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Reality, Reality by Jackie Kay

Picador, 2012, 248 p.

 Reality, Reality cover

The title of this second collection of Jackie Kay’s short stories reflects the contents. Most of the stories have shifting perspectives or protagonists who are unsure of their surroundings. All are very well written.

Reality, Reality is a stream of consciousness narration by a woman who is attempting to reach the final of a TV cookery competition, or thinks she is.
Another stream of consciousness, These are not my Clothes is told from the point of view of an inmate in a care home – who is not receiving very good care. The title is a phrase she keeps repeating to the nurses who dress her. Her only confidante is the part-time cleaner Vadnie.
From its first sentence I could sense from the way it is written that The First Lady of Song is a piece of Science Fiction; which is what, indeed, it is. It is narrated by a female singer, who centuries ago, was drugged by her father with a potion that meant she would not die. Her performing names always start with the letter ‘E’ – Elina, Eugenia, Ekateriana, Elisabeth, Ella, Emilia. The only change over time is that her skin darkens. Kay doesn’t bring much that is conceptually new to the old SF chestnut of the life eternal but she does write it well.
In The Pink House a heavily pregnant woman – also heavily debt-ridden – finds refuge in the house that Elisabeth Gaskell once lived in.
Grace and Rose is the story of the first lesbian wedding in Shetland, told by both its principals. A joyous tale of love and fulfilment.
In Bread Bin the narrator’s grandmother tells her she has never had an orgasm – but always had a clean bread bin. The narrator is similarly starved of sexual ecstasy; till the age of forty-nine.
Doorstep sees Cheryl decide to spend Christmas on her own; to the displeasure of her latest girl-friend Sharon.
Hadassah is a retelling of the Moses story, updated to feature a young refugee, Hadassah, who becomes the King’s eyes and ears. The King is running a people-trafficking and prostitution operation.
Inspired by Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s The Yellow Wallpaper, The White Cot features two women in a holiday let picking at the cracks in their relationship. One had wanted a child, the other hadn’t. The white cot in their room becomes the material focus for the first’s longings.
In Mind Away the narrator’s mother is gradually losing her memories and thoughts. Together they seek out the doctor into whose head the thoughts have gone.
Two girls who were on holiday together aged ten and nine the year their parents swapped partners, forever after call themselves Barn and Tawny due to witnessing the activities of an Owl.
In The Last of the Smokers two life-long friends contemplate giving up by comparing smoking to ex-lovers.
A woman seeks to find the Mini Me inside her by dint of dieting. Repeatedly.
Mrs Vadnie Marleen Sevlon (the same Vadnie as in These are not my Clothes) took the title Mrs as she thought I it would engender respect. She also invents a husband and children for herself reflecting that, ‘Only people with money have choice.’
The Winter Visitor appears to our narrator every so often without fanfare, taking over her life, until vanishing again as mysteriously.

Pedant’s corner:- “like she is tossing a ball” (as if she is tossing a ball,) “the river Mersey” (river here is a proper noun, so River Mersey,) “and, and” (only one ‘and’ needed, no comma required.) “None of them have” (strictly ‘none of them has’ but it was in the narrator’s voice so perhaps true to that,) “coming forth to carry me home” (I had always thought the words from Swing Low, Sweet Chariot were ‘coming for to carry me home’ and it seems that is indeed the case (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Swing_Low,_Sweet_Chariot#Traditional_lyrics)) homeopaths (homoeopaths, please; or even homœopaths,) “I clamour through” (it was through a window, so ‘clamber’,) sprung (sprang,) edidn’t (didn’t,) “as if it was the scene a crime I had committed” (scene of a crime I had committed,) doubt (a cigarette end is spelled dout,) lasagne (lasagne. Narrator’s spelling? Or author’s?) “‘could of’” (could have; but this was in dialogue.)

Its Colours They Are Fine by Alan Spence

Corgi, 1987, 238 p.

Its Colours They Are Fine cover

Called “A vivid portrayal of Glasgow life” in the title box on its front cover Its Colours They Are Fine is divided onto three sections – each itself made up of five, five and three connected stories respectively.

