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The Clydesiders by Margaret Thomson Davis

Black and White, 1999, 276 p.

In an Oxfam bookshop I picked up the second book of the trilogy of which this is the first to check the flyleaf blurb. It mentioned the Empire Exhibition 1938, which its characters visit, so of course I had to buy it – and the third instalment which accompanied it. That left this one, which fortunately (or not) was available through Fife Libraries.

The Clydesiders starts in 1914. Victoria Watson is a young woman raised in a room and kitchen in the Gorbals, now in service as a kitchen maid in Hilltop House, the home of the Cartwright family. The son of the house, Nicholas, takes a fancy to her one day when she is out picking mushrooms for the table. The inevitable progression happens. With him being an Army officer the outbreak of war means their enforced separation but not before she has informed him, and he his mother, of her pregnancy. Against his professed wishes that Victoria be kept on, Mrs Cartwright summarily dismisses Victoria the day of his departure for Belgium and she is forced back to the dismal, insanitary conditions of her parent’s home. Not that its interior is unclean, that was a source of pride to working-class women. It is the overcrowding, the overflowing communal lavatory which the landlord will not fix, the vermin, and the back middens which make the building a slum.

Mrs Cartwright changes her tune when her son is reported dead, takes Victoria on temporarily as a maid/companion in her Helensburgh house and offers to bring the child up in comfort provided Victoria will have no more to do with her child. Despite her misgivings Victoria accedes to the request (which is really more of an order,) hands over her baby son and returns to her parents’ home.

In the meanwhile the political circumstances of the time background the story. The slum conditions, the raising of rents and most especially the perceived injustice of the war, fought by working men against working men for the benefit of their rulers, fired up a teacher, John Maclean, to protest. Victoria’s family are keen socialists but, even so, one of her brothers is working in a munitions plant and gets her a job there. Many of the “Red Clydesiders” protests and the authorities’ heavy-handed measures to restrain them are covered in the book. Due to her involvement in the movement Victoria meets another dedicated socialist, James Mathieson.

Tragedy then hits the Watsons as brother Ian is killed in an explosion in the factory. Mathieson then discovers the factory owner is none other than the Mr Cartwright who is Victoria’s son’s grandfather. Though she does not love him things progress between Victorian and Mathieson, but nevertheless she marries him. All this might have been fine but proceedings descend into melodrama when a few months later Richard Cartwright is found to be alive in a hospital in England and Victoria’s feelings are torn.

The writing here never rises above the workmanlike. There is a high degree of information dumping with too many circumstances of early twentieth century life deemed to require explanation, like the prevalence and cause of the disease rickets, the Scottish word ‘douts’ for dogends, and so on. The nature of Mr Cartwright’s business is unnecessarily kept from the reader so as to heighten the later conflict. The overall story relies too much on unlikely incident and coincidence. Victoria’s father, brothers and husband are throughout little more than mouthpieces. Nearly all the characters are types rather than individuals.

This is not high literature then. I suppose it was never intended to be. But it does highlight the conditions and grievances which led to the notion of socialism as a potential remedy for them

I still have two more books in the sequence to read……

Pedant’s corner:- lambant (lambent,) a missing comma before a piece of direct speech (x 3,) Mrs Smithers’ (this, on the same page as Nicholas’s, ought to be Smithers’s,) ditto Tompkins’ (Tompkins’s,) bisom (usually spelled besom,) “‘who madam wants to speak to in the living room?’” (wasn’t a question so needs no question mark.) A man sings ‘Keep the Home Fires Burning’ in the street (in mid-1914?) There are mentions of munition workers turning yellow (again, in 1914?) “stunted childrens growth” (children’s,) “leaning back in this chair” (his chair.) “The Gairloch” (It’s ‘Gare Loch’, Gairloch is a village in northwest Scotland,) John Maclean is arrested as a “prisoner of war” (he could not have been a prisoner of war. He wasn’t an enemy combatant,) James’ (many times, but also – more than once – the correct James’s.) “She’d certainly could not have imagined” (She certainly could not,) St Andrew’s Hall (x 2, it was always ‘St Andrew’s Halls’,) “the crowd who welcomed” (the crowd which welcomed.) “‘Who’s side are you on?’” (Whose side,) a telegram is sent to Mrs Watson to tell her her son is missing in action, believed killed. (He was married, it would have been sent to his wife,) “for goodness’ sake” (varies between this and ‘for goodness sake’,) during one encounter Nicholas refers to our heroine as Virginia Mathieson (he would more likely have used her maiden surname here.)

