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The Corn King and the Spring Queen by Naomi Mitchison

Virago, 1983, 710 p. First published 1931.

he Corn King and the Spring Queen cover

This book has been described as “the best historical novel of the twentieth century.” Perhaps informed by James George Frazer’s The Golden Bough, as an attempt to inhabit the mindset pertaining to an ancient belief system it is certainly admirable. Yet while readable, and a must for Mitchison completists, it is, however, not without its flaws, which are indeed acknowledged by the author’s afterword to this edition, published more than fifty years after its original appearance.

We start in the Black Sea area in the settlement of Marob where the young Erif Der is a practitioner of magic (she calls herself a witch) but this is actually a relative commonplace in the community. Erif’s father, Harn Der, wants her to marry Marob’s Corn King, Tarrik (who is part Greek and also has the name Charmantides) in order to nullify Tarrik’s powers with her own and so allow Tarrik to be replaced. Tarrik has fallen under the influence of the Stoic Sphaeros, and her enchantments are not enough. The fertility rituals are depicted comprehensively (and later contrasted with those of Egypt) their importance to the community’s functioning emphasised. Eventually Erif falls in love with Tarrik, but under Sphaeros’s influence he decides to take a trip to Greece to where she accompanies him. This entails a change of viewpoint as in Section Two we engage with the inhabitants of Sparta before the arrival of the barbarians from Marob.

The first six sections alternate between Marob and Greece thereafter we remain following the fortunes of Spartan King Kleomenes, even into exile in Egypt, until the final epilogue chapter, set in Marob but still concerned with Kleomenes as it rounds off the tale of his legacy. The Greek and Egyptian sections make up well over half the book and so make the title a little misleading. The book at times reads as more of a history of Kleomenes than of the lives of Erif Der or Tarrik.

Mitchison’s characters display a matter of fact attitude to sex which might have been unusual in print ninety years ago, yet when Kleomenes refers to “nigger-boxers” – meaning black pugilists – the book’s origins in what are now distant times are apparent.

Phrases such as, “‘When things turn simple, women have to give up much more than men. Because they live in shadow, by mystery,’” show that feminism is by no means a late twentieth century invention. That the passage of time may provide a different perspective is illustrated by, “With time and questionings, rights became wrongs and wrongs rights.”

Notwithstanding the alien belief systems Mitchison’s characterisation is excellent, Erif’s brother Berris’s infatuation with the Greek girl Philylla a particular high point. These are recognisable human beings. It is the book’s structure that is off-kilter. There are in fact two stories here, though intertwined, Erif’s (Tarrik is off-stage for more than half the novel) and that of Kleomenes, who in his freeing of the helots comes across as a bit of a socialist before their time. Maybe they would have been better split into two separate volumes.

Pedant’s corner:- “By and bye” (numerous instances, it is – and always has been – by and by,) “the oddest thing about it were his bright brown eyes” (the oddest thing was his eyes,) disk-throwing (disc-throwing,) Sphaeros’ (Sphaeros’s,) span (x2, spun,) Agis’ (Agis’s,) Panteus’ (Panteus’s,) Lycurgus (elswhere Lycurgos,) sewed (sewn, as in the line above!) “none of them were very sure” (none of them was very sure,) “the Achæan League .. begin to be afraid of Sparta” (the league begins to be afraid,) waggons (I prefer wagons,) Plowing Eve, plow, plow-beam, plowed, plowing (yet plough-ox,) Disdallis’ (Disdallis’s,) “aren’t I?” (did the ancient Greeks actually use this ungrammatical formulation? Besides Mitchison is Scottish. “Amn’t I?” is more grammatical and the natural Scottish usage,) Agiatis’ (Agiatis’s,) Phoebis’ (Phoebis’s,) Apelles’ (Apelles’s,) “none of the traders know Plato from Pythagoras” (none of the traders knows,) slue himself round (slew,) Antigonos’ (Antigonos’s,) Kleomenes’ (Kleomenes’s,) “this intolerable burden o planning” (of planning, the “o” occurred at a line’s end. Make of that what you will,) Krateskleia (elsewhere Kratesikleia,) stronglier (usually expressed as “more strongly”,) Themisteas’ (Themisteas’s,) Berris’ (Berris’s.) “The party in Sparta that hated him and his revolution prepare to welcome..” (the party prepares,) Agathokles’ (Agathokles’s,) Sosibios’ (Sosibios’s,) a missing comma before the start of a piece of dialogue, Nikomedes’ (Nikomedes’s,) a missing start quote mark at the beginning of a piece of dialogue, “a whole sleeping part of her had awoke,” (awoken,) Neolaidas’ (Neolaidas’s,) “none of the crowd were in the least willing” (none was willing,) “like polished sards” (shards?)