Section One illustrates the young life of Aleck, growing up in the crowded conditions of Govan before the slum clearances. Tinsel relates the boredom of a pre-Christmas trip to the Steamie and contrasts it with the fulfilment of putting up seasonal decorations. Sheaves finds Aleck at the Harvest Festival at his Sunday School, one of a crop of souls destined for Christ. The Ferry deals with the exoticism and fear of an adventure across the Clyde to Partick. Gypsy tells of the delights and otherwise of the Kelvin Hall carnival and the mutually mistrustful relationship of Govan folk with those they call Gypsies, the people of the travelling shows. Silver in the Lamplight describes life in the back courts and games such as KDRF (Kick Door Run Fast.)

Part Two is more diffuse, featuring episodes from different stages of life. Its Colours They Are Fine recounts the anticipation of and satisfaction from taking part in an Orange Walk. Brilliant repeats this for an evening out, tribalism – of a more parochial sort – being again in evidence. The Rain Dance relates the immediate precursors to and the events on the day of a “mixed” wedding (ie between a Catholic and a Protestant.) Neither family is best pleased. The Palace sees an older man, now jobless but with little prospect of new employment, make a human connection in the Kibble Palace. The chimes of an ice-cream van in Greensleeves lead a retired widow living on the twenty-second floor of a tower block to reflect on her isolation.

Section Three is the most elegiac in tone. In Changes a man returns from a New Year spent in London visiting friends pondering on the fullness and transitoriness of little lives. Auld Lang Syne describes the events of a quiet Hogmanay (for the narrator) but one who is still bound by the traditions attaching to it. All meanings ofBlue, as in the colour of Rangers shirts, and of the Virgin Mary in Art, its associations with sadness and a patch of sky caught between clouds, resonate in the narrator’s memory of the day his mother died.

Glasgow life is here to be sure; working class Glasgow life especially. Its attitudes and habits, its prejudices, the odd casual violence, but also the camaraderie, the fellow feeling. The book in total has become something of a series of snapshots of the past though. Many of the circumstances that led to the sorts of lives portrayed here are gone now – though some will remain – but still Spence has peopled his tales with recognisable characters with full inner lives and descriptions of the Glasgow urban environment to match those of the countryside of other Scottish authors. The prose is written in straightforward English but the dialogue is in an uncompromising Glaswegian.

For those of a sensitive disposition note that the word ‘darkies’ is used twice. (In Glasgow in the days Spence is writing about, though, its use was mainly descriptive and usually not meant derogatorily.)

Pedant’s corner:- Little star of Bethlehem (later given as Little Star of Bethlehem,) a missing end quote, a Roman thumbs up said to mean survival, thumbs down to mean death (this was a common belief at the time these stories are set but I’ve since read that gladiators’ fates were determined the opposite way.) “On the platform were a number” (was a number,) a missing comma before a piece of direct speech (x 3.)

The Siege of Trencher’s Farm by Gordon Williams

Published as Straw Dogs by Bloomsbury Film Classics, 2003, 157 p. One of the 100 best Scottish Books.

I have not seen the film into which this was made and which provides the title for this reprint of the original text of Williams’s novel. The subject matter did not attract me. It still doesn’t. I only read this for completeness, because it’s on that 100 best list.

 Straw Dogs cover

In the run-up to Christmas a snow storm cuts off the village of Dando Manchorum in the English West Country. At a do in the village a young girl, Janice Hedden, goes missing. Search parties are organised. George Magruder, a US citizen, decides to take his English wife Louise and daughter Karen back home to Trencher’s Farm for safety before returning to the search. In the meantime Henry Niles, convicted child molester and murderer, has been thrown out of the van in which he was being transported from a hospital procedure back to the local prison for the criminally disturbed and is wandering the roads. Magruder’s car hits him and the family takes him back to the farmhouse till a doctor can come out to see him. When George finds out who Niles actually is he phones the police but due to the snow drifts they won’t be able to get there for hours.