Highland River by Neil M Gunn

Canongate Classics, 1996, 246 p, plus vi p Introduction by Dairmid Gunn. First published in 1937.

Though it is couched as a sort of biography of Kenn, a young boy growing up into manhood and early middle age, this is an unusual novel in that its focus is really on the river of the title – almost a character in its own right – and clearly rooted in the author’s upbringing in the town of Dunbeath in Caithness and his knowledge of the Dunbeath Water which runs into the sea there. Evocation of landscape is a major component of the Scottish novel in general but not always as to the fore as it is here. Gunn’s descriptions of the river are precise and detailed so that the reader almost feels present. Not that he neglects characterisation; Kenn’s mother, elder brother and father are sketched economically but powerfully and all the minor characters have the stuff of life. It is, too, a philosphical novel, crammed with the thoughts Gunn puts into Kenn’s head as he recounts his experiences. It joins the long roll of Scottish literature about times lost and a way of life remembered.

The first scene is of a very young Kenn’s struggle with a huge cock salmon in the lower reaches of the river. In the end he manages to land it and this marks his transition into boyhood. (This episode is also commemorated by a statue erected by proud locals alongside the harbour in Dunbeath. I featured the statue in this post.)

This is one of many instances where the catching of fish (whether trout or salmon) is portrayed, the elaborate precautions taken to avoid gamekeepers, the deep knowledge of the likely pools, the intricate procedures needed to spy the fish and entrap it. Another early scene shows the disconnect between geography lessons about the main industries of English cities and Kenn’s daily life. None of that mundane esoterica is relevant to existence in a small village. Kenn finds himself dreaming through such lessons and as a result becomes the subject of his teacher’s wrath, expressed as was the custom of the times via the institutionalised violence of the tawse.

In contrast, despite the reticence bred by Calvinism – “None of the mothers in that land kissed their sons. If it were known that a boy had been kissed by his mother, not a dozen school fights would clear him of the dark shame of such weakness,” a weakness seen as more the mother’s than the son’s, “Nor can Kenn remember having seen his father kiss his mother ….. affection was as shy and as invisible as death,” – his parent’s quiet attitude to Kenn’s academic success and his own reluctance to declare it speak volumes.

As for the rock of the family, “Kenn’s mother did not go to church simply because she believed she was not worthy ….. She had done nothing to make herself unworthy. She was seen in her life as a good woman and without reproach. Yet she believed herself unworthy.” The men, too, did not take communion; their lives, tainted by rough living (and the odd drink,) had “not contained enough solemnity of holiness to justify them in going forward.”

The narrative flits back and forth through time between Kenn’s childhood, his experiences in the Great War and his life as a physicist afterwards, but the transitions are not jarring. They seem to occur organically, scenes flowing smoothly into one another. It is a kind of stream of consciousness, but controlled, always alert to the point. The removal in the Highland Clearances of Kenn’s not so ancient ancestors from the land they had worked since time immemorial, henceforth to make their living through sea-fishing, is mentioned in passing but without it they would not have been in reduced circumstances.

Through it all the river exerts its pull, Kenn’s last journey in the book marking his progress at last up to its source where he thinks, “Out of great works of art, out of great writing, there comes upon the soul sometimes a feeling of strange intimacy.” Here, Gunn’s intimacy with his subject, his feel for his particular hinterland, reaches beyond the Dunbeath Water, beyond the village which shares its name, beyond Scotland, to become universal, recognised by Highland River’s award of the James Tait Black Memorial Prize for 1937.

Pedant’s corner:- In the Introduction; a quote is given partly as “you make me try to see him” (the text actually has ‘you made me try’,) “no so ancient” (not so ancient.) Otherwise; Sans’ (several times, Sans’s,) a missing comma before a piece of direct speech (x 3,) milennia (millenia,) Archimedes’ (Archimedes’s,) acction (action,) “this land of bare moors had their austere effect” (had its austere effect.)

The Dark Mile by D K Broster

William Heinemann, 1958, 370 p.

 The Dark Mile cover

While Ewen Cameron of Ardroy, the protagonist of Broster’s first two books of her Jacobite trilogy (see here and here) does make an appearance in this last of the three, the book’s main focus is on the troubles of his cousin Ian Stewart of Invernacree. While riding home one day Ian witnesses a coach overturn into a loch and is called upon to rescue the lady trapped inside and take her to his father’s house to be cared for till she recovers. She turns out to be Olivia Campbell, the daughter of Campbell of Cairns, the man who commanded that part of the government forces which killed Ian’s elder brother Adam at the Battle of Culloden. Despite his growing feelings towards her this impediment to marriage means that any liaison is foredoomed.