The Abbess of Crewe by Muriel Spark

Penguin, 1977, 104 p.

The Abbess of Crewe cover

On its surface a tale of nefarious goings-on in a nunnery involving electronic eavesdropping, a nun’s assignations with a Jesuit and a stolen thimble, all against a backdrop of an election for the post of Abbess, the cover’s assertion that it is “a wicked satire on Watergate” could nowadays be applied to political machinations more widely.

Sister Felicity had been stirring up the nuns before the election with her stance on what you could designate as modernity, certainly in her espousal of sexual freedom (she is the one nipping off Compline or Nunes or Lauds or Vespers to meet with her Jesuit,) but the old guard, Alexandra and Walburga, even if their disapproval of her activity is nuanced, (‘I must say a Jesuit, or any priest for that matter, would be the last man I would elect to be laid by,’ says Alexandra. ‘A man who undresses, maybe; but one who unfrocks, no.’ To which Walburga observes – in a sentence that shows such proclivities on the part of clerics were never exactly a secret in some circles – ‘That type of priest usually prefers young students’) is determined she should not prevail.

As could sometimes be her wont Spark does not present us with a straightforward linear narrative, chapters set pre- and post the Abbess’s election being scattered throughout the short tale. Occasional lighter moments arise in the content of telephone calls to Sister Gertrude, off doing good works in Africa.

There are occasional bons mots such as, ‘Philosophers, when they cease philosophising and take up action are dangerous,’ and, “‘Invariably a man you feed both ends,’ Gertrude says. ‘You have to learn to cook and to do the other,’” and it’s all very readable, but somehow off-hand.

Pedant’s corner:- covent (convent,) Gent’s (Gents’.)

From Russia with Love by Ian Fleming

Vintage, 2012, 358 p plus i p Author’s Note and vii p introduction by Tom Rob Smith. First published 1957.

I did not have great hopes for this. If it hadn’t been on the list of the 100 best Scottish Books I would never have picked it up, still less paid for it. It was, however, available from a local Library – these need as much patronage as they can get – I therefore borrowed it. Even so my expectations were not met. The novel is written in journalese, the prose fails to rise even to the utilitarian, the characters are barely one-dimensional, never mind rounded. And info-dumping is rife.

Then there is the implicit racism. “It was a strong Western handful of operative fingers – not the banana skin handshake of the East that makes you want to wipe your fingers on your coat-tails.” The casual misogyny of the time, too, is shown by the sentences, “All women want to be swept off their feet. In their dreams they long to be slung over a man’s shoulder and taken into a cave and raped,” and, “I got her to my place and took away her clothes and kept her chained naked under the table.” True, Fleming puts these into the mouth of a Turk but it’s still misogyny. Unexamined misogyny, to which Bond does not demur. An organised fight between two gipsy girls over a man (which reads as merely an excuse to describe their clothes sequentially coming off) is misogynystic and racist both. Bond’s right wing attitude – so by extension Fleming’s? There is nothing in the text that would contradict this – is exemplified by him saying, “As for England, the trouble today is that carrots are all the fashion.” That is, as opposed to sticks.

Moreover the structure is a bit odd. Bond isn’t mentioned till page 61 and does not appear himself till page 151. Tom Rob Smith’s Introduction regards this as a strength but the focus of Part One, Donovan Grant, a half-German, half-Irish psychopathic hitman employed by Smersh through expediency rather than approval of any sort, does not reappear till the climax (and then instead of just killing Bond this supposed total psychopath Grant explains to him the nature of the plot against him thus giving Bond some time to formulate a way out.)

That plot concerns the supposed falling in love with Bond via his photograph of Tatiana Romanova, in order to entice him into a trap – the additional bait being her bringing to Bond a Spektor cryptographic machine – whereby he will be disgraced. The egotist Bond cannot quite work out why this is a red flag. Cue, though, many goings-on in Istanbul and a trip back west on the Orient Express; a singularly unlikely escape route.

I suspect these things work much better on a film screen than on a page. Whatever, this book certainly is not worthy of a place on any list of 100 best Scottish books.