Several of the locals, especially Tom Hedden, the missing girl’s father, convinced Niles must have abducted her, hear the news Niles is at the farm and they decide to take justice into their own hands. The siege of the title is their attempts to get in and those of George and, less so, Louise, to resist them. The beseigers are partly inspired by the tale of Soldier’s Field when some of their ancestors collectively killed the rapist and murderer of a young local girl but as none would talk weren’t subsequently prosecuted.

Niles himself, portrayed here as a bewildered, inadequate soul and of course totally innocent of abducting or killing Janice Hedden (though not the crimes for which he was incarcerated,) plays an off-stage part for most of the novel, locked in the Magruder’s bathroom before being stuffed into the loft.

The relationship between George and Louise is gone into in some detail but in the end reduces to the kind of sexual politics reflective of the decade in which The Siege of Trencher’s Farm was written (the 1960s.)

There isn’t really much insight into the human condition in these pages. The locals are depicted as very insular (which may be true to life) but the besiegers are more or less unthinking yokels – or else disturbed. I wouldn’t recommend the book to anyone unless they like descriptions of violence. It’s yet another crime book on that 100 best list. Presumably it’s only on there due to its – or the film’s – notoriety. It certainly hasn’t much by way of literary merit.

Pedant’s corner:- “worked as a mechanic as the Compton Wakley garage” (mechanic at the Compton Wakley garage,) hung (several instances; hanged,) Niles’ (Niles’s,) “‘he won’t say nothin’. all right.’ “ (comma after ‘nothin’’ rather than a full stop.)

The Bullet Trick by Louise Welsh

Canongate, 2006, 375 p.

 The Bullet Trick cover

The novel is set variously in Glasgow, London and Berlin and intercuts between the three at intervals. It starts with William Wilson, mentalist and illusionist, having fled back to Glasgow to hide after a sojourn as a conjuror in the Berlin night club Schall und Rauch has gone wrong. He had only taken that job after a one-off gig at a London venue – a benefit for a retired policeman, Jim Montgomery, nicknamed ‘the Wizard,’ – was followed by the violent deaths of the club’s proprietor Bill and his boyfriend Sam, whose knowledge of Wilson had got him the gig. Bill had prevailed on Wilson to use his palming skills to remove a package he said belonged to him from the detective’s jacket pocket. Montgomery wants it back – even tracking him down to Berlin. Wilson’s need to return to Glasgow depends on his awareness of this and of the possible dangers of the conjuror’s bullet trick of the title. Only once back in Glasgow does Wilson open the package to see what it contains.

This is where the whole enterprise falls into what I might call the standard thriller plot. A single untrained individual besting the world and solving a decades old mystery don’t ever strike me as very likely. Welsh’s gifts as a novelist are many, a feel for character and an eye for description among them. She does this sort of plot well enough but somehow or other the reader (well, me) always suspects that Wilson’s situation isn’t going to turn out to be as black as he paints it.

There is a reminder of the buttoned-up attitudes inculcated into Scots by centuries of Calvinism when Wilson says of an old friend that he, “pulled me into a hug that was traitor to his west coast of Scotland origins.”

The cover of the edition I read is emblazoned with a quote from Kate Atkinson, “Her most thrilling yet.” I was not quite so enthralled, maybe because of the conjuring business. If a faker is telling you something then you must expect fakery. Of the four Welsh novels I have read so far the best has been Tamburlaine Must Die, perhaps due to its historical setting.

Pedant’s corner:- conjurer (I prefer the spelling conjuror,) Saturday Night at the London Palladium (that Palladium TV show was on Sunday nights,) “her bosoms” (a person traditionally only has one of those,) “there were nothing but shadows” (there was nothing,) junky (junkie,) “licensed grocers” (grocer’s.) “The crowd were clapping” (the crowd was clapping,) “the audience were getting used to” (the audience was getting used to.) “He’s doing his standard grades now” (it is – was – a proper noun, Standard Grades,) “over an over” (over and over,) a missing comma before a piece of direct speech (x 2,) a missing end quotation mark. “‘You could of found me’” (You could have found me. This was in dialogue but the speaker was German and I suspect would not be so ungrammatical when speaking English.)

