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The Gourlay Girls by Margaret Thomson Davis

B&W, 2000, 237 p.

This is a sequel to Davis’s novel The Clydesiders, though it might as well not have been. The actual plot here does not require it. It could as easily have been anybody’s daughter who fled the house after her grandfather died in front of her when she had frozen at his fit and not fetched his medicine. As it is, Davis more or less uses it as a thread to tie this one to the first book in her trilogy.

Wincey (Winsome) is that much-loved daughter of Virginia and Richard Cartwright, whom everyone sees as close to her grandfather. Wincey knows his darker side though. When he takes that fatal fit she watches immobile as he dies, before fleeing off and taking the first tram she sees. She ends up crying on a street in Springburn where Florence Gourlay befriends her and takes her home – as an orphan otherwise destined for the workhouse. In a sense Wincey strikes lucky. The Gourlays – father Erchie, mother Teresa, eldest sister Charlotte, twins Euphemia and Bridget and Granny, Erchie’s mother, who gets all the best lines – are a friendly loving family and treat Wincey as one of their own.

It is the thirties though, and times are hard with Erchie unemployed. Salvation comes with the family’s sewing activities spearheaded by Charlotte but which, with Wincey’s help and Erchie’s knack for mending machines, is built up over the years into a successful business. Flies in the ointment are employee Malcy making up to Charlotte with an eye to the main chance and Wincey’s total aversion to men. She is cold even to Erchie, who has given her no reason to be. Very occasional chapters deal with the loss Virginia and Richard feel at Wincey’s disappearance, the strains it places on their marriage and their ongoing friendship with Virginia’s first husband James Mathieson, bound as they are by their socialist principles.

All this takes place in the shadow of the 1930s, the growth of Nazism in Germany and the shadow of forthcoming war. One bright spark is the Empire Exhibition of 1938 held in Glasgow’s Bellahouston Park, the mention of which in the book’s blurb enticed me to buy it in the first place. Literally bright; the night time illuminations were famously spectacular. Though Davis has clearly researched it (she may even have attended the event,) the scenes at the Exhibition itself are a little cursory. Then again a lot of the book is. Relationships are sketched out, developments telescoped, the treatment rushed, the information dumping and drawing of background somewhat crude. Sometimes conversations are too obviously designed to provide the reader with explanations. Though probably true to life as it was then the female characters seem much too eager for Wincey to be married off given she’s still in her mid-to-late teens.

Davis has been described as Glasgow’s Catherine Cookson. I’ve not read any Cookson. And I won’t in the future.

Pedant’s corner:- Davis uses the term ‘abusing’ of Wincey’s grandfather’s treatment of her. That’s an anachronistic word for what was more likely known in the 1930s as molesting or interfering with.
Otherwise; “of the abdication King Edward VIII” (abdication of King Edward,) “‘Any digestives,’ Granny asked” (a question mark, not a comma, after ‘digestives’,) “hokey kokey” (hokey cokey,) an end quotation mark in the middle of a piece of direct speech. “‘For years they’ve been these camps’” (there’ve been,) a missing comma before a piece of direct speech. “‘Did she do along with this story’” (go along.) “‘Hiding’ yer heid in the sand’” (Hiding, [or, Hidin’] yer heid.) “‘An aw wis right’” (An ah wis right,) “‘When’s she ever been a blether,” Granny wanted to know’” (a question mark, not a comma, after blether) “along side” (alongside,) “the Atlantic restaurant” (it’s a proper noun, so Atlantic Restaurant,) “‘You really do believe there’s going to a war, then’” (going to be a war.)

South Cascade and Tower by Night, Empire Exhibition, Scotland, 1938

Brilliant coloured postcards of the South Cascade and Tower by Night at the Empire Exhibition, Scotland, 1938. The A697 code number on the left hand one tells me it is an Art Drawn card by Brian Gerald. The more muted one on the right is to all intents and purposes identical though it is missing the UnionJack on the Tower’s flgapole. Despite its different code number it was also produced by the same postcard company, Valentine’s. I suppose it may have faded over time but on the other hand it may have been printed this way. My copy of it claims to be a real photograph.

Empire Exhibition, Scotland, 1938, South Cascade and Tower by Night
South Cascade and Tower by Night, Empire Exhibition, Scotland, 1938

Stunning stuff, whatever.

The Tower of Empire (Tait’s Tower) was certainly impressive. More so at night, judging by these.