In the meanwhile, Finlay MacPhair of Glenshian, an old foe, has contrived to make it look like Ewen Cameron or one of his tenants (which amounts to the same thing) has stolen two of his cattle and is pursuing him in the courts for restitution while he has attempted to persuade a Mr Maitland, the sender of the letter to the Government which had in the end resulted in the execution for treason during the rebellion of Ewen’s kinsman Archibald Cameron (and for which Maitland now suffers pangs of conscience,) to give the credit for this to Glenshian so that he can claim recompense for the many favours he thinks the government owes him. Maitland is a friend of Olivia Campbell’s family; indeed she calls him godfather. There is also some toing and froing as regards Hector Grant, who has formed an attachment to Ian Stewart’s sister, and whose imprisonment by Glenshian leads to him discovering the truth of the ploy with the cattle by overhearing a conversation in Gaelic which Glenshian’s retainer does not realise Grant can understand.

There is a degree of buckling of swashes, (made difficult it’s true by the bar on bearing arms suffered by Highland gentlemen in the wake of the ’45,) a high degree of coincidence and a blizzard of exclamation marks, not to mention a convoluted means by which our thwarted lovers may achieve a happy conclusion – all of which signal that the literature here may not be quite of the highest quality. But it fulfils the function of the adventure story (the good guys win and the baddies get their comeuppance) and serves as a reminder that the ramifications of Bonnie Prince Charlie’s defeat resonated and not only in the general but also the personal lives of the inhabitants of Highland Scotland – and beyond – for many years afterwards.

Pedant’s corner:- “the two Miss Stewarts” (the two Misses Stewart,) Campbell of Cairns’ (Cairns’s,) a missing comma before a piece of direct speech, staunch (stanch,) focussing (focusing.) “None of the farmhouse people were stirring” (None … was stirring,) “he dare not touch her again” (the narration is in past tense; ‘dared not’,) a missing full stop.

Republics of the Mind by James Robertson

Black and White, 2012, 280 p.

The first eleven stories in this collection were originally published in The Ragged Man’s Complaint (which I reviewed here) so I started this book on page 155. Throughout the other eleven tale shere Robertson’s writing is crisp and economical, capturing the situations and his characters in all the words required and no more. This is good stuff.

Opportunities is the tale of one evening in the lives of a pair of couples when various interpersonal dynamics swirl under the surface.
In The Shelf a couple has moved into a new smaller home and need to remove a shelf to place a flat-pack wardrobe against the wall. It turns out to be a bigger job than expected. In the meantime, strange things are going on in the street outside.
One day The Dictionary stops working. The words slide about all over the place, disordered, making it impossible to find the one our first person narrator is looking for. Even the new ones in the bookshop have the same defect.
The Dayshift worked by a border guard takes on even more meaninglessness when the regime changes and people can move to and fro across the border without being checked.
Don’t Start Me Talkin’ (I’ll Tell Everything I Know) features an old lady entering a specialist record shop wanting to buy music with some feeling. The guy there introduces her to the blues. But he’s not the owner and doesn’t work there.
Willie Masson’s Miracle. Willie is a housebound man, barely able to move and whose wife is in a Home. His neighbour, Mrs Bovie, drops in from time to time and a nurse comes in to see to his needs. One day he manages to get his arm to jerk.
Mr Meiklejohn has just left the dentist when The Rock Cake Incident occurs as he relaxes in a café afterwards. As a result he will need to visit the dentist again.
Old Mortality is set in an old, apparently deserted, graveyard where a man has taken his pregnant partner to see the headstone of his ancestors. They come across an old man whose purpose in life seems to be chipping the names from the monuments.
Christie lives alone in a house overlooking the field wherein lay MacTaggart’s Shed and imagines he sees ghosts there – but they may only be sheep. There is some kind of civil war still going on and not long ago an atrocity took place in the shed which was then burnt down.
The Future According to Luke is a repeat of the past. Luke Stands Alone is a native American living on a reservation. He, Dean and Johhny’s only entertainment is to cross the reservation’s border to Jubal’s Buffalo Saloon, situated between Bombing Range Road and the highway to Custer. Luke’s predictions all come true but that’s because they’ve already happened.
A man goes to visit an old building where everything is at Sixes and Sevens. His grandfather, a casualty of the Great War, once lived there, but it is now being sold off. The two caretakers treat him as if he’s a patient.