Brond by Frederic Lindsay

Polygon, 2007, 220 p. First published 1984. One of the 100 best Scottish Books.

 Brond cover

Glasgow University student Richard sees a man throw a boy off a bridge into the River Kelvin but at first thinks he must have imagined it. Through the medium of fellow student Margaret Briody, whom he fancies and who asks him to deliver a package for her, it is not long before he is drawn into a complex situation involving IRA sleepers, multiple murder and the machinations of agents of the state against Scottish independence activists (though this last does not become clear until quite late on in the book.) Chief of those agents is the mysterious Brond of the title, whose baleful presence pervades the novel.

Before settling into the more or less standard thriller mode, though with the odd philosophical aside, the narrative has a tendency to be slightly overwritten, as if Lindsay is trying too hard, though there are some fine touches. (Of the noise-propagating acoustics of the University of Glasgow’s Reading Room Robert says, “It was such a drawback in a library I was sure the architect must have won a clutch of awards.”)

The politics of the plot are mostly relegated to the background. One character describes Scotland as a valuable piece of real estate, another opines, “here in Scotland we have this difficulty finding our voice.” One English girl questions Robert, “‘What do you mean “accent”?’” before adding, “‘I don’t talk like a Cockney… I talk like ordinary people who sound as if they don’t come from anywhere.’” One of the spooks speaks of the necessity “‘to forestall … the risk, however remote, of the natives here getting restless.’”

In my view there are too many thriller/crime novels on that “100 Best” list. Brond is yet another. I can see, because of the background politics, why some people might regard it as a significant Scottish novel but it doesn’t, to my mind, really address the nature of Scottishness, or go much beyond “the state acts in its own interests” trope though it incidentally reflects attitudes of some English people to their neighbours.

It does, however, all pass easily enough but I was never able to suspend my disbelief to the required degree.

Pedant’s corner:- like lightening (lightning,) sulphur lamps (they did give off a yellowish light but they were sodium lamps,) the Barrows (always known as the Barras, never the Barrows. Its name above its gates even says ‘the Barras’,) contigent (contingent,) a missing comma before a piece of direct speech, comitments (commitments.)

Another List

I recently came across this list of ten of the best Scottish fiction books. (A bit late I must admit. It was produced five years ago by the Irish Times on the eve of the Scottish Independence Referendum.)

The ones in bold I have read.

The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie by Muriel Spark (1961)
The Girls of Slender Means by Muriel Spark (1963)
Lanark by Alasdair Gray (1981)
The Wasp Factory by Iain Banks (1984)
The Trick is to Keep Breathing by Janice Galloway (1989)
Swing Hammer Swing! by Jeff Torrington (1992)
Trainspotting by Irvine Welsh (1993)
Morvern Callar by Alan Warner (1995)
Black and Blue by Ian Rankin (1997)
Day by A L Kennedy (2007)

Most of the usual suspects appear here. Trainspotting is the only one I haven’t read.

The list seems to be biased towards more modern novels. Remarkable for its absence is Lewis Grassic Gibbon’s Sunset Song (now nearly 100 years old, however.) I doubt that’s an omission any such list produced in Scotland would make, though.

A Pass in the Grampians by Nan Shepherd

Part of “The Grampian Quartet,” Canongate, 1996, 120 p, plus vi p Introduction by Roderick Watson. First published in 1933.

 The Grampian Quartet cover

The village of Boggiewalls lies in the lee of the Grampians; beneath a pass through which various military commanders have travelled on their transitorily important campaigns. It is one of those deceptively sleepy communities wherein lie universal human dilemmas and dramas, hidden or otherwise.

From it the Kilgour family had spawned scholars. His three brothers had all gone off to University and made a place for themselves in the world but Andrew Kilgour had preferred to stay on the farm. The impact of two deaths, his wife’s and his son’s (in the Great War) had led his daughter Mary first to give up her ambition to follow in her uncles’ footsteps until the second provided the chance for the widow, Milly, to come, with her daughter Jenny, to tend to the house – allowing Mary to fulfil her desires, and eventually set up a typing school in London. Jenny is the apple of Andrew’s eye but, now she has grown, her friendship with elderly local shepherd, Durno, who lives with his spinster sister Alison, is seen as no longer seemly.

