Archives » Scottish Literature

Where the Apple Ripens by Jessie Kesson

B&W, 2000, 192 p, including xii p Introduction by Isobel Murray.

 Where the Apple Ripens  cover

Kesson drew on her early life for inspiration in much of her fiction, which in the Introduction we are told was always composed in the form of a play for radio first. Several of the stories here reflect rural life, some are set in institutions, all are unmistakably Scottish. Most are adorned with page centred quotations from poems or hymns or songs. The characters within them are vibrant and individual; depicted economically, vividly and with compassion. This is good stuff.

The longest tale here is the first, Where the Apple Ripens, a novella describing two days in the life of Isabel Emslie, set to take up a place in service the next week in the big town. Her last schoolday is marred by its coincidence with the funeral of Helen Mavor, who had let herself waste away after the birth of her illegitimate baby. The novella is perfused with the contrast between Calvinist rectitude and human impulse, her mother’s admonishments, the prurient comments Isabel overhears as she passes the local bus stop, the thinly veiled innuendos and warnings, her poetic sensibility – illustrated by copious quotations from poems and hymns – her youthful exuberance and desire to dance (a heavy signal, this,) the bravado she expresses when she says she’s ‘not feared’ of Alex Ewan, the local man with a reputation, a bravado which is later revealed to have face value.
In Stormy Weather such inclemency is the only reason Matron can muster not to allow the older orphanage girls out to go to the Band of Hope meetings on Friday nights. The story, however, is more about the compromises, the quids pro quo, the petty revenges the inmates have with and over one another.
Set in 1923, ‘Once in Royal…’ relates the excitement around the scramble for tickets for the Chief Constable’s Christmas dinner for poor children as felt by Sarah, who does not consider herself the ‘poor, wee soul’ of others’ opinion.
The Gowk, Jockie Riddrie, is the local simpleton, forever hanging around the school fence, drooling, or exposing himself. After allowing herself to be enticed up into the woods young Liz Aitken becomes pregnant but steadfastly refuses to reveal to her family who the father is. For the village folk and especially the gowk’s stepmother, Kate, Jockie becomes the obvious candidate to blame. But his father Hugh knows better.
Having caught the biggest tiddler in a jam jar The Bridge is where the local boys span, hand over hand on its girders, across the river below.
Until Such Times is the interval during which narrator ‘you’ are staying with your Grandmother and the Invalid Aunt away from your Aunt Ailsa (who, we infer, is not your aunt) whom the Invalid Aunt says is man-mad and that ‘you’ would clip her wings. Invalid Aunt never has a good word to say about anyone but ‘you’ are devoted to ‘Aunt’ Ailsa, who is actually trying to do her best for ‘you’.
Another story narrated by an unnamed ‘you’, Good Friday is not the religious festival but the tale of a sufferer from acute neurasthenia longing for the day she’ll be released from mental hospital.
As its title suggests Life Model is about a sitter for Art Students, one who could hold a pose better than most, and of her secret for being able to do so.
In an intimation of mortality Road of no Return sees a woman come back to her childhood village overlooking Loch Ness and finds it deserted. But her memories remain.
Set in an old people’s home and with a kind of time-slipping narrative Dear Edith … describes the letters Mrs Cresswell composes to her dead friend Edith, interspersing these with the conversations of the staff.
This Wasted Day is the last of a tinker, arraigned at the Pearly Gates by those who looked down on her during her life with all their misconceptions and prejudices. The Big Man turns out to have different ideas from them but there is still a twist to come.

Pedant’s corner:- In the Introduction; Alex Ewen (the book’s text has Ewan,) “Never had Isabel ran so fast” (the passage was in standard English not vernacular Scots, so, ‘run’,) paeon, (paean,) an opening quotation mark that was unclosed, sang (again, the passage was in standard English, so, sung,) ommission (omission,) court yard (courtyard,) a missing comma before a piece of direct speech, another missing after one, momentoes (the correct ‘mementoes’ appeared two lines later,) descendents (descendants,) vocal chords (cords.)