Pedant’s corner:- not a single thing to note. Remarkable.

The End of an Old Song by J D Scott

A Romance. Canongate Classics, 1990, 214 p, plus iv p Introduction by Christopher Harvie. First published in 1954.

Things lost. The times they have achanged. It is not for nothing that the lament is the signature example of bagpipe music. Scottish authors have always chronicled disappearance. It’s there in this book’s title and its epigraph – the source of that title – is of course the quote from Lord Chancellor Seafield on the dissolving of the Scottish Parliament in 1707 after the Treaty of Union was signed, “There is the end of an auld sang.” Scots have been struggling with a sense of absence, of incompleteness, ever since.

But there are wider literary echoes here too. This review ought perhaps to have begun with the words, “Last night I dreamed I was at Kingisbyres again,” Kingisbyres being the name of the “big house” where narrator Patrick Shaw had his formative experiences. Indeed, the book could also have been titled “Kingisbyres Revisited”.

Yet this exercise in Scottish nostalgia, displaying the typical Scottish writer’s flair for landscape description, is narrated by one Patrick Shaw who tells us he deliberately cultivated English snobbishness. Indeed, the novel reads as being written with an English sensibility, and people are always described as Scotch, not Scottish. As a result, the Scotticisms, when they occur – “‘Away, man,’” – do so with increased force. Despite his leanings towards Englishness Patrick intuits “the essence of the past of Scotland, its dark, fated, cruel quality and the contrasting strain that ran through it of lightness and grace and gaiety ….. something powerfully charged with love and hate, pride and violence, which, in given circumstances, it might discharge in some tremendous flash of lightning.”

In the 1930s Patrick was a pupil at the nearby fee-paying but far from top drawer school, Nethervale, (his alcoholic father reduced to teaching there) and was invited to Kingisbyres by his friend Alastair Kerr, himself brought up by an aunt in the village and who, local rumour had it, was the natural son of the house’s owner, Captain Keith, who paid for him to attend the school. In Kingisbyres a room once graced by Bonnie Prince Charlie is kept perpetually ready for “the King over the water” to return. One summer, Captain Keith, no longer able to afford the upkeep, lets Kingisbyres to the nouveau riche Harveys (the money was made in biscuits) and Patrick was immediately struck by their daughter Catherine, a presence who is to flicker in and out of Patrick’s and Alastair’s lives for the remainder of the book. Catherine is used to having her own way and even as a young adult knows how to deploy her charms to get it. The establishment of the three’s irregular relationship takes up more than half the novel before the focus shifts to the book’s narrative present after the Second World War.

Captain Keith, like many of the landed gentry, has some very right-wing views and Alastair frequently indulges in casually pejorative mentions of Jews – sometimes not so casually, even after the war. He also has some acerbic comments to make on his countrymen’s attitudes, “being stuck-up is a crime in Scotland. That’s why everybody who makes money leaves it in the end. What’s the good of making money if you can’t be stuck-up?” and the cultural cringe, “like the good wee Scotty I am, I’ve been conditioned to feel that success is genuine only when it’s been registered in London.” He cites those objects of aspiration, “‘That old Kentish manor house,’” along with an English rose for its mistress, two children and a picture in the Tatler but after the war, in its austere aftermath, such longing is obsolete, “‘Now we have to give it up for an apartment on Fifth Avenue.’” When he says, “‘God save us from the romantic outlook,’” Patrick asks him, “‘It’s goodbye to the English dream?’” Alastair replies, “‘Yes,’” and Patrick says ironically, “‘You might call it the end of an old song.’”

The characters in The End of an Old Song are well-drawn, Catherine’s youthful carelessness and flightiness apparent from Patrick’s first encounter with her, Alastair always a hard, uncompromising presence (though Mrs Harvey is a type; a recognisable and all too familiar type, but still a type.) The novel speaks both of its time and to timeless Scottish concerns.

Pedant’s corner:- In the Introduction; a missing end quote mark from an illustrative passage. Otherwise; gulley (gully,) Agnes’ (Agnes’s,) “thee fingers of whisky” (three fingers,) “Mrs Mathers’ voice” (Mathers’s,) “Bonny Prince Charlie” (usually spelled Bonnie, as it is on the next page and elsewhere in the book,) “‘If you boys arenie’ to be working’” (usually spelled arenae – and there’s no need for the apostrophe.) “After Dunkirk time I didn’t see Alastair …. for nearly two years … I went abroad … and until early 1943 I was in the middle East” (Dunkirk was in 1940, 1943 is 3 years later, not 2,) glaiket (usually spelled glaikit, is said to mean wandering in one’s mind; I have always understood it as meaning gormless, or slightly dim.)

