Bookshelf Travelling for Insane Times – Lewis Grassic Gibbon

This will be my final entry for Judith’s meme now collated by Katrina.

This one concentrates on Scotland’s best writer of the twentieth century; J Leslie Mitchell, better known as Lewis Grassic Gibbon.

Boks by Lewis Grassic Gibbon

Here you’ll find his classic A Scots Quair, whose first instalment, Sunset Song, is the best Scottish novel of the past 150 years plus.

Also present are his two Science Fiction novels Three Go Back and Gay Hunter, his historical novel Spartacus, two other novels, two collections of shorter stories and a history book, Nine Against the Unknown, recounting the voyages of various explorers.

Another collection of his shorter fiction Smeddum is on my tbr pile as is A Scots Hairst, which contains non-fiction pieces.

Bookshelf Travelling For Insane Times

The good lady is taking part in a meme, which originated with Reader in the Wilderness in the USA.

It’s not quite in the spirit of the meme but I thought I would give you a glimpse of some of my bookshelves over the next few weekends. (Monday counts for this.)

So these are the top four shelves of the bookcase where I keep those works of Scottish Fiction I have already read. (Unread books are kept elsewhere.) The bookcase was bought from IKEA and fitted well in our old house which had high ceilings. When we moved to Son of the Rock Acres we wondered where it could go. Not downstairs, not enough clearance. Upstairs though, the ceilings are three inches higher! The removal men were great at manœuvring it into place with so little margin for error. It now sits on the top corridor just outside my study. (You can’t always see the books so clearly, there’s usually more stuff placed in front of them. A few history books are still perched above some in the bottom row.)

Scottish Books 1

Scottish Books 2

Edited to add:- The meme was set up to include recommendations for reading. Well, on that note Lewis Grassic Gibbon is always worth it, most especially Sunset Song in the A Scots Quair trilogy. So too are Alasdair Gray, Iain Banks, Anne Donovan, Margaret Elphinstone, Andrew Crumey, Andrew Greig, James Robertson.

Read Scotland 2014 Overview

Twelve months gone and 29 books “Scottish” books read. (Or 30 if The Member and The Radical count as two; then again perhaps only 27 if A Scots Quair is treated as a single book.) That’s 2½ per month, give or take. And, if you discount the exceptions already mentioned, not a repeat author in the list.

2 were non-fiction; 4 outright SF/Fantasy; 18 were written by men (20 if the trilogy is separated) and 9 by women. (That gender disparity is lessened by 50% if you consider only authors still alive in 2014, though.)

I’m pleased to have caught up with John Galt and have already bought two more of his novels, delighted to have read A Scots Quair at last, made acquaintance with William Graham, Neil M Gunn, Carole Johnstone, Jackie Kay, Agnes Owens, Muriel Spark and Alan Spence and refound Naomi Mitchison. My main discovery, though, was Andrew Greig whose That Summer is the best book by a writer new to me (Scottish or not) since I first encountered Andrew Crumey.

My review of Kate Atkinson’s Life After Life is still to appear. See later this week, or even tomorrow.

There is apparently a Read Scotland Challenge 2015. I don’t think I’ll make 29 this year. I’ve got a lot of other reading to catch up on.

2014 in Books Read

The ones that stick in my mind most – for whatever reason – are:-

Signs of Life by M John Harrison
Mr Mee by Andrew Crumey
Be My Enemy by Ian McDonald
The Deadman’s Pedal by Alan Warner
A Scots Quair by Lewis Grassic Gibbon – but in especial Sunset Song
The Moon King by Neil Williamson
The Dogs and the Wolves by Irène Némirovsky
The Last of the Vostyachs by Diego Marani
HHhH by Laurent Binet
That Summer by Andrew Greig
Roadside Picnic by Arkady and Boris Strugatsky
My Name is Red by Orhan Pamuk
Way to Go by Alan Spence

Four SF/Fantasy novels, six Scottish ones (eight if the trilogy is separated) and no less than five translated works.

