The End of an Old Song by J D Scott

A Romance. Canongate Classics, 1990, 214 p, plus iv p Introduction by Christopher Harvie. First published in 1954.

Things lost. The times they have achanged. It is not for nothing that the lament is the signature example of bagpipe music. Scottish authors have always chronicled disappearance. It’s there in this book’s title and its epigraph – the source of that title – is of course the quote from Lord Chancellor Seafield on the dissolving of the Scottish Parliament in 1707 after the Treaty of Union was signed, “There is the end of an auld sang.” Scots have been struggling with a sense of absence, of incompleteness, ever since.

But there are wider literary echoes here too. This review ought perhaps to have begun with the words, “Last night I dreamed I was at Kingisbyres again,” Kingisbyres being the name of the “big house” where narrator Patrick Shaw had his formative experiences. Indeed, the book could also have been titled “Kingisbyres Revisited”.

Yet this exercise in Scottish nostalgia, displaying the typical Scottish writer’s flair for landscape description, is narrated by one Patrick Shaw who tells us he deliberately cultivated English snobbishness. Indeed, the novel reads as being written with an English sensibility, and people are always described as Scotch, not Scottish. As a result, the Scotticisms, when they occur – “‘Away, man,’” – do so with increased force. Despite his leanings towards Englishness Patrick intuits “the essence of the past of Scotland, its dark, fated, cruel quality and the contrasting strain that ran through it of lightness and grace and gaiety ….. something powerfully charged with love and hate, pride and violence, which, in given circumstances, it might discharge in some tremendous flash of lightning.”

In the 1930s Patrick was a pupil at the nearby fee-paying but far from top drawer school, Nethervale, (his alcoholic father reduced to teaching there) and was invited to Kingisbyres by his friend Alastair Kerr, himself brought up by an aunt in the village and who, local rumour had it, was the natural son of the house’s owner, Captain Keith, who paid for him to attend the school. In Kingisbyres a room once graced by Bonnie Prince Charlie is kept perpetually ready for “the King over the water” to return. One summer, Captain Keith, no longer able to afford the upkeep, lets Kingisbyres to the nouveau riche Harveys (the money was made in biscuits) and Patrick was immediately struck by their daughter Catherine, a presence who is to flicker in and out of Patrick’s and Alastair’s lives for the remainder of the book. Catherine is used to having her own way and even as a young adult knows how to deploy her charms to get it. The establishment of the three’s irregular relationship takes up more than half the novel before the focus shifts to the book’s narrative present after the Second World War.

Captain Keith, like many of the landed gentry, has some very right-wing views and Alastair frequently indulges in casually pejorative mentions of Jews – sometimes not so casually, even after the war. He also has some acerbic comments to make on his countrymen’s attitudes, “being stuck-up is a crime in Scotland. That’s why everybody who makes money leaves it in the end. What’s the good of making money if you can’t be stuck-up?” and the cultural cringe, “like the good wee Scotty I am, I’ve been conditioned to feel that success is genuine only when it’s been registered in London.” He cites those objects of aspiration, “‘That old Kentish manor house,’” along with an English rose for its mistress, two children and a picture in the Tatler but after the war, in its austere aftermath, such longing is obsolete, “‘Now we have to give it up for an apartment on Fifth Avenue.’” When he says, “‘God save us from the romantic outlook,’” Patrick asks him, “‘It’s goodbye to the English dream?’” Alastair replies, “‘Yes,’” and Patrick says ironically, “‘You might call it the end of an old song.’”

The characters in The End of an Old Song are well-drawn, Catherine’s youthful carelessness and flightiness apparent from Patrick’s first encounter with her, Alastair always a hard, uncompromising presence (though Mrs Harvey is a type; a recognisable and all too familiar type, but still a type.) The novel speaks both of its time and to timeless Scottish concerns.

Pedant’s corner:- In the Introduction; a missing end quote mark from an illustrative passage. Otherwise; gulley (gully,) Agnes’ (Agnes’s,) “thee fingers of whisky” (three fingers,) “Mrs Mathers’ voice” (Mathers’s,) “Bonny Prince Charlie” (usually spelled Bonnie, as it is on the next page and elsewhere in the book,) “‘If you boys arenie’ to be working’” (usually spelled arenae – and there’s no need for the apostrophe.) “After Dunkirk time I didn’t see Alastair …. for nearly two years … I went abroad … and until early 1943 I was in the middle East” (Dunkirk was in 1940, 1943 is 3 years later, not 2,) glaiket (usually spelled glaikit, is said to mean wandering in one’s mind; I have always understood it as meaning gormless, or slightly dim.)

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