But now the return of well-known singer Dorabel Cassidy, the one-time Bella Cassie, whose mother Peggy had fallen to her death from a hayrick in Andrew’s farmyard and whose welfare he had seen to by taking her in as part of the family – leading to the inevitable gossip – before she took off to make her way in the wider world, her building a modern house within sight of the Kilgour farm, her unconventional behaviour, all threaten the delicate balance of the relationships in the village. Dorabel has a capacity to enthrall others. She has an artist, Barney, in tow, on a string, obedient to her every whim and Jenny, too, falls under her spell. Andrew Kilgour is less enamoured.

There is an awful lot packed into these 120 pages, a network of complications, obligations and acceptances. A whole existence of self-abnegation is summed up in a phrase relating to Milly’s “eternal grey jersey – this year’s, last year’s, sometime’s.” We all know uncomplaining women like this. And it is conveyed in just eight words.

Shepherd’s usual eye for landscape description is demonstrated and the economy with which the plot unfolds, we find the true reasons for Peggy’s death, and the real identity of Bella’s father is exemplary.

There is an aside on good Scots stories, “For salt and subtlety these ….. were unmatched, and, at their best, great art, in which, as in a perfect lyric, not a word could be altered.” You could say the same for Shepherd’s writing.

Pedant’s corner:- a missing comma before a piece of direct speech.

Children of the Dead-End by Patrick MacGill

Caliban, 1983, 310 p, plus ix p Introduction. First published in 1914. One of the 100 best Scottish Books.

Children of the Dead End cover

In some respects this is an odd choice of book for inclusion in that 100 best Scottish Books list. MacGill was Irish and the book starts off in Ireland with the early life story of Dermod Flynn, offspring of a poor family living off potatoes and buttermilk (with the occasional variation of buttermilk and potatoes.) When Dermod takes exception to his schoolmaster picking on him and hits him back, his schooling is over and he is packed off to be an agricultural hired hand – in effect, a slave for six months – so that he can send money back to his mother and father. But the majority of the book is set in Scotland to where Flynn decamps as a member of a gang of potato-pickers and ends up as a tramp until, via a stint on the railway, he joins the workforce building the aluminium works at Kinlochleven.

In the text MacGill affects to be giving us Flynn’s unvarnished autobiography, denying any artifice, explicitly stating that he has taken incidents from his (Flynn’s) life – though the assumption is that they are from MacGill’s own as his biography is all but identical – and written them down, but there is an organisation to them, a novelistic arrangement that belies such simplicity.

The itinerant life, the characters Flynn meets, are described in detail. The brutal existence of the life of a navvy, the arbitrary dangers it involved, admirably demonstrated. The only interests of the men of the gangs at Kinlochleven – outside working hours – are drinking, gambling and fighting one another. Somehow through all that Flynn learns to read, to jot down poems and incidents which he sends to a newspaper and whose acceptance is briefly parlayed into a job as a journalist in London. But the “civilised” life does not suit him.

However, at the core of the book is Flynn’s connection with Norah Ryan, a girl from his village of Crossmoran in Donegal, who came across to Scotland as part of the potato-picking gang but to whom Flynn neglected to pay attention as he fell into gambling and, consequently, she into a relationship with a farmer’s son which will not end well.

MacGill also brings out the ungratefulness of the general public who do not care about the dangers the navvies endured, the risks they took, but after they are laid off – all but en masse – only see itinerant wasters before them.

Flynn’s bitterness towards the church – both Catholic, in Ireland and Scotland, and Presbyterian in Scotland – is no doubt a reflection of MacGill’s own. “The church soothes those who are robbed and never condemns the robber, who is usually a pillar of Christianity….. To me the industrial system is a great fraud, and the Church which does not condemn it is unfaithful and unjust to the working people….. I have never yet heard of missions for the uplifting of MPs, or for the betterment of stock exchange gamblers; and these people need saving grace a great deal more than the poor untutored working men. But it is the nature of things that piety should preach to poverty on its shortcomings, and forget that even wealth may have sins of its own.” He goes on, “In all justice the lash should be laid on the backs of the employers who pay starvation wages, and the masters who fatten on sweated labour. The slavery of the shop and the mill is responsible for the shame of the street.”

