “’Nothing but candles and masses. Heathenism,’” before deciding she can’t bear total freedom any more.

Murdo and Calvin is another jeu d’esprit wherein Murdo goes to a police station to denounce Calvin, “a dangerous lunatic….responsible for the Free Church, for the state of Scottish literature, and for many other atrocities too numerous to mention. And especially the Kailyard.” He also believes him, “to have invented the Bible,” that (Calvin) hates women and deceives men, and is a man who uses boredom as a weapon. In After the Dance a man goes back to a woman’s house, they talk, and he asks to watch television. What he sees strikes a chord with him. Mother and Son portrays the eponymous pair in all their backbiting, resentful hopelessness. “He had now become so sensitive that he usually read some devilish meaning into her smallest utterance.” An American Sky sees a now retired emigrant to the US return to his island home for a visit. He reflects, “Perhaps those who went away were the weaker ones …. unable to suffer the slowness of time.” But there is no going back to the same place. Murdo and the Mod relates Murdo’s money-making schemes surrounding that annual celebration of Gaelic culture – protection for adjudicators, procuring B&Bs for choirs, invisible hearing aids (for turning off on the seventh hearing of the same song,) soundproofing rooms for pipers to practise their pibrochs etc. etc. Sweets to the Sweet tells of how a mini-skirted, peroxided, motherless, daughter of a shopkeeper behaves towards the owner of the shop next door. The Bridge is a story about legends and hauntings and being careful what you wish for set against the backdrop of a trip to Israel. The Long Happy Life of Murdina the Maid is a swipe at tales of the olden days, written in the style of a legend, and tells the story of a maid who was inveigled to the great metropolis, was disillusioned there and returned to set up business at home, where there is no competition for her trade. The Wedding is a Highland one but held in a city where no-one speaks Gaelic. The bride’s father makes an awkward speech and seems like the proverbial spare…. until the songs in Gaelic start. The Hermit plays his chanter – badly – when the local bus stops outside his hut. The Exiles are an old woman once from the Highlands but now living on a Lowlands council estate and a Pakistani law student doing a door-to-door round to support himself. In The Maze time seems to accelerate for a man who cannot navigate it. A boy is left In the Silence in a field when his playmates disappear.

After the Dance is a glorious collection; well worth reading.

PC:- For those of a nervous disposition the word negro is used; there is a mention – as depicted in a television programme – of the hooded axe-man at Anne Boleyn’s execution. (Someone’s got this wrong. Boleyn was executed with a sword, by a man clothed unexceptionally in order to keep her at as much ease as possible.) Each left hand page header is Selected Stories of Iain Crichton Smith but the right hand header is the particular story’s title – except on the last right hand page of Sweets to the Sweet where the header was Survival Without Error – which appears nowhere else in the book.

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