Pedant’s corner:- a masseuse is described as having tufts of fair hair in her armpits but has short coarse black hair (genetics doesn’t work like that and there was no mention of dyeing,) “one of the men-servants” (the word is manservant, the plural is surely manservants,) a missing comma before a piece of direct speech, long-chassied (the word is chassis, so long-chassised,) “there was a diminishing crescendo” (crescendos rise to a climax, they do not descend. A descent is a diminuendo.)

Dunbeath, Caithness, and Neil M Gunn Memorial

On the way down from Orkney and Thurso we stopped at Dunbeath, Caithness. This was the birthplace of Scottish writer Neil M Gunn.

This stone was laid in his memory. “To commemorate Neil M Gunn, author of world renown, born into this community 8th November 1891.”

Neil M Gunn Memorial, Dunbeath

This statue, erected 100 years after Gunn’s birth, is in honour of the character Kenn from his novel Highland River:-

Kenn + Salmon

This is the river running through the village, the Dunbeath Water, possibly that same Highland river:-

Dunbeath Water

This information board was on a wall nearby. As well as mentioning Gunn it notes other local attractions:-

Information Board, Dunbeath

Memento Mori by Muriel Spark

The Reprint Society, 1965, 187 p.

Memento Mori cover

The cast of characters here consists of elderly people some of whom are in a home. While the driver of the plot seems to be the reception by some of them of telephone calls wherein the recipient is enjoined to, “Remember you must die,” the police can make no headway in discovering the culprit, whose voice is described differently by different people, and there is an indication that the whole scenario is due to hallucinations. Yes, one of the elderly is beaten to death during a burglary but this was opportunistic, the result of an overheard conversation revealing the victim would be home alone.

A lot is made of the past indiscretions of both Godfrey Colston and his wife, Charmian – the first’s known to his spouse (though he believes they aren’t and is subject to blackmail as a result,) the second’s not to her husband (at least early on,) with, respectively, Lisa Black and Guy Leet.

I’ve seen this book described as one of the great novels of the 1950s. Not for me it isn’t. It’s well written certainly, but in total felt a bit inconsequential.

Pedant’s corner:- “a old woman” (an,) Symons’ (Symons’s, we had “James’s” correctly,) “‘Gwen!’ she screams. ‘Gwen!’” (screamed, the rest of the paragraph is in past tense,) a missing full stop, a missing end quote right at the end of the last section.

Glitter of Mica by Jessie Kesson

Paul Harris, 1982, 159 p, including 6 p Introduction by William Donaldson. First published 1963.

Glitter of Mica cover

Glitter of Mica is another tale of life in rural Scotland, in the parish of Caldwell, somewhere north and east of Aberdeen. This short novel is similar in some respects to Lewis Grassic Gibbon’s Sunset Song in that the shadow of change hangs over the town and it begins with a recitation of the area’s history. The pre-Second World War past of protagonist Hugh Riddel is gone into as the son of an itinerant fee’d farm hand who could never settle and was never retained until he came to Darklands and cemented his place as a Dairyman. The main thrust of the book is, though, set in the post war period.

The narrative structure is not linear, Kesson adopts a variety of viewpoints to tell her tale delineating life and attitudes in Caldwell through the eyes of Hugh, his wife Isa, his daughter Helen, Sue Tatt (the local woman of easy virtue) and the upstart Charlie Anson. Moreover in its first few pages the book’s defining moment is referred to as being in the very recent past with most of the narrative then circling round and leading up to that point.

The sense of social hierarchy being breached is never far away, the awareness that an increase in equality had come with the war but was still thought unseemly highlighted by the reactions to Hugh’s recent “Address to the Ladies” at a Burns Supper. Yet class differences still prevail. ‘If you’re poor you’re plain mad. If you’re rich they’ve got an easier name for you. A Nervous Breakdown.’

As an exemplar of a certain kind of Scottish fiction this would be hard to beat. It is worth reading for itself though.

Pedant’s corner:- In the Introduction; Endinbro’ (Edinbro’.) “None of the characters are complex people.” (None is a complex person.) Otherwise; God Knows’ (God Knows’s,) “a sun ranging from half a crown to ten shillings” (a sum,) Robbie Burns’ (Burns’s,) a missing end quote mark, Darklands’ (Darklands’s,) calender (calendar,) “before if shocked” (it.) “He had even less illusions” (fewer,) sime wind (some wind,) “loathe to let them go” (loath, or loth.)

The No 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency by Alexander McCall Smith

Abacus, 2013, 235 p.