The Pure Land by Alan Spence

Canongate, 2006, 428 p.

 The Pure Land cover

Ipponmatsu is a house still left standing, albeit with every window shattered, after the A-bomb was dropped on Nagasaki. Two GIs break in to find its Japanese occupant, Samurai sword in hand, about to commit seppuku. They are surprised to find he speaks English. He tells them his father was Scottish.

The Pure Land is the fictionalised life story of that Scot, Aberdonian Tom Glover, taken on by Jardine Matheson to work for them in a Japan newly opened up to trade after Commodore Perry’s Black Ships had forced the Shogun to end Japan’s isolation.

Spence paints a compelling picture; first of the life, and love, Glover left behind, of his arrival in Japan as Guraba-San and a first encounter with the Samurai Takashi, the strangeness he found there, the mistrust, the Samurai striding about, casually disembowelling and beheading any who displeased them (and not just foreigners,) the tensions and strains within Japanese society, the disagreements of the Choshu and Satsuma clans, those wishing Japan to modernise, others fiercely resistant to foreign influence corrupting their unsullied country, the consolations he found after crossing the hesitation- and mind-made-up bridges to the flower quarter, his acumen in business and the risks he took when striking out on his own, his taking a Japanese wife, Sono, the loss of their child and relationship, his introduction of a railway to the country (a development not built on for decades.)

An instance of arrogance and carelessness on the part of an Englishman leads to his death. In the retaliation by British gun-boat diplomacy at Kagoshima, Sono was killed. Undaunted, Glover indulges in gun-running to both sides in Japan’s nternal conflict, amassing a paper fortune but incurring debt, and is instrumental in sending representatives, first of the Satsuma, then later of the hitherto reluctant to modernise Choshu clan, to Britain, where they see the future. Through his contacts with a shipyard in Aberdeen he provides for the foundation of Japan’s shipbuilding industry via dry dock construction, and acts as middle-man for the purchase of ships for Japan’s first modern navy.

This is all wondeful stuff. I would have rated this book very highly on its execution up to its midsections and, in retrospect, there is a subtly handled recurrring motif of bridges being both safe pathways yet also dangerous. However, when the Japanese crisis comes Glover is not involved personally and the text has to resort to telling, giving us a short history lesson in which the Tokugawa Shogunate is finally overthrown and the Meiji Emperor restored to ultimate power. In the ensuing uncertain times the currency collapses as do Glover’s finances and he has to sell his coal mine, the first in Japan, but remains to manage it. His friendship with the rising politician Ito Hirubumi lets him in on the ground floor of a company whose symbol will be three diamonds, Mitsu-bishi, and he also finds time to found Kirin beer. At one point he regales a drinking companion with the words, “‘The Scotch, however, is from home. There are some things even the Japanese shouldn’t be trusted to copy!’”

All this is background though. The book is at its finest when dealing with Glover’s relationships with women (first love Annie, where the Brig o’ Balgownie over the River Don features prominently, first wife Sono, the courtesan Maki Kaga – an affair said to have been the inspiration for the opera Madame Butterfly – his housekeeper Tsuru, who falls for him, and whom he marries) and on personal thoughts and feelings, the perennial novelistic concerns of love, sex and death, here with the fate of a nation thrown in, the astonishing transformation of Japan from a mediæval feudocracy to a Twentieth Century world power in less than forty years. Unknown to Glover Maki bears him a son while he is temporarily back in Aberdeen, a son whom he later adopts, the book’s central human source of unease.