Grey Granite by Lewis Grassic Gibbon

In “A Scots Quair,” Hutchinson, 1966, 156 p. First published 1934.

A Scots Quair cover

After the form of Sunset Song and Cloud Howe, the previous books in Gibbon’s A Scots Quair trio, the text of Grey Granite is divided into four sections, here named after semi-precious stones, Epidote, Sphene, Apatite and Zircon, though unlike its predecessors there is no prelude, proem nor epilude in Grey Granite.

Following the death of her second husband Robert Colquohoun – whose last action to shock his ex-parishioners was to have himself cremated – Chris Guthrie has used what money remains to her to move from Segget and take a half share in a boarding house in the city of Duncairn. [An authorial note at the start informs us this name is amended from the author’s first choice Dundon, since early reviewers in English journals were mistaken in thinking it represents Dundee, nor yet (though it has a Cowgate, a Canongate and a Royal Mile) is it Edinburgh as an American newspaper had it, nor even – notwithstanding its granite buildings – is it Aberdeen (two Scottish sheets) but the city which the inhabitants of the Mearns have hitherto failed to build.]

It is perhaps this setting that makes Grey Granite seem less grounded than the previous two novels in A Scots Quair. While Gibbon’s descriptions of the industrial cityscape are fine they do not have the lyricism of his evocation of rural landscapes. Indeed it is notable that when the story breaks the bounds of the city the writing lifts. But in his defence here Gibbon certainly cannot do without Duncairn. It is absolutely necessary in a novel sequence about modern Scotland (as he was essaying) to encompass the industrial habitat in which most Scots live. And this is only a criticism in the context of Sunset Song and Cloud Howe. Taken on its own Grey Granite would stand as a fine mid-twentieth century Scots novel.

Another factor contributing to Grey Granite’s relative lack of force is the focus moving from Chris to her son Ewan. He is drawn into socialism after taking a job in a metal works which later gains an arms contract. He organises a subsequent strike and is arrested and beaten up by the police. It seems that police accounts of incidents diverging somewhat from what actually happened are never new. In addition, Ake Ogilvie, who had also come from Segget to work in Duncairn, opines, “there was as much graft in the average Scots toun as in any damn place across the Atlantic.”

Once again there is the shifting of narrative viewpoint familiar from Sunset Song and Cloud Howe, by which the Rev MacShilluck for example is well drawn; in a few devastating paragraphs scattered through the book. The text is of its time in some of its references: “psychoanalyst Jewboy chaps” reads shockingly today.

Her business partner, Ma Cleghorn, tells Chris there’s nothing worse than “some old runkle of a woman body living on with no man to tend and no bairns.” As to men, “(they) never live at all. They’re just a squeeze and a cuddle we need to keep our lives going. They’re nothing themselves.” Ewan himself thinks, “A hell of a thing to be History! …. LIVING HISTORY ONESELF.” His treatment of Ellen Johns, a teacher who lodges in the boarding house and helped Ewan along the socialist path is in the end less than gallant. Chris had warned her, though, as we were forewarned in Cloud Howe.

Chris certainly does not have her troubles to seek. Ma Cleghorn dies, Chris contracts a misguided and doomed marriage with Ake Ogilvie, who is instrumental in effecting Ewan’s release from prison. She muses that, “SHE HAD NOTHING AT ALL, she had never had anything, nothing in the world she’d believed in but change… Nothing endured,” and, “We’re all on leading strings out of the past.” She tells Ewan, “The world’s sought faith for thousands of years and found only death or unease in them.” He replies, “It’s the old fight that maybe will never have a finish…. The fight in the end between FREEDOM and GOD.”

On reflection, and after rereading passages, my initial feeling that Grey Granite was not quite at the level of Sunset Song and Cloud Howe may be a touch harsh. It’s a fitting enough conclusion. As Chris comes full circle, “She’d open her eyes and see only the land, enduring, encompassing.”

Cloud Howe by Lewis Grassic Gibbon

In “A Scots Quair,” Hutchinson, 1966, 156 p. First published 1933. The cover shown is of a Canongate edition.