Scabby Queen by Kirstin Innes

4th Estate, 2020, 395 p.

Like the best murder mysteries, we start with a body. But this isn’t a crime story. (Not in the conventional sense anyway – and the crimes it touches on are, or were, not usually considered as such.) It is, instead, a mosaic of a life, that of Cliodhna Jean Campbell (known as Clio,) who in January 2018 has committed suicide at her friend Ruth’s house in Kilbarchan, leaving no note in the house, and left Ruth to find her body. It is a novel about its times, our times, political commitment and hope.

Except we don’t actually start with the body. First there is a newspaper article from June 1990, a profile of Clio as her first album is about to be released following her successful but unconventional appearance on Top of the Pops the previous March, where she pointedly refused to mime while promoting her anti-Poll Tax single ‘Rise Up’ and ‘provocatively’ revealed an anti-poll tax T-shirt. Newspaper extracts like these appear intermittently between chapters (the next is a heartfelt but subsequently misconstrued obituary) and chart her swift rise, slower fall and occasional re-emergence to the public eye. One of these is a particularly barbed review of her album of Burns songs, The Northern Lass by a reviewer totally unsympathetic to its subject matter. The meat of the novel however, is in the unfolding of Clio’s life revealed, in non-linear order, by chapters dealing with incidents or stages in her life.

Astutely on the author’s part, we never see events from Clio’s perspective, only from people whose paths she crossed, was affected by, or affected, in one way or another: fourteen different viewpoint characters helpfully noted on a page labelled Some People inserted between the epigraph and page one. Listed in alphabetical order of their given names these are: Adele, a nurse; Danny Mansfield, a tour manager, a husband; Donald Bain, a godfather (unofficial;) Eileen Johnstone, a mother; Hamza Hussain, a boyfriend; Ida Edwards, a woman on a train; Jess Blake, a comrade; Malcolm Campbell, a father; Neil Munro, a journalist; Ruth Jones, a friend; Sammi Smith, a girl who lives in a squat; Shiv West, a popular musician; Simon Carruthers, a man at a wedding; Xanthe Christos, a former comrade. Taken in all they present a picture of a caring individual, who is at times blinkered to the ripples of her wake but is more sinned against than sinning.

Clio was brought up in an Ayrshire mining village by her mother and stepfather. (Her less than adequate father, also a musician, kicked out by Clio’s mother, had left to make a career in the US.) The 1980s miners’ strike left its legacy on Clio and through her life she remained a tireless advocate for the working-class cause, leading to not only that one hit song, but involvement in various political causes including a squat in Brixton, and devastation at the result of the Scottish Independence Referendum.

The journalist, Neil Munro, carries an unrequited torch for her and reflects somewhat jealously on her relationship with Danny Mansfield, “Beautiful women take lovers. He’d just never worked out why the lovers they took had to be such total arseholes.” One chapter set in the squat gives us Xanthe’s scathing verdict on lefties, “all of them so sure that their rollies, their pouches and their papers were another way of sticking it to corporate culture.” Another includes an explanation of the card game Scabby Queen, where there is only one queen in the deck. The card gets passed around as quickly as possible since the person left with her at the end loses and suffers a forfeit. (If this is supposed to be a metaphor for Clio’s life it doesn’t quite work.)

In the squat a man called Mark Carr had sex with most of the female activists. Clio later discovers he was an undercover policeman and therefore they had been “raped by the state”. The exposure of Carr, seeking justice against him and his superiors for his actions, becomes one of Clio’s causes, one she single-mindedly follows to the hilt despite the potential wreckage this pursuit could cause to the lives of others who were in the squat.

Ruth remembers her outlining all the good that could have flowed from an independent Scotland, including “amazing Scandinavian education” plus “an oil fund underpinning a citizen’s income and putting money into green energy programmes and all those beautiful things we were going to do,” how that would have confounded the sceptics. She hoped, “That they’d see then.”

But, given the ‘No’ vote, she laments, “Nothing I do or you do will ever make the slightest bit of difference …. They knew most of the country was fearty little boys like them, making snidey jokes because they’re afraid to believe in anything …. It’s why anyone from here who goes away and does well, we start laughing at them when they come back again …. There’s always some wee Scottish gremlin sitting there on yer shoulder, whispering its mantra. Naw. Naw. Naw.”