At times Spence can’t resist the opportunity for his story to comment on itself. One of Glover’s accomplices keeps asking him, “And then?” when he outlines developments in Japan’s future. The latter part of Glover’s life is somewhat skimmed over, though. The reflection on his life represented by his interview by an American reporter in 1911, questioning Japan’s expansion into Manchuria and Korea, is probably justified but the underlining of the irony of Mitsubishi’s Nagasaki shipyards being a target of the second atomic bomb attack in the 2005 chapter really isn’t. In that same section one of the characters wants to know what happened to the woman in the story. We find out in the last.

Pedant’s corner:- a missing comma before a piece of direct speech, “a leather football” (in 1862? Not impossible.) Queensberry rules (these weren’t drawn up till 1865,) rowboat (rowing boat,) sprung (sprang,) a missing opening quotation mark (x2,) Shinsasburo (previously Shinsaburo,) sunk (sank,) payed (paid,) “‘I said For God’s sake why?’” is missing quote marks around ‘For God’s sake why?’; ditto with the ‘I said Why not?’ in “I said Why not?” “blew her nose hard” (this was a Japanese woman in Nagasaki in 2005. I remember reading once that to a Japanese, to blow your nose in public is extremely rude,) Ryonen (later, always rendered as Ryonan.)

Scottish Short Stories Edited by Theodora and J F Hendry

Penguin, 1945, 123 p.

Scottish Short Stories cover

The back cover says this book was mostly edited by Theodora Hendry but she was killed in the London Blitz. The criteria for selection in the volume was Scottish stories with a Scottish setting or else it “would almost certainly have assumed an international aspect.”
The first, The Coasts of Normandy by George Blake, is the story of a tragedy which befell the narrator’s childhood friend and its effect on the child’s mother as reflected through the prism of a chance encounter with a stranger many years later on the coast of Normandy. It takes a slightly circuitous route to its revelation (which the reader intuits well before the narrative gets there) but this allows for such thoughts as, “The simple feel as warmly as the clever and the learned.” Another of its observations is a reminder that, for some soldiers at least, the Great War was not only a horrific trial and ordeal but also an opportunity to remake their lives in its aftermath.
In A Sunday Visit by Colm Brogan two boys are dragged along by their mother to the Mortons’ house, where the family has just suffered a bereavement. Amid all the whispering, the boys are left to their own devices.
A Hike to Balerno by Ronald McDonald Douglas sees two boys on the titular hike, the escapades they get up to, the banter between them, “daft, just plain daft.”
Clay by Lewis Grassic Gibbon is the story of Robert Galt, a man from a chancy background who takes a farm and devotes all his time to it, to the neglect of his wife and his daughter’s prospects.
Beattock for Moffat by R B Cunninghame Graham tells of the last journey of a dying Scot on the train up from London with his cockney wife and his brother come to take him home to die. The author observes of the accomodations married couples make with each other that “usually … good points, seen through prejudice of race, religion, and surroundings, appear … defects,” and refers to the Cockney wife’s reticence being explained by, “the English theory, that unpleasant things should not be mentioned, and that, by this means, they can be kept at bay.” The prose evidences that Scottish authors’ eye for landscape.
In The Sea by Neil M Gunn a twelve-year-old overcomes his fears, staggering through the night down to the harbour to witness the perilous return of his father’s and brother’s boats during a great storm. Here it is seascape (or land-meets-sea-scape) which the descriptive powers bring to life.
J F Hendry’s Chrysalis is a fragment of the childhood of a boy who wants to be good but fears he is bad because he sometimes is too enthusiastic in his activities.
Clock-a-Doodle-Doo by Willa Muir is set in a room full of clocks (all wag-at-the-wa’) which can speak to each other, having theological discussions over whether the Son or Moon is the primum mobile and aspiring to Pure Horological Thought.
Neil Munro’s The Lost Pibroch could be characterised as a Scottish version of the Pied Piper of Hamelin. Two pipers come to Half-Town. After a night of musical vying with the blind piper there he finally plays them the titular pibroch he “got from a man in Moideart.” It has “something of the heart’s longing and the curious chances of life” and sets up a wanderlust in those who hear it.
In The Matinee by Fred Urquhart a fifteen-year-old newly graduated into long trousers reverts to shorts to get into the cinema more cheaply, dragging his younger brother along for corroboration. Engrossed in a film where a factory owner exploiting the workers is presented as virtuous he fails to acknowledge his brother’s increasing personal discomfiture.
Eric Linklater’s Kind Kitty is an old woman who likes a drink, then dies through lack of it a few days after throwing a party for Hogmanay. She inveigles her way into heaven but finds the company there uncongenial, and the beer far too poor.