In its unalloyed description of the life of the working man Children of the Dead End is of a piece with many works of Scottish literature, so maybe its place on that 100 Best list is justified after all.

Pedant’s corner:- In the Introduction; “is, indeed, that of MacGill’s” (that of MacGill.) Otherwise; “‘His name in Jim MaCrossan’” (is Jim Macrossan,) pig-stys (pig-styes or pig-sties,) “shot the crow” is defined in a footnote as ordering and drinking whisky without intent to pay (in my experience it has always meant to leave, to leave anywhere – or anyone – without notice,) “a group of children were playing” (a group was.) “A shower of fine ashes were continuously falling” (a shower was continuously falling,) by-and-bye (by-and-by,) Lough Lomond (yes, the Irish spelling is Lough, but Loch Lomond is in Scotland; so ‘Loch’. I would never write ‘Loch’ Neagh for the loch in Northern Ireland,) “a pair of eyes were gazing at me” (strictly, a pair was,) “there were a fair sprinkling of them” (there was a fair sprinkling,) sprung (sprang,) pigmies (pygmies,) dulness (I gather it’s an alternative spelling but I’ve only ever seen it before as dullness.) “For whole long months I saw a complete mass of bruises” (I was a complete mass of bruises makes more sense,) a phenomena (a phenomenon.)

Gone Are the Leaves by Anne Donovan

Canongate, 2014, 361 p.

 Gone Are the Leaves cover

This is another very fine Scottish novel (my second such in a row) but it’s an odd coincidence that both this and Ronald Frame’s The Lantern Bearers should have a boy’s treble singing voice as a significant plot driver.

The main narration duties here are carried out in the first person by Deirdre, a young embroideress in an unspecified Scottish castle overseen by a couple only ever referred to as the Laird and my Lady. Interspersed with Deirdre’s remembrances are third person segments from the viewpoint of the peripatetic priest Father Anthony, and further first person snippets from singing master Signor Carlo and nun Sister Agnes.

The Laird’s daughter, Lady Alicia, is on the marriage market and my Lady has brought back from France, where she has relatives, a suitor with an entourage containing a page, Feilamort, of obscure origin but in possession of a voice like an angel. Feilamort is not the most robust of boys but he and Deirdre make friends and begin to spend some of what spare time they have together playing in the woods.

This being the Middle Ages and the glorification of God a bounden duty, the preservation of His instrument to that end, a pure singing voice, is an active consideration. In particular, Signor Carlo sees great prospects for himself in Rome with Feilamort under his tutelage. Feilamort himself accepts it is probably his best option for a secure future but before the procedure takes place asks Deirdre if he can know her as a man knows a woman. After initial hesitation she consents, and the novel’s path is set.

Deirdre’s secret revealed to Father Anthony, he arranges for her to travel overseas in the company of Sister Agnes. She ends up in an unusual castle belonging to a Lord known as the Master, where resides an artist called Monsieur Alberto (who has echoes of Leonardo da Vinci.) The Master commissions Deirdre to sew an embroidery of a unicorn from one of Monsieur Alberto’s paintings but otherwise why she was brought there remains a mystery to her. The nature of Feilamort’s – and therefore Deirdre’s – connection to the place slowly unravels while in the background lurks the shadowy figure of a Monsieur Garnet.

The Deirdre passages are rendered in a very braid Scots indeed. It was here I had some initial reservations as Donovan is not entirely consistent in applying this. “To”, for example is sometimes given in English and elsewhere appears as “tae”, whereas Deirdre would almost certainly always have used the latter exclusively. Similarly I noticed “afternoon” where “efternoon” or even “efternin” would seem more natural. But I can understand why Donovan made the choices she did. The liberal use of Scottish words – albeit mostly weather related and hence perhaps more readily understandable – might otherwise present too much of a barrier to readers not familiar with written Scots. A (short) glossary appears at the end but by no means covers all the Scots words in the text. They do, however, provide the flavour of the novel which would, I submit, be a much lesser thing if written in standard English. The expressiveness of these Scots words is a major part of the book’s overall impact. They might even be said to heighten the book’s literary qualities.