Cloud Howe cover

Cloud Howe takes up the story of Chris Guthrie from Sunset Song at the point where her new husband, Minister Robert Colquohoun (strange spelling that, Colquhoun is more usual,) is about to try for the vacant post in the parish of Segget, still in the Mearns and not far away from the Kinraddie of the earlier book. Segget is a divided community, not to mention class ridden and status conscious, with the folks in the old part of town despising the spinners who work in the jute mills. Robert’s self-imposed mission there is to improve Segget. On their first walk in Segget Robert, gassed in the Great War, is horrified by Segget’s War Memorial, an angel set on a block of stone, “like a constipated calf.”

The story unfolds over the 1920s, covering almost incidentally the growth of socialism – and its first betrayal – the (lack of) industrial relations, the grinding poverty, the insensitivity of the rich. The narrative voice is not straightforward, shifting, but not obtrusively, back and forth from a tight focus on Chris – or on occasion someone else – to an unnamed kirkgoer of a conservative bent (small and large C.) Gibbon captures the smugness of that holier than thou voice perfectly, “The English aye needed the Scots at their head, right holy and smart at the same time,” is one of the milder observations. Also well captured is its hypocrisy, “You’d seen it all in the People’s Journal, what the coarse tinks did in Russia with women – man they fair had a time with the women, would you say ‘twould be easy to get a job there?”

Segget is replete with characters and nicknames. Ag Moultrie, prone to outbursts of weeping is known as the Roarer and Greeter, the mayor’s resemblance to a monkey has him dubbed Hairy Hogg. Old Leslie at the Smiddy is prone to reminisce, “I mind when I was a loon in Garvock.”

If Kinraddie thrived on gossip then Segget gloats in it. The morning after the Segget Show a farmer and his wife are delighted to come upon two couples “in such a like way” in their barn. “They’d be able to tell the story about them all the years they lived on Earth; and make it a titbit in Hell forbye.” It doesn’t take long after the Colquohouns arrival for tales detrimental to Chris to start to circulate – even before Robert attempts to change Segget for the better. Chris is damned either way. If she speaks in Scots she is common, if in English she is putting on airs.

Cloud Howe also begins to focus on Chris’s son Ewan, who is four times referred to in the text as grey granite. Ewan sees nothing wrong with either nakedness or sex and doesn’t take nonsense from anyone. When confronted by Ag Moultrie with a piece of gossip about himself he replies, “I’m sorry I don’t know what you’ve heard, Miss Moultrie, but no doubt Segget soon will. Good Morning.”

It struck me that when a farmer’s wife says she’s heard of Chris from her son, “he lived in London and wrote horrible books,” might be Gibbon referring to himself. I remember reading somewhere that Chris is intended as a metaphor for Scotland. Gibbon foregrounds this twice; once when the local toff, Mowatt, meets Chris and, “was to say later he felt he was stared at by Scotland herself,” and secondly when Robert refers to her as Chris Caledonia. I’m not quite sure whether the narrative is enough to sustain the metaphor.

As in Sunset Song Gibbon once again asserts that the Scots have never really BELIEVED in God. All that is real is the land. “Only the sky and the seasons endured, slow in their change.” The author’s eye and ear for rural and village life is acute. I have no doubt that this is how it was in the Mearns a hundred years ago.

One curio. The phrase, “leave me to twitter,” reads a little differently nowadays from the way Gibbon intended.

Sunset Song by Lewis Grassic Gibbon

In “A Scots Quair,” Hutchinson, 1966, 180 p. First published 1932. The cover shown is of a Canongate edition.

Sunset Song cover

The Scots Quair trilogy is widely seen as Gibbon’s major work, Sunset Song as one of the most important Scottish novels of the twentieth century. Set in the estate of Kinraddie, in the Mearns area, between Laurencekirk and Stonehaven, where Gibbon lived, the lyrical descriptions of the Mearns countryside speak of a deep attachment to the land.