Pedant’s corner:- a missing full stop, “brigh” (is missing a final ‘t’,) missing commas before pieces of direct speech.

The Living Mountain by Nan Shepherd

A Celebration of the Cairngorm Mountains of Scotland

In The Grampian Quartet, Canongate, 1996, 88 p, plus 2 p Author’s Foreword, 1 p Contents and v p Introduction by Roderick Watson.

 The Grampian Quartet cover

One of the hallmarks of Scottish writing (or I should say good Scottish writing) is its facility for landscape description. In The Living Mountain, a non-fiction work of virtually nothing but description, Nan Shepherd elevates this to an outstanding degree. Here is the Cairngorm plateau in all its glory, beauty and menace; its prominences, its rocks, its shifting hues, its changing moods, its sparkling waters, its light and air, its sudden vistas and deceptive perspectives, its capricious – and dangerous – weather, its plants, birds and deer, its people, its effect on the senses, its being. If Shepherd had set out to write a love letter to the Cairngorms she could not have succeeded better. Her immersion in and knowledge of the landscape is profound. That it did not find a publisher on being written towards the end of World War 2 is amazing. It did not see the light of day till Aberdeen University Press published it in 1977. Shepherd’s foreword to that edition refers to the changes that have occurred in the Highlands during the interim. But her feelings about the mountains remained the same. They are where she seemed to be most at home, at one with herself and the world.

Pedant’s corner:- In the Introduction; a closing bracket without a previous opening one. Otherwise; “Its waters are white” (if they were tumbling over rocks, yes; but this is in a passage about clarity. The last thing an utterly transparent medium is is white. You can not see through white. Try looking through a piece of paper,) acclimitisation (acclimatisation,) felspar (feldspar.) “In December an open heather” (in open heather.)

The Coral Island by R M Ballantyne

A Tale of the Pacific Ocean.

EriK Publishing, 2017, 239 p. First published 1858. One of the 100 best Scottish Books.

 The Coral Island cover

When I first saw this on the list of 100 best Scottish books I wondered if I had read it in my youth. Reading it now (which I would not have done were it not on the list) its contents struck absolutely no bells in my memory.

This is a tale narrated by Ralph Rover of three cheery lads; himself, the older Jack Martin and the younger Peterkin Gay, and their life after shipwreck on the coral island of the title, a place with bountiful food, not only cocoa-nuts, bread-fruit, yams, taro, plums and potatoes, but also pigs and ducks and of course fish. Their ingenuity and resourcefulness (not, what with all that bounty, do they really need them much) allow them to lead a happy life until it is disrupted first by the descent on their shores by South Sea natives at war with each other (one side whom our heroes naturally get the better of, the other side then becoming free to return to their home) then by pirates. Ralph falls into the latter’s hands and is transported across and around the Pacific islands before eventually finding his way back to rescue Mark and Peterkin.

The book is of course riddled with the cultural assumptions of the time in which it was written. A flavour of this is given when Peterkin asserts of potential black inhabitants, very early on when the three don’t know what exactly they will find, “‘Of course we’ll rise, naturally, to the top of affairs: white men always do in savage countries.’” (Those sensitively disposed should note the text contains one instance of the word “niggers” and that is put into the mouth of a pirate.)