 The No 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency cover

As I was not particularly taken with my previous experience of McCall Smith (in his book 44 Scotland Street) I would not have read this had it not been on the list of 100 best Scottish Books. This is a better book overall than 44 Scotland Street, but still no more than light entertainment.

Using her father’s legacy Precious Ramotswe sets up Botswana’s first detective agency to be run by ladies and sets out to solve the cases brought to her. Most of these are simple enough and resolved remarkably quickly, usually by Precious confronting the malefactor and inducing a confession. In one, the solution to the mystery is obvious as soon as it is outlined by the client and Precious’s investigations merely confirm it.

Only the awareness of the practice of witchcraft and a glancing encounter with a crime boss who is entangled with politics (both of which milieux McCall Smith’s treatment steers Precious well clear of) hint at anything dark in Botswanan society. The tone is resolutely light touch.

This type of book is undoubtedly popular. But one of Scotland’s best 100? Come on!

Pedant’s corner:- “seems to have stuck in people’s mind” (minds,) “two hundred rands” (isn’t the plural of rand, rand?) “the Natal” (does that province have an article before its name? Isn’t it just Natal?)

Miss Marjoribanks by Margaret Oliphant

Penguin Classics, 1998, 499 p, plus 21p Notes, 28 p Appendices, i p Contents, iv p Chronology of the author’s life, xxii p Introduction, iii p Notes on the Introduction, ii p Further Reading, ii p A Note on the Text. First published, serially, in Blackwood’s Edinburgh Magazine 1865-6 and in three volume book form, 1866. One of the 100 best Scottish Books.

 Miss Marjoribanks cover

Four years after her mother’s death, Miss Marjoribanks (that designation is used much more frequently than the character’s given name, Lucilla) returns to Carlingford from her education (plus a year’s finishing in Switzerland and Italy) and sets out to redesign not only her father’s domestic arrangements but also the polite society of the town. Constantly declaiming it is her sole purpose to be “a comfort to Papa” she feels duty bound not to marry for at least ten years and none of the eligible bachelors who enter her orbit manages to “engage her affections”. Not Mr Cavendish whose sister is the town mimic, forever taking people off, and whose origins are somewhat obscure but is said to be “one of the Cavendishes”; not the Archdeacon, Mr Beverley, who is favourite to become bishop should Carlingford ascend to the status of a see; not even Mr Ashburton, despite Miss Marjoribanks immediately divining that he is the man for Carlingford when the old MP dies and nudging him onto the path to candidacy.

The first two volumes are given over to the workings out of the relationships between Lucilla and the former two men and the interest shown – especially by the ladies – in any possible match. The third is set after those ten years have elapsed. Much of the intrigue is centre round Lucilla’s institution of “evenings” every Thursday. The narrative is not quite so wordy as a Walter Scott novel but is still fairly prolix, possibly due to its initial serialisation in Blackwood’s Magazine.

Prominent are Oliphant’s thoughts on men as mediated through Miss Marjoribanks’s views and comments. In this discourse pronouns for men as a group are frequently capitalised and italicised as They, Their and Them. One of Lucilla’s observations leaves no doubt as to which she thinks is the more capable sex. “‘I am so sorry I don’t understand about politics. If we” [women] “were going in for that sort of thing, I don’t know what there would be left for gentlemen to do.’” Lucilla’s condescension to the lower orders (such as Barbara Lake and her sister Rose, the latter of whom considers herself eminently respectable, but who are the daughters of the town’s drawing master and so forever below the salt) strikes the modern reader forcibly and seems to reflect Oliphant’s own opinions. However, very little of Oliphant’s Scottish background is evident, really only this, “Dr Marjoribanks was Scotch, and had a respect for ‘talent’ in every development, as is natural to his nation,” but a certain English attitude permeates the sentence, “she had been brought up in the old-fashioned orthodox way of having respect for religion, and as little to do with it as possible.”

It struck me on reading this that Oliphant’s Carlingford novels might make a suitable project for adaptation for TV instead of the usual suspects which are trotted out on a regular basis.

PS: Those of a sensitive nature might note that the text also contains a word which might offend the modern sensibility but which was used thoughtlessly in Victorian times in the line, “the committee, which ordered him about like a nigger.”