Sunset Song in the main tells the story of Chris Guthrie, daughter of an overbearing father, John, and a mother, Jean, who is so ground down by childbirth that she kills herself and her young twins when she finds herself pregnant for the sixth time. Kinraddie is said by a new minister of the local kirk, a man called Gibbon, to be “fathered between a kailyard and a bonny brier bush in the lee of a house with green shutters,” despite their being no house with green shutters in the whole of Kinraddie. This of course is the author placing his novel firmly within the ongoing sweep of Scottish literature.

I have read nearly all of Gibbon’s novels – whether originally published pseudonymously as by “Gibbon,” or under his real name of J Leslie Mitchell. Sunset Song and The Speak of the Mearns are the most rooted in his home area, hence liberally sprinkled with Scots words. A prefatory note begs the indulgence of English readers in this regard. (I confess I have only a limited background in Scots – especially of words to do with agriculture – but found a lack of knowledge of precise meanings was not a barrier to comprehension. English or USian readers may beg to differ. However, I understand more modern editions contain a glossary.)

The novel is carefully structured to reflect the phases of Chris’s young life. It has a prelude, “The Unfurrowed Field,” which unfolds the history of and introduces the characters inhabiting the Kinraddie estate, followed by four sections, titled respectively Ploughing, Drilling, Seed-Time and Harvest, then an epilude – a word seemingly coined by Gibbon – also titled “The Unfurrowed Field.”

Kinraddie is depicted as a community that thrives on gossip. That would, in the old Scots phrase, be “minding everybody’s business” (which is in my experience immediately followed by the words “but their own.”) It also thrives on argument. At one point Chris tells her brother, “I don’t believe they were ever religious, the Scots folk. They’ve never really BELIEVED.” The kirk had just been a place to collect and argue, and criticise God.

In Kinraddie people are quick to think the worst of others – and never expect the same will apply to them – but still gather round to help in an emergency. Set in that pre-Great War era when mechanical devices were on the way but a rarity on most farms – though the small size of the holdings in Kinraddie make them more like crofts – life is hard and opportunities for harmless pleasure few, and savoured. The number of pages given over to Chris’s wedding (where everyone musical, and some who are not, give their party pieces or provide accompaniment to the dancing and Chris herself sings that great Scottish lament The Flowers of the Forest) – even though it did coincide with the arrival of a New Year – serves to highlight this. On music Chris reflects, “how strange was the sadness of Scotland’s singing, made for the sadness of the land and sky in dark autumn evenings, the crying of men and women of the land who had seen their lives and loves sink away in the years.”

In Harvest, all is ripped apart by the impact of the Great War. Not only are relationships within the community slowly eroded, the woods which protect the land are cut down to make aeroplanes and the like, and several young men do not come back from France. As its title implies the novel is a eulogy for the lost way of life. In the epilude, at the dedication of the War Memorial, a piper plays the tune of The Flowers of the Forest, the music of which is rendered in the text, a threnody to that now dead past. But the key sentence of the book is perhaps, “Scotland lived, she could never die, the land would outlast them all.” It has, it does, it will.

A couple of phrases appear which are unlikely to feature in a modern novel. After firing the whin bushes Chris’s brother Will is said to be “black as a nigger” and “fit to freeze the chilblains on a brass monkey” is nowadays usually expressed more scatologically. Yes, Sunset Song is a novel of its time – but it is also not of it. The Scotland that Sunset Song depicts may be no more, the people it describes are not.

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 Speak of the Mearns by Lewis Grassic Gibbon

Polygon, 2011, 254p

The Speak of the Mearns cover

The Speak of the Mearns is an unfinished novel first published in 1982, almost 50 years after Gibbon’s death. The book also contains several of his short stories and some essays. The fiction’s setting lies in lands near Stonehaven in North-East Scotland, close to those in Gibbon’€™s most celebrated work, the trilogy A Scots Quair, which I have yet to read. (I saw the BBC Scotland television adaptation many years ago and will get round to reading it some day.) It is an almost elegiac chronicling of a way of life, a way of being, that was all but extinguished even as he wrote about it, though he recognised it as a harsh existence.