Much play is made of this “savagery” and of the cannibalism of the region’s as yet unconverted natives as contrasted with Ralph’s intermittent piety (after he lost his Bible in the shipwreck.) To a man – and woman – the natives are redeemed, civilised and instantly ennobled by the adoption of Christianity. The more, though, that the text insisted that those tales of cannibalism and savagery are true the more I came to resist the thought. In any case, the savagery displayed was no more than the pirates are shown to be capable of.

Reunited, the three set off to aid one of the native women of the freed warring party whose chief Ralph had become aware was refusing to allow her to marry whom she pleased and now threatened to kill her. That chief is much displeased when they turn up and soon imprisons them. The book ends with an almost literal deus ex machina as the three are saved by the conversion of their captor by a missionary.

The Coral Island is not the shipwreck on a deserted island ur-text – that would be Robinson Crusoe – but with its depiction of pirates it clearly had an influence on Treasure Island and Peter Pan and its suffocating certainties apparently festered in William Golding’s head and led to its antithesis in Lord of the Flies. That it holds such a position is the only possible reason to include it in a list of 100 best books. In terms of literary merit or insight into the human condition it belongs nowhere near one.

Pedant’s corner:- Both the cover and the title page bear the words “with illustrations by the author.” None were to be found inside. Otherwise; contains mid-nineteenth century spellings – cocoa-nuts, sewed, etc. Otherwise; occasional omissions of commas before pieces of direct speech, ricochetting, (ricocheting,) maw (it’s not a mouth,) “signed to several of attendants” (of his attendants,) “seized Jack and Peterkin and violently by the collars” (doesn’t need that second ‘and’.)

The Girl on the Stairs by Louise Welsh

Hodder and Stoughton, 2013, 298 p.

 The Girl on the Stairs cover

The viewpoint character here is Jane, heavily pregnant and newly arrived in Berlin to stay with her Lebenspartner, Petra, in an apartment block. The room being prepared for the baby is dark and overlooked by a derelict set of flats. Their neighbours are a single man and his daughter, Alban and Anna Mann. Anna is the titular girl on the stairs. Jane overhears Anna’s father shouting at her and sees bruises on her face and so becomes increasingly convinced Anna is being abused, despite Anna’s denials.

She observes Anna in various situations, at a U-Bahn station interacting with older boys, crossing the space towards the derelict flats – a haunt for all sorts of undesirable behaviour – coming out of the downstairs flat, where the Beckers live, going into the nearby church which has a relatively new young priest. On talking with Frau Becker, a woman still mentally scarred by the Russian occupation of Berlin, she is told Mann killed his wife, Greta, and buried her under the floorboards in the flats opposite.

All the while Petra is less than attentive to Jane, out at work all day or off to a conference in Vienna, and Jane’s imagination whirls around, causing her to delve into Anna’s life and unwittingly to set in train a chain of events which will lead to tragedy and a vindication, of sorts.

Via the medium of Mann’s former professional life as a gynaecologist Welsh offers the possibility that Jane’s fears about Anna are a consequence of pregnancy affecting her emotional balance or if they are indeed valid.

Welsh’s writing is smooth and fluid, the novel exquisitely plotted, the psychological motivations and subtleties of the characters utterly believable and the whole is never less than readable and engaging but there was something about it that felt as if it was an exercise verging on by the numbers. Perhaps it was the foreign setting – and in that respect Berlin was an absence here, there was nothing to illustrate the character of the city – but there was something distanced about it, not in the Muriel Spark class of distanced but certainly more surface then depth. Crime aficionados would probably find it fine though.

Pedant’s corner:- “she wanted nothing more but to lie down” (usually ‘than to lie down’,) occasional missing commas before pieces of direct speech, politeness’ (politeness’s,) “aren’t I?” (Jane is Scottish, supposed to be from Glasgow, she would say ‘amn’t I?’) staunch (stanch,) “out of synch” (usually ‘out of sync’.) “The congregation were beginning to” (was beginning to,) focussed (focused.)