The suicide was Clio’s last act of political theatre, her final grab for attention and validation. In a note released to the press days after her death she says, “The codes that this modern world was built on are breaking down, allowing the worst bits of ourselves to rampage.”

Neil’s anguish over writing Clio’s obituary, “How did you use words, black on white with a finite limit, slotting into a pre-designed space on a page, to describe what a person’s life had been?” are belied by the story we are reading. This novel shows exactly how you use words to describe a life.

Scabby Queen is brilliant. A superb portrait not only of a complicated, contrary character, an embodiment of Caledonian anti-syzygy, but also of the society she lived in and the times she passed through.

Pedant’s corner:- snuck (sneaked, but snuck may have been in character,) “one wee Fife village” (it was Clackmannan which is not in Fife, and actually it was not the village but Clackmannanshire as a whole.)

Hamnet by Maggie O’Farrell

Tinder Press, 2020, 384 p.

 Hamnet cover

Is there anyone who reads who does not know that Shakespeare had a son called Hamnet, who died as a boy, a name immortalised a few years later in the play titled Hamlet? This is not a spoiler in any case as in a short preface O’Farrell tells us as much, and that Hamnet and Hamlet were the same name, entirely interchangeable in the late sixteenth and early seventeenth centuries.

In its writing this novel has echoes of Wolf Hall, whether that be because of the Tudor setting, or that Hamnet’s grandfather is quick with his fists, or a kind of linguistic obscurantism. In Hilary Mantel’s novel Thomas Cromwell was often denoted cryptically as “he,” Here characters are sometimes described simply as “a boy” or “a woman” and Hamnet’s father is never referred to by name, only as, variously, “the Latin Tutor,” “the husband,” or “the father.”

This distancing is quite deliberate on O’Farrell’s part as the novel’s focus is not on the son, (who dies two thirds of the way in anyway,) nor indeed is it on the husband and father. This is the story of the wife and mother, Agnes, pronounced Ann’yes and so liable to be misheard as Anne. It is a beautiful piece of imagining on O’Farrell’s part, evoking life in Tudor England utterly convincingly, illustrating the fluctuating balances of power within families, rescuing Agnes from the sidelines of history, revealing her as a vibrant, complex character in her own right. In it she also manages to provide a better explanation than the usual one for the playwright’s famous bequest – as an act of love.

In part I the chapters mostly alternate between the goings-on in Henley Street, Stratford, in the run-up to Hamnet contracting his fatal illness (where there is actually a fair degree of attention paid to Hamnet,) and the earlier life of his mother and father, how they met, got together, married and had three children. Despite Agnes having the gift of (second) sight, Hamnet’s twin Judith comes as a surprise, is then given up for dead on arrival after him, but subject to Agnes’s frantic efforts to keep her alive and her constant worry thereafter. Agnes is also a dispenser of herbal remedies. There is a passage written from the point of view of a hooded kestrel in an apple store which is quite beautifully done and also a diversionary chapter on the mechanism of how Hamnet may have caught bubonic plague, beginning with a flea in Alexandria, the plague bacillus eventually transferring to England via a glassmaker in Venice. Though never emphasised as such, interplay between the characters suggest the seeds for what was to come in the plays. Part II by contrast deals with the aftermath of Hamnet’s death and its chapters follow the story linearly. Grief is a difficult sense to communicate in fiction but we see its expression in all of the family and feel it through them.

Use of the present tense can be alienating but O’Farrell’s deployment of the device is superb, keeping the action contingent, reminding us that to the characters the events she shows us were happening in the here and now, there was still the possibility of an alternative outcome. It brilliantly conveys Hamnet’s distracted state of mind as he scurries about the empty house (usually so full of people) seeking help when his twin falls ill. O’Farrell is tremendous too on Agnes’s experience of childbirth. I doubt a man could ever have transmitted the sensations, feelings and worries so effectively. Throughout, the author is totally in control and the final scenes, as Agnes hurries off to London to ask her husband why he dared to use his dead son’s name in a play, are magnificent. The play, after all, has kept that name alive.

Hamnet is a wonderful novel. How it was left off the Booker Prize long- and shortlist last year is beyond me. It did, though, win the Women’s Fiction Prize and the Dalkey Literary Awards and was shortlisted for the Walter Scott Prize.

Pedant’s corner:- epicentre (used, wrongly, in the sense of absolute centre,) “the dark maw of the ground” (it was the opening of a grave; not a stomach, then, therefore not a maw,) stoved in (stove in, or, staved in,) “that all is not as it should be” (that not all is as it should be.) “She sits up nights” (she sits up at night,) hoofs (in my youth the plural was always ‘hooves’.)