Glamis Castle Rooms

This is apparently the room the Queen Mother used when she visited her childhood home at Glamis Castle as a young married woman. It is kept as it was in those days:-

Queen Mum's room, Glamis Castle, Ahgus, Scotland

Fireplace and chairs used by the Princesses Elizabeth and Margaret Rose:-

Fireplace, Glamis Castle, Angus. Scotland

Dining Room, note armorial stained glass:-

Dining room, Glamis Castle, Angus, Scotland

Dining Room centrepiece:-

Dining room centrepiece, Glamis Castle, Angus, Scotland

Cupboard in Dining Room:-

Glamis Castle, Cupboard in Dining Room

Model of RRS Discovery the original of which can now be found in Dundee:-

Model of SS Discovery, Glamis Castle

Drawing Room. The large painting is by Jacob De Wet:-

Drawing room, Glamis Castle, Angus, Scotland

Drawing Room fireplace:-

Glamis Castle Drawing Room Fireplace

Note again small chairs as used by the Princesses:-

Drawing room ,small chairs, Glamis Castle

Fireplace in Billiard Room:-

Fireplace, Glamis Castle

Lovely Art Deco cot used by Queen Elizabeth II when she was a child. And a nice rocking horse:-

Glamis Castle, Bedroom and Queen's Cot

Dominions and Colonial Avenues, Empire Exhibition Scotland, 1938

Another Brian Gerald Art-drawn postcard from the Empire Exhibition Scotland 1938. Pavilions for South Africa, New Zealand, Australia and Canada on left with Palace of Engineering at far end:-

Dominions and Colonial Avenues , Empire Exhibition Scotland 1938

Valentine’s sepia postcard of the Dominions and Colonial Avenues at the Empire Exhibition Scotland 1938 featuring fountains, Australian Pavilion and Palace of Engineering:-

Empire Exhibition Scotland 1938, Dominions and Colonial Avenues

Reverse view. Another Valentine’s postcard. Australia and Canada Pavilions to near right, Palace of Industries at far end:-

Empire Exhibition Scotland 1938, Dominions and Colonial Avenues,

Valentine’s sepia postcard of Canada Pavilion plus Palace of Engineering at far end. Tower of Empire in background left:-

Empire Exhibition Scotland 1938, Canada, Dominions and Colonial Avenues,

South Cascade and Tower, Empire Exhibition Scotland 1938

I haven’t posted one of these for a long while now.

A Brian Gerald art-drawn postcard of buildings and floral displays at the Empire Exhibition Scotland, held in Bellahouston Park, Glasgow. Palace of Engineering to right, Garden Club in centre, below Tait’s Tower:-

South Cascade and Tower, Empire Exhibition Scotland 1938

The Queen’s Gallery, Holyrood

The Queen’s Gallery lies over the road from the Scottish Parliament, Holyrood, and close by Holyrood Palace. It has recently been refurbished and styled with a blonde wood.

Art Deco style lamp in niche by entrance to the Queen’s Gallery:-

Niche Light by Entrance, Queen's Gallery, Holyrood

Lower part of stairwell:-

Lower Stairwell, Queen's Gallery, Holyrood

Upper part of stairwell:-

Upper Stairwell, Queen's Gallery, Holyrood

Stair guard rail:-

Stair Guard Rail, Queen's Gallery, Holyrood

Ceiling + Light:-

Ceiling + Light, Queen's Gallery, Holyrood

At the time we visited there was an exhibition of paintings illustrating the lives of Queen Victoria and Prince Albert.

Painting of Scutari Monument at Great Exhibition. (The Great Exhibition is one of my interests so I had to photograph this):-

Scutari Monument at Great Exhibition

Similarly this painting by Edouard Hildebrandt of Dumbarton Rock and Castle was a must:-

Painting of Dumbarton Rock and Castle

Information card re painting above:-

Dumbarton Castle Painting Information, Queen's Gallery, Holyrood

Wild Harbour by Ian Macpherson

British Library, 2019, 220 p, including a v p Introduction by Timothy C Baker, and Wild September a vi p article by MacPherson. First published in 1936. Reviewed for Interzone 290-291, Summer 2021.

 Wild Harbour cover

In the mid- to late twentieth century Science Fiction by Scottish authors was all but invisible. Only four names spring to mind as being much in evidence at the time; J T McIntosh (who did though manage to publish over 20 SF novels,) Angus McVicar – whose output was aimed at YA readers (such books were called juvenile at the time) – and a reprint in the early 1960s of David Lindsay’s 1920 novel A Voyage to Arcturus, which despite its impeccably Science-Fictional title was arguably more of a fantasy than SF as such. Alasdair Gray produced his monumental Lanark in 1981 but that was such a unique novel (or four novels) that it hardly represented a trend or a model practicable to aspire to. And again it leaned towards fantasy, though some of his short stories were more recognisably SF. A tendency towards fantasy and horror in Scottish fiction had always been present – taking in George MacDonald’s Lilith etc and some of Robert Louis Stevenson’s stories (notably of course The Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde) – as was the tale of the supernatural or, at least, encounters with the devil, whose origins go back even further than Victorian times. Forty to fifty years ago though, of evidence of SF either in that present or from earlier decades, there was barely a trace, neither as reprints nor on library shelves. Not until Polygon’s republishing of the novels of Lewis Grassic Gibbon – some of them published originally under his real name of J Leslie Mitchell – did I become aware that there had indeed been a Scottish tradition of writing SF before the appearance of Iain (M) Banks. Ken Macleod swiftly followed him. That dam having been broken by their success in the field, there are as of now a fair few Scots active in the genre.