Ghost Moon by Ron Butlin

Salt, 2014, 246 p.

 Ghost Moon  cover

Curiously that’s two books in quick succession where the main character has been named Maggie. Here it is one Maggie Davies, though in the care home where she endures her declining months she is known as Maggie Stewart.

The story is told in interleaved sections. Those which recount from his point of view the visits of Maggie’s son Tom to his uncomprehending, dementia suffering mother, are always headed Sunday (though, one, on Maggie’s birthday actually occurs on a Monday,) and other, longer, numbered chapters tell the story of the life which led her there; a life not exactly flashing before her eyes but recollected in non-tranquillity. The final chapter, titled Sunday Afternoon, interweaves paragraphs from the two time-lines as the end nears.

Maggie spent the post-Second World War years seeing her twenties fade into thirty without attracting an admirer and fell prey to the dubious charms of the first man who gave her some attention only to be promptly dumped. When the inevitable happened, her parents threw her out. She travelled to Lewis to the home of family acquaintances but, forewarned, they also treat her with disdain and contempt. Only in a guest-house does she encounter any warmth, when she and the landlady’s war-blinded son, Michael, fall for each other. Lewis is a small place, though, and her secret causes her to be thrown out from there too. Returning to Edinburgh, it is only her sister-in-law, Jean, who shows her any compassion or sympathy. She struggles to find a job in her unmarried condition and she is little better treated at Woodstock House where she contracts to be confined and for her child to be looked after until she can get on her feet. Butlin really brings out the utter callousness of “polite” society at this time towards those who had made a mistake or been too innocent – or both. Only her correspondence with Michael, carried out via his best friend, and her visits to Woodstock House to see Tom give her any comfort. When Michael contrives to travel to Edinburgh it seems a happy ending might be in store – but we know from the ‘Sunday’ sections this will not be forthcoming.

This is a wonderfully written slice of an aspect of social history and a blazing indictment of those blinded to compassion and consideration by self-righteousness.

Pedant’s corner:- Jenners doorway – later Jenners’ doorway (Jenners’s,) Queens Crescent (Queen’s Crescent – used later,) Mrs Saunders’ (Saunders’s,) “that the woman’s heart being turned over” (that the woman’s heart was being turned over,) Miss Davies’ (Davies’s.) “The Forth Road Bridge was a cat’s cradle of red” (the Road Bridge has never been red and wasn’t built till the early 1960s: this part of the novel was set in 1950. The Forth Bridge – the rail bridge, which requires no such distinguishing adjective and was completed in 189o – was meant,) “to start to paying Jean back” (to start paying Jean back,) “would would stop her” (only one ‘would’ needed,) an opening quote mark which wasn’t necessary as it was a descriptive passage, not dialogue, “in her wellingtons boots” either, ‘in her Wellingtons’, or, ‘in her wellington boots’.)

Voyageurs by Margaret Elphinstone

Canongate, 2004, 474 p.

 Voyageurs  cover

This formidably researched novel is set mainly in North America before and during the War of 1812 which was fought between the US and Britain (plus its Native American allies) but it is not concerned with that conflict except peripherally. The book is an example of a found manuscript, as supposedly written by Mark Greenhow, a Quaker from Cumbria – topped and tailed by an Editor’s Preface and Afterword, signed MNE, January 2003.

Greenhow was a Quaker from Cumbria. Most of his life was spent on a farm called Highside where the manuscript was ‘found’ hidden away when the ‘editor’ moved in. It reveals Mark’s life was turned upside down when his family received a letter from Canada telling them that his sister Rachel, previousy disowned from the Quaker Society of Friends for marrying her husband, Alan Mackenzie, before a priest, had disappeared somewhere in what was known as Upper Canada and therefore presumed dead. For Mark the ties of family outweighed the strictures of the Society and he resolved to go to Canada and try to find her. All his voyages (barring his final return home) as well as some incidents of his home life in the time before Rachel left for Canada are described in detail. Like most Scottish writers Elphinstone has a gift for landscape description, here deployed to convey the vastness of the North American continent and the local conditions. The customs of the time and the politics of fur-trading by the SouthWest Company are all necessary ingredients to the tale while the background to the war, whose prosecution, barring one small incident, remains off-stage, forms part of the novel’s plot as does Greenhow’s Quaker pacifism – or, I should say, his refusal to be involved in killing people.