Glister by John Burnside

Jonathan Cape, 2008, 263 p.

Begin with a warning. In a prefatory chapter, someone, who has passed through the Glister, is remembering the story of his life, again. In that story his name is Leonard and he remembers John the librarian saying to him, “When it comes to reliability, it’s not the narrator we should be worried about, it’s the author,” but Leonard himself tells us it’s not the author either; it’s the story that is unreliable.

Be that as it may, it is Leonard’s recollections which take up the bulk of the book. He grew up in a coastal town somewhat cut off from the rest of the world – outside influences do intrude, there is a Spar shop and references to television (curiously to Dr Kildare and Richard Chamberlain, which seems a bit out of time with the rest of the narrative) – a town once home to a chemical plant, whose contamination blights the lives of those who worked there, and perhaps even those who stray or rummage onto its former grounds or into the so-called poisoned wood, but people stay and put up with it all. (Not Leonard’s mum, though, who, unable to cope with her situation, pissed off when his father took ill leaving Leonard to take care of his dad.) But the town has a bigger problem. There have been disappearances of children, teenage boys, over the years, unexplained disappearances which cast a pall over everyday life.

Leonard lived in the Innertown, the most deprived and blighted area, distinguished from the Outertown where the big houses are. The Innertown has the same claustrophobic feel as the village in Burnside’s earlier novel The Devil’s Footprints and the hellish residue of the plant bears echoes of the Corby he described in Living Nowhere. Leonard’s story is given in the first person but other sections are written in the third and describe incidents to which he was not a witness. (These may still be him writing from an omniscient viewpoint, however; remember the unreliability of story.) They include Morrison, the local policeman, who seems to have got his position without in any way training for it, the local big man Bryan Smith (who levered Morrison into his job so as to have a hold over him,) Morrison’s alcoholic wife, Alice, recluse Andrew Rivers, and Leonard’s girlfriend, the precociously sexually adventurous Elspeth.

Morrison is conflicted by his knowledge of finding the dead body of the first boy to disappear, his enthralment to Bryan Smith (who got his henchman Jenner to deal with it) and his duty as a policeman. Towards the end he reflects that “the soul is wet and dark, a creature that takes up residence in the human body and feeds on it …. possessed of an unhuman joy that cares nothing for its host, but lives, as it must live, in perpetual, disfigured longing.” Alice senses her husband’s confusion but is mired in her own difficulties. Rivers has kept all the reminders of his dead father and is alert to the possibilities his behaviour has of being misunderstood. Elspeth is a spark of life but seems to be perpetually randy. The mysterious outsider Leonard calls the Moth Man, supposedly conducting a survey of the flying insect population of the contaminated area but also taking the opportunity to explore the nooks and crannies of the disused chemical plant and possibly with a darker involvement in events, with a hint of the supernatural, flits in and out of Leonard’s story while occasionally providing him with brews of a strange tea. Of his non-exclusive, on both sides, relationship with Elspeth, Leonard muses that romance is for older people, not adolescents.

Despite the realistic depiction of Leonard’s encounters with John, Elspeth, the Moth Man and the members of the small teenage gang led by Elspeth’s ex-boyfriend Jimmy van Doren, there is an overhanging feel of Science Fiction or fantasy to proceedings. This prefigures the ending, the manifestation of the Glister, which, while possibly explaining the disappearances does not do so fully but is nonetheless satisfactory.

At one point Leonard tells us of “the sense I have of a story all disjointed and out of sequence.” The novel is not like this at all. Burnside writes supremely well. I wasn’t overly satisfied by the ending even though it is in accord with what preceded it, but in all other respects Glister is gold.

Pedant’s corner:- “maybe ony a few minutes” (maybe only a few,) cargos (this plural used to be spelled ‘cargoes’,) unimagin-able (not at a line break, unimaginable,) ditto “separ-ate” (separate.) “It has to with Leonard” (It has to do with Leonard.) None of the others see me go (sees me go,), Rivers’ (Rivers’s,) “when she come across” (comes across,) a missing start quotation mark.

Summer by Ali Smith

Hamish Hamilton, 2020, 391 p.