Pedant’s corner:- “‘Oh, nonsense, Lucilla.’” (Though she was present, the previous speaker had not been Lucilla,) “‘and me who have such a respect for religion’” (me who has,) “the Miss Browns” (the Misses Brown,) “a succession of dreadful thumps were heard” (a succession was heard,) “the Miss Blounts” (the Misses Blount,) “A series of the most enthusiastic compliments were paid” (strictly, a series was,) “neither of the two were very poetical” (neither of the two was…,) Westeria (wisteria,) goloshes (galoshes,) canvass (canvas, it was for a painting.) “Lucilla caught , as it were, and met, and forced to face her, her informant’s … look” (looks to have a “her” too many and also seems syntactically out of sorts,) two Miss Ravenswoods (Misses Ravenswood,) the Miss Penrhyns (the Misses Penrhyn,) Affghanistan blanket (nowadays Afghanistan.)
In the Notes: “the, shorter, Nicene creed” (the shorter, Nicene, creed,) “the pro-Dissenting wing … were campaigning” (the pro-Dissenting wing was campaigning.)

The Thirteenth Disciple by J Leslie Mitchell (Lewis Grassic Gibbon)

Black and White, 1995, 262 p, plus ix p Introduction by Jack Webster.

 The Thirteenth Disciple cover

Malcom Maudslay (yes that is the spelling of Malcom used) is a child of that north-east of Scotland which Mitchell/Gibbon wrote about so well, distilling the experiences he gained while growing up there. In this novel the life of a young child in rural Scotland in the early part of the twentieth century is evoked admirably. Like J Leslie Mitchell was himself, Malcom is of a scholastic bent, encouraged to stay on at school by both the local minister and the dominie at Leekan, whose half-French neice, Domina Riddoch, is something of a free spirit, apt to scandalise the neighbourhood with her relaxed attitude to clothing in hot weather.

Malcom more or less self-educates by reading voraciously, though his father would have been keener to see him fee’d at a neighbouring farm. Through the minister he develops an interest in archaeology (which has significance much later) but Malcom soon outgrows his teachers and secures a job in journalism in Glasgow where he meets his first lover, Rita Johnson, and takes up with socialists. He progresses quickly at the newspaper but Rita’s accidental death (there is a hint that it may not actually have been an accident) and a misuse of the paper’s funds mean he has to leave Glasgow. Not quite his usual self, he joins the Army and endures the brutal rigours of training, but his relationship with the greatest influence on his life, Sergeant Major John Metaxa, a man as educated as himself, is in itself an education. A subsequent spell in the trenches in the Great War is described in harrowing terms. There is an occasional narrative conceit whereby we are given quotes from a journal of reflections Malcom supposedly kept in adulthood.

While The Thirteenth Disciple does not reach the heights of Sunset Song (but not even its two sequels quite did that) it signals the direction in which Mitchell/Gibbon would travel and in one delicious passage the Leekan village gossip is described as passing on from Leekan “and its scandalous days and nights – no doubt to that particular hell where all folk live discreetly and unscandalously, where no juicy stories ever circulate, where all girls marry their lovers before they bed with them.” Later, in his role as editor of Malcom’s journals, our narrator tells us, “To us of the early twentieth century the detailed sex-act is still impossible in all literature but the pseudo-scientific. We are, all of us, still, too young and nasty-minded.” It has been said that Andrew Greig was Scotland’s first post-Calvinist writer. On this evidence Gibbon has a good claim to that title.

Pedant’s corner:- In the Introduction; “the age if” (of.) Otherwise; some now obsolete spellings such as Gomorrahn (Gomorran,) tabu (taboo,) juldi (jildi,) Knut Hammsen (Hamsen,) unescapable (inescapable,) Cainozoic (Cenozoic,) Thibet (Tibet,) bye-election (by-election,) unauthentic (inauthentic.) Also there were; Scottish Quarternary (Quaternary,) Jock Edwards’ (Edwards’s,) Kark Liebknecht (Karl,) Epsoms salts (Epsom’s salts,) archeology/archeologist (archaeology/archaeologist; annoyingly the spelling varies from place to place in the book,) “he could fell her breast-nipples against his chest” (breast-nipples? Is there any other kind of nipple on a human?) “Morituiri te salutant!” (Morituri,) a missing end quote mark, “whiskey advertisements” (whisky surely?) a missing start quote mark at the beginning of a quoted paragraph, “Pio Perez’ grammar” (Perez’s,) an extraneous single quote mark, pifistac (???)

Interzone 275

The latest issue (no 275) of Interzone has arrived (cover image centre below.)

 Fifty-One cover
 The Great Chain of Unbeing cover

Interzone 275 cover

This one contains my reviews of The Great Chain of Unbeing by Andrew Crumey and of Fifty-One by Chris Barnham.

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