The narrative is unavoidably tinged with Greenhow’s Quaker beliefs, with much talk of Monthly Meetings, the vanity of clothing, his soul-searching about relationships with the opposite sex and his failures fully to live up to the Society’s ideals.

A serious injury to Alan, who had additional reasons for undertaking once more the arduous journey to the island where Rachel disappeared, forces the three-man expedition to over-winter in the climate of north Lake Michigan, which even the indigenous peoples find inhospitable, and whose exigencies end up with Mark accommodating to what he considers pagan beliefs. They also bring home the unlikelihood of Rachel having survived. The sojourn also allows the three trapped men the opportunity to tell each other their life stories and so expand Elphinstone’s portrayal of their times. And far from being a hindrance Mark’s refusal to kill people ends up as an asset.

The ‘manuscript’’s text is peppered with Scots words – feart, clarty, grat – which I suppose could easily have been in the Cumbrian vocabulary in the early 19th century but will have to take on trust. And we have footnotes! Always a delight.

It is the characters, though, that shine through. Even the least is given careful consideration and expression. The puzzlement and, on being informed of its significance, the subsequent acquiescence of a local Ojibwa Chief when Mark extends his hand for shaking to seal a deal is a lovely vignette. Elphinstone makes you believe that this is really how people of this time were, and how they lived.

Pedant’s corner:- In the Acknowledgements; a capital letter after a semi-colon. Otherwise; “our line of the family have lived” (our line … has lived,) “if I ever I did” (only one ‘I’ needed,) “cost me Jaques favour” (Jaques’s,) “Kerners’ agent” (Kerners’s, though I concede it would probably not be pronounced with two ‘s’es,) Roberts’ (Roberts’s, ditto,) wigwam (from the limited descriptions in the text of the structures concerned it isn’t entirely clear whether these were in fact tepees,) a missing comma before a piece of direct speech, “that we’re used to here” (that we were used to,) span (spun, as used later,) James’ (James’s,)

The Finishing School by Muriel Spark

Penguin, 2005, 158 p.

The Finishing School cover

On reading this I found my dissatisfaction with Spark’s writing beginning to crystallise. Clearly people find it engaging and worthwhile but to me there is something cold and detached about it, observational yes, but uninvolving. Her de haut en bas style renders her characters flat and merely going through whatever motions Spark intends for them. They don’t come alive. They certainly don’t leap off the page and into my mind.

This one all starts promisingly enough with a lecture on scene-setting in writing delivered by the joint owner of College Sunrise, the Finishing School of the title. He is Rowland Mahler who runs the place along with his wife Nina (who actually does most of the work.) One of the attendees, Chris, a seventeen year-old, is writing a novel where he speculates the death of Lord Darnley, second husband of Mary Queen of Scots, was instigated by a desire for revenge on the part of Jacopo, brother of David Rizzio in whose murder Darnley was deeply implicated. Rowland has aspirations to be a novelist himself but having read Chris’s first two chapters finds himself blocked and increasingly obsessed with Chris.

That first page is deceptive though and we are soon pitched into a narrative where too much is told, not shown; where information is dispensed to the reader in a way that is like reading author’s notes for characters rather than experiencing them behaving as themselves. They may have passions but we are not given the opportunity to feel them but Spark does find space to include a few sideswipes at the publishing industry.

There are some interesting ideas here but they are not fleshed out. In the end this is not so much a novel, more like a series of preliminary sketches for one. Or an extended outline.