The mediæval Scottish setting reminded me vaguely of Andrew Greig’s Fair Helen but Gone Are the Leaves is its own thing entirely. Donovan captures superbly the fears and misgivings of the adolescent – going on adult – Deirdre, the suspicions of Signor Carlo and the wisdom of Sister Agnes. In this light her decision to render Father Anthony’s sections in the third person is entirely appropriate.

Even if resolution comes via frankly unlikely means (but justified within the novel’s narrative) and the ending has a very traditional Scottish feel this is an exemplary work – better than Donovan’s earlier novel Buddha Da.

Pedant’s corner:- whisps (wisps,) Agnes’ (Agnes’s,) Jacques’ (Jacques’s,) Feilmort (x1, elsewhere always Feilamort.)

The Lantern Bearers by Ronald Frame

Duckbacks, 2001, 244 p. One of the 100 best Scottish Books.

 The Lantern Bearers cover

In a very short Part One we find Neil Pritchard is about to turn down a contract to write the biography of a famous musician, Euan Bone, he knew in his youth. A diagnosis of cancer persuades him to change his mind. The much longer Parts Two to Four relate his remembrances of the summer he spent living with his Aunt Nessie in the town of Auchendrennan on the Solway Coast, where he was sent while his parents worked through the problems in their marriage. His boyhood treble singing voice gained him an entry to Slezer’s Walk, the house where Bone lived with his companion (as such a relationship was publicly referred to in those days) Douglas Maitland. To test how the music sounded, Neil was to be the vocal guinea pig performer of a piece Bone was composing inspired by a Robert Louis Stevenson essay “The Lantern Bearers”. Part Five rounds off the tale of Pritchard’s entanglement in Bone’s life.

Frame’s style here is writerly but nevertheless highly readable. The author being Scottish we of course have various comments on the country’s attitudes. “The Scots have a way of cutting other Scots down to size but Bone was lucky in that respect ….. received opinion” holding that he was a leading figure in Scotland’s musical renaissance. Via Neil, Frame tells us Bone’s music has a “typical unresolved Scottish conflict of intellect and emotion, that timid repressed life of the feelings.” We also have a typically Scottish observation where Neil says of his father, “My mother shot him A Look.”

The unfolding of Neil’s relationship with Bone, the explanation for Maitland’s unease at Neil’s presence in Slezer’s Walk, the awkwardnesses of Aunt Nessie’s navigation of ‘difficult’ areas of life to do with an adolescent boy, the repression of feeling in 1950s Scotland (I might add of Scotland since the Reformation till very recently indeed) are all brilliantly and subtly depicted. Neil’s complicated response to Bone’s distress, and distancing when biology intervenes in their relationship (which lead to the actions for which Neil wishes to atone years later) are beautifully handled. The only off note I could detect was the introduction – albeit offstage – of Scottish nationalist activists, but that provided the impetus for the novel’s defining moment.

On the evidence of this novel Frame is a master, The Lantern Bearers well worth inclusion in that 100 best list. Why had I not heard of him before encountering it? I obviously read too many London-based reviews.

Pedant’s corner:- On the back cover blurb “on the the Solway Firth” (only one ‘the’ required.) Otherwise: arrengements (arrangements,) “vocal chords” (x2: they are cords,) “bundling them in a boorie – every which way – ” (Frame doesn’t feel the need to explain other such Scots words in the text,) McLuskie (I’ve never seen this alternative spelling to McCluskey before,) “a prospect of canal, the Clyde and Forth” (it’s usually called the Forth and Clyde canal, I’ve never the reverse before,) “the Arts Galleries” (this is the one in Kelvingrove, Glasgow, usually designated as just ‘the Art Gallery’,) cromandel (coromandel.)

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