A Twelvemonth and a Day by Christopher Rush

Canongate Classics, 1994, 324 p (including the author’s preface and vi p introduction by Alan Bold.) One of the 100 best Scottish Books. Returned to a doomed library.

A Twelvemonth and a Day cover

Couched as an autobiography, A Twelvemonth and a Day relates the narrator’s childhood as a kind of gazetteer encompassing the year of the fishermen of the author’s birthplace, St Monans in Fife. There is an artfulness to it though, a novelistic approach, which belies the book’s simple structure. The title is taken from the poem The Unquiet Grave (though to someone of my generation it brings Steeleye Span’s All Around My Hat more to mind.)

A Twelvemonth and a Day is laid out in thirteen chapters, one for each month of the year, relating the fishing activities which traditionally took place then, the weather appropriate to it, the light (or darkness) in the sky – with the last, “And a Day”, telling how all that is lost now, a living memory wiped clean away. As such the book lies in the long list of Scottish lament, which Alan Bold’s introduction says goes back to the poem on the state of the nation written on King Alexander III’s death after he fell from a cliff in Fife in 1286, but which may well be an oral tradition older still.

In the book’s course we meet an array of local characters, many larger than life, “These were the eccentrics, whom progress has mostly swept away,” but it is possible that memories of childhood always enhance the odd or unusual, those moments and folk that stick in the mind.

The people’s creed was mare vivimus (we live by the sea) and carries the sense of living not only beside the water but also from its frequently capricious largesse.

Rush relates educational experiences that are the usual tales of contempt and the tawse. The narrator claims he taught himself to read from the Bible and the inscriptions on the graves in the local Kirkyard. This doesn’t convince, the King James Bible may contain wonderful cadences but the lyricism evident here betrays a wider reading. (Rush himself obtained a degree in English from Aberdeen University and went on to teach the subject in an Edinburgh school.) Death was an ever-present possibility, though the narrator tells us of his conviction that he could never die.

The awful embrace of Calvinism thunders through “August” in particular, “You do wrong every day of your life, from eye-opening to eye-shutting, you did wrong from the first breath you took. O thou child of weak-willed Adam and Foolish Eve. You did wrong to be born at all, thou offspring of original sin. Conceived in sin and born in sorrow, you are an error, a living wrong, a perversion of creation, an affront to Jesus.
God sees everything that you do, everything that you think and feel he hears and senses. He knows every lie told, every wicked whisper of the heart. An empty seat in Sunday School, a vacant pew in church is a witness against Christ the Son – and God the Father will not be mocked.
A text unlearned is a failure to love Him. A crude word is a nail hammered into his crucified hands. And a refusal to believe in Him is the sure and certain road to eternal damnation.”

A harsh creed for a harsh life.

[But where in that is the joy of living? Or even its potential? Where is the redemption? The typical “Ye’re all miserable sinners” was never a beguiling sermon, but has held sway over the Scottish psyche for centuries.]

Rush though, goes on to say, “People will argue that the long night of ecclesiasticism was worse than the darknesses of barbarism or of boredom. The religion given to me by St Monan and St Monans filled me with exquisite fear … Maybe it has even made me neurotic. But in spite of everything I would rather have my neurosis, my fear…. than have nothing at all.” Well, each to his own.

That sense of fatalism is encapsulated by a man the narrator and his grandfather encounter by a field, “‘Aye,’ he said at last. ‘Aye, aye.’ It was not a greeting. He was simply recognising that the world and its ways altered and man and women grew older, while the things around us never changed.” No wonder Scots embraced predestination.

Rush mentions a painting “we had inherited with the house. It had been painted in this very room in which it was hung, we were told, by an artist called Lorimer, of Kellie Castle. The picture was a study of the view from the window looking out to sea.” That painter would have been John Henry Lorimer whom I blogged about here. I wonder where the painting is now.

All those local characters are now no more, the fishing is no more. “The folk culture is now embalmed in the Anstruther Fisheries Museum, the saddest place in the East Neuk.” “They are all gone then – the days and the people, and their language and their ways, and the stories they told me.” Not quite. Not perhaps till A Twelvemonth and a Day is also forgotten.

Pedant’s corner:- “My first noises drifted out …., and was lost..” (noises were,) “‘Poor wee beggers’” (beggars,) skelb (I always knew this Scots word for small splinter as skelf, but that is for a thin piece of wood, skelb is apparently more general) cherubin (x 2, the more usual cherubim is used later,) crystalised (crystallised,) gladitorial (gladiatorial,) Kirk o’ Fields (Kirk o’ Field,) “she had a nasty trick off” (of,) “dahns and lamps” (are included in a list of fishing equipment but I can’t source a meaning for dahns,) “whose extra-scriptural decade ….. were nought but vanity” (was nought; and I prefer naught,) unsain (context suggests uncanny/ spooky,) exhiliration (exhilaration,) effette antique dealers (effete.)

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