Pedant’s corner:- wirey (the word is spelled ‘wiry’,) automatons (automata,) a missing comma before a quote (x2,) to-day (why the hyphen? It’s spelled ‘today’,) “on the grounds of imputed, activities unbefitting her one-time royal connections” (doesn’t need that comma after ‘imputed’,) “‘Is that it’s natural colour?’” (its.)

Scar Culture by Toni Davidson

Rebel Inc, 1999, 253 p Including 9 p Appendices. One of the 100 best Scottish Books.

Scar Culture cover

Had it not been for that 100 best Scottish books list I would never have sought this out. As it was I couldn’t say I enjoyed it exactly but it was interesting and well written. It has an odd structure though, broken up into five sections titled respectively Click, Fright, Sad, Preparation, The Experiment; and the viewpoint shifts between Click and Fright and Fright and Sad are a bit jarring – but probably intentionally so.

The first two are memoirs of two inmates in The Breathhouse, a psychiatric institution, where the inmates have all been given nicknames by the staff to illustrate their quirks (not only Click and Fright, but also Blade, Dogger, Treats and Synth.)

Click took photographs both in actuality (once he was given a camera by his parents) and in his head. He calls his parents Exit (because she did) and Panic (because he was prone to.) Fright’s section is a transcript of tapes made of him relating his memories as part of his therapy. He and his brother witnessed his mother’s death at the hands of his father and were later subjected to dark experiences in a caravan. The last three sections are written from the viewpoint of Dr Curtis Sad who is indulging in psychosexual research in the area of inter-family sexuality. Sad calls his other professionals psychohacks, and receives communications from Peterson, a like-minded psychosexual researcher in the US (but whose letters, rendered in the text in italics, use British English spellings.)

Sad is obsessed with his Sister Josie, about whom he has memories/fantasies of a distinctly unbrotherly hue. These demonstrate he is as loopy as any of the inmates. He refers to “memory recovery as a form of lethal weapon,” is setting up an exercise in milieu therapy in which he will reconstruct the environments in which Click and Fright suffered their traumas. He enlists Blade, Dogger, Treats and Synth to help construct these. Does this sound as if all will go well?

Three appendices provide us respectively with the Rules of Psychiatry which Curtis refers to in sequence at intervals in the main narrative, notes from his sister Julie’s (much needed in my opinion given Sad’s account of her childhood and adolescence) psychotherapy sessions, and an index of Click’s photos.

In Scar Culture Davidson has opened up the world of the psychologically disturbed (and perhaps that of the practitioners of psychiatric well-being.) It is certainly important to consider in fiction the plight of the mentally unwell – and of those whose upbringing has rendered them unstable – but it is by no means a comfortable experience to read of them.

Curiously, my edition has rough-cut page edges (though the tops and bottoms were smooth) as if it had been published in the nineteenth century.

Pedant’s corner:- “‘Its safe here’” (It’s,) “‘but I couldn’t been to look at him’” (couldn’t bear,) a missing end quotation mark (x2,) “was back here in that mountainside lagoon” (back there makes more sense,) out-with (it’s one word, outwith,) “tickled out feet” (our feet,) “he would researched” (he would be researched,) “an sheepish look” (a sheepish look,) “liked to fight too much, like to use her hands to scratch” (liked to use her hands,) “my parents lies’ left off” (my parents’ lies left off,) “that’s just kind of moronic psychobite” (just the kind of,) winge (whinge,) “in small coffin shaped cardboard box” (in a small,) “on the dolls back” (doll’s,) Breatthouse (elsewhere always Breathhouse,) a missing end quotation mark (x4, one in Appendix II,) snuck (sneaked,) “for the the first hour” (only one ‘the’ required,) “in regard, to why you are here” (no comma needed,) airplane (aeroplane.) “Every tree … had been stripped of their bark” (of its bark,) “nasal wines” (whines.)

free hit counter script