With Ian Macpherson’s Wild Harbour, the British Library, whose new editions of British Crime Classics from the 1930s have brightened up bookshop shelves with vibrant Art Deco style covers redolent of the railway posters of that decade, has pulled another long languishing work of Scottish Science Fiction out of obscurity.

The book was written in the shadow of the looming Second World War. In it, something has happened in Europe and war has been declared, exactly what and between whom is unspecified. The novel starts sometime after with protagonist Hugh and his wife Terry being woken up in the middle of the night by the sound (and sight) of gunfire in the distance, towards Inverness. It soon becomes obvious they are taking refuge in a cave – the text goes on to lay out how well they had customised it to the requirements of living in the wild – as an escape and hiding place from the outside world. Hugh had had no inclination to fight in a war, had refused to follow the instructions of his call-up papers and the pair made off into the country to fend for themselves. Despite his aversion to war Hugh nevertheless has to kill animals to survive, hunting deer, fishing, snaring the odd rabbit.

The text takes the form of diary entries by Hugh with chapter titles which usually consist only of dates (from 15 May 1944 – 11 October) except for the final one, Night. Oddly, despite numerous mentions of salting of deer for the winter, when October comes we are told they have run out of meat.

In an observation on modern humans’ capacity to get by unaided that has even more relevance these days Hugh remembers an acquaintance from before the war telling him, “Our senses are blunted. We depend on a multitude of people to make our clothes and food and tools for us. We have noses that can’t smell, ears that are deaf -”

The pair’s struggle to survive and maintain their seclusion is threatened by human intruders into their surroundings, intruders whose shadowy nature and motivations only heighten the sense of threat. In this context Wild Harbour prefigures British SF’s “cosy” catastrophes of the 1950s.

The Introduction tells us, “Place is formative in all Macpherson’s novels, but the human relationship with place is never an easy one.” That is a statement that could be made about the Scottish novel in general. Another Scottish novelistic trait displayed here is a close attention to depiction of the land.

The writing is of its time, though, and the feel very reminiscent of Gibbon’s slightly earlier SF novels Three Go Back and Gay Hunter, both of which involve sojourns in almost deserted countryside, but also of John Buchan’s John Macnab, (plus there is the merest whiff of Geoffrey Household’s Rogue Male.) Macpherson, however, has an absurd overfondness for the phrase “commenced to” and from the perspective of over 80 years after publication it is noticeable that Terry’s contribution to the pair’s survival is confined almost entirely to the domestic sphere, within the cave.

In valediction, Macpherson offers us the thought that, “We are victors over fate when we choose well, though it destroy us.”

A subsequent article by Macpherson, entitled Wild September, which was published in September 1940, rounds off this edition, and in it he reflects on the actual war which started in 1939.

As Science Fiction, though, Wild Harbour on balance falls down. Its background is too sketchy and there is no real necessity for such a story to be placed in a putative future (except for the international situation at the time it was written.) It could as easily have been a present-day narrative with a more mundane reason than dodging conscription for escaping to the hills. However, that might be argued to be an unwarranted criticism as it projects twenty-first century ideas onto an older text and a work of SF is always about the time it was written, never the future. As a historical curiosity and a reminder that SF by Scottish writers has an extended history Wild Harbour is welcome. Modern SF readers, though, might prefer more meat on its bones.

Pedant’s corner:- in the Introduction; “depictions of violence in books bears little relation to” (depictions …. bear little relationship to.) Elsewhere; a lower case letter at the start of a sentence after a question mark at the end of the previous one, ditto after an exclamation mark, digged (dug,) “‘there didn’t use to be’” (used to be,) a switch of tense from past to present then back, “where I sunk his rifle” (where I had sunk his rifle,)

Another Review for ParSec

You may have noticed on my sidebar that I am reading a book titled Absynthe by one Brendan P Bellecourt.

This is to be reveiwed for the online SF magazine ParSec.

Mr Bellecourt is an author new to me and Absynthe appears to be his first novel.

I was attracted to by the publisher’s blurb given to Parsec wherein it mentioned “a palace full of art-deco delights.”

Art Deco Former Cinema, Hexham

The Forum. Stepped roof-line, streamlining, rule of three in windows (disappointingly eyes poked out.)

Sadly no longer a cinema.

Art Deco Former Cinema, Hexham

Art Deco on a Tin

I spotted the tin whose lid is shown below in an antique shop.

The picture on it is of the Coop drapery in Workington as it was back in the day:-

Art Deco Tin

I didn’t buy the tin. Since we moved to Son of the Rock Acres I don’t have room to display the ones I already have.

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