Gibbon also wrote under his real name of J Leslie Mitchell, works which included two Science Fiction novels, Three Go Back and Gay Hunter. (You can’€™t imagine anyone naming a novel Gay Hunter nowadays.)

Most of the fiction in the book contained an ingredient I had not previously associated with Gibbon: humour. However the final three stories – after a second introduction – stand in contrast to the others, being set in Egypt – as were several other of Mitchell’€™s novels and stories.

As an unfinished novel The Speak of the Mearns naturally has some infelicities but has an interesting narration, most being in standard third person but with parts in the second person. However the viewpoint can shift from the internal thoughts of one of the characters to another within the same scene. The introduction (which, for safety’€™s sake, I did not read till after the fragment novel) suggests this is a technique Gibbon employed to good effect in A Scots Quair.

One of the essays, Literary Lights, is about Scottish writing. He says that those Scots writing in English felt alien to our southern cousins, as if they had translated themselves. Gibbon takes care to make the distinction between writing by Scots and that in Scots, claiming that none of the practitioners of the time (himself included) wrote in Scots, barring only the poetry of Hugh MacDiarmid and Lewis Spence. That writing in Scots would necessarily restrict your readership and thus was a very valid reason not to (and still is to this day) does not seem to have weighed with him. As far as he himself is concerned he says his technique was to “mould the English language into the rhythms and cadences of Scottish spoken speech*, and to inject into the English vocabulary such minimum number of words from Braid Scots as that remodelling requires.” (*Surely a tautology there.)

Since a fair few of the Scots words he uses were unknown to me (though their sense could be inferred fairly easily) he surely failed in the second part of that mission. In my defence I plead that I am only half-Scots. It has to be said, however, that if their use by English TV presenters is any guide then some Scots words are now more widely spread than when I was young.

Gibbon also claims that Scottish writing was about 20-30 years behind the times, A J Cronin, for example, dragging realism into Scottish letters long after it had appeared in English or foreign writing. That in the 21st century it is English writers -€“ as opposed to Scots or Irish we must suppose – who are now backward was noted in the last paragraph of this review in the Guardian on 4/1/13.

War Graves, Innerleithen

Innerleithen’s cemetery is on the left hand side of the road as you go into the town from the direction of Traquair. I found twelve Commonwealth War Graves, eight for World War 2, four for the Great War.

J MCI Melrose, Royal Signals, 21/3/1944, aged 21:-

Innerleithen War Grave

W Craig, Ordinary Seaman, RN, HMS Ganges, 14/8/1945, aged 18:-

War Grave, Innerleithen

Private J Strachan, Argyll and Sutherland Highlanders, 13/6/1945, aged 18:-

Innerleithen War Grave

Corporal G K Brunton, The Royal Scots, 18/2/1944, aged 32:-

War Grave Innerleithen

Lance Corporal R T Smith, The Royal Scots, 13/6/1941, aged 23:-

Innerleithen War Grave

Sergeant G Russell, RAF, 6/5/1942, aged 32:-

War Grave, Innerleithen

Trooper R Crosbie, 1st Lothians & Border Yeomanry, Royal Armoured Corps, 28/12/1940, aged 21:-

Innerleithen, War Grave

Lieutenant R Campbell, 1st Peebles-shire Home Guard, 20/8/1944, aged 55. It’s unusual to see a War Grave for someone who was in the Home Guard:-

War Grave, Innerleithen

Private J Aitchison, 14th Battalion, Canadian Infantry, 15/10/1916, aged 40:-

Great War Grave, Innerleithen

Sergeant W J Bell, Royal Scots, 27/1/1917, aged 37. (And his wife, Isobel Hislop, died 22/5/1981, aged 87. 64 years after her husband.) I note that, as is the Scottish custom, Sergeant Bell’s wife reverted to her maiden name in death:-

Innerleithen, Great War Grave

Sapper G Blake, Royal Engineeers, 2/5/1918, aged 46:-

Innerleithen, Great War Grave

Lance Serjeant Edward Oliver, Royal Scots, 24/2/1916, aged 23:-

Great War Grave, Innerleithen

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