This is the fourth in Smith’s Seasons quartet, conceived as a response to the Brexit upheaval, but here set, as the novel is, in 2020, somewhat overtaken by Covid. As in all her books it is rendered with an unjustified right margin which still looks odd to begin with but after a few pages does not intrude. Like Spring this instalment begins with a page or so’s discourse on our times, this one on the indifference with which certain people have greeted the flagrant breaking of societal and political norms in recent years, a metaphorical – and perhaps actual – shrugging of shoulders and saying “So?”

A contrast to that metaphorical shrugging comes later on when Daniel Gluck, a child refugee from the Nazis who featured in Autumn, remembers his internment in Britain early in World War 2 and the support the interned refugees received from MPs and from the wider public. Of the British people at the time he recalls his father saying, “They know about fairness now, and why to go to war, and what happens when you do. They know about newspapers that lie for money. They know you don’t put innocent people in prison. The British are just. They’re practical. They’re calm, they’re civilized, now. They’ll put it right.” It is left to the reader to make any invidious comparison. Gluck’s sister Hannah was meanwhile stuck in France and trusted her child to the care of the French couple with whom she lodged while she engaged in working with the resistance.

The novel unfolds through various viewpoints one of whom is environmentally conscious Sacha Greenlaw, whose father has moved in next door to the family home with his new, younger, Welsh lover, Ashley. Sacha is plagued by her younger brother Robert, who has fallen down the rabbit hole of right-wing websites and once told Ashley to go back to Wales as, after Brexit, she wasn’t wanted here. Their mother Grace just gets on with things but has memories of her own. Robert has two heroes. One is Einstein, the other “looks like he’s acting a bit drunk or acting like a boy not a man” and reflects that for a Prime Minister to appear dishevelled is “a brilliant subterfuge to look like he doesn’t know what he’s doing and to make people like him for it.” A (very unamusing) practical joke Robert plays on Sacha leads to her being befriended by Charlotte and Arthur – see Winter – who run a website with “thoughtful analysis of the shapes things take in art and nature” and have been tasked with returning a fragment of a Barbara Hepworth sculpture to a man Arthur’s mother once knew. They are also activists of a sort. Through them Sacha learns about Hero who has been detained by the immigration authorities after being trafficked and she writes to him. The last section of the book contains his reply – from the safe haven of Arthur’s Aunt’s house to where he has been released due to Covid.

Summer really only incidentally comments on political issues but is all the more effective for that. The characters present as individuals and are dealt with sympathetically. I suspect that when she conceived the sequence Smith planned for this last instalment to be a hopeful one (it is titled Summer after all) but the events she is reflecting may have militated against that. There isn’t really much of a plot though.

Pedant’s corner:- “And from those clouds it isn’t rain that fell” (from those clouds it wasn’t rain that fell,) “as she walked along pavement” (the pavement, or, a pavement,) a spoken sentence not capitalised at its start.

The House by the Loch by Kirsty Wark

Two Roads, 2019, 377 p.

 The House by the Loch cover

This is the story of three generations of the MacMillan family, grandfather Walter, his children Patrick and Fiona, and grandchildren Carson, Iona and Peter. But before we get into that, in a preface which signals that not all will be sweetness and light, we are shown Walter’s childhood memory of witnessing the wartime crash of a Spitfire piloted by a Czech Flying Officer, Frantisek Hekl, into Loch Doon in the Galloway hills. Subsequently Walter built a cairn to Hekl’s memory on a hill above the loch.

In the present day of the narrative, Fiona’s philandering husband, Roland, a successful architect who piggy-backed on her design aesthetic, has built on the shores of the loch a modern, hi-tech replacement for one of the two log cabins Walter had given his children. Patrick and his wife Elinor meanwhile, are content with the more modest lifestyle of a teacher and illustrator respectively. Occasional chapters give the history of Walter’s meeting with his wife Jean (Thompson) and their life together.

Coming down from their house in Ayr for holidays on the loch is an idyllic relief for Carson from her irritations with younger sister Iona which are, though, exacerbated at times by Iona’s idolisation of cousin Pete. The strains in Roland’s and Fiona’s marriage bear echoes of Walter’s with Jean though Fiona’s drinking is less of a fatal flaw then Jean’s. But lochs have their dangers and, when tragedy strikes, each of the characters is in some way to blame for it and all their lives are turned upside down.

Wark has the Scottish novelist’s eye for landscape and she handles character well enough but her prose sometimes leaves a bit to be desired as occasional phrases lean to the tin-eared or ill-considered. There is, too, a jumpiness to the sequencing, lending a feeling of skittishness to the text.

Pedant’s corner:- “Time interval later” count: high – including two successive sentences starting, “Ten years later.” Bonus points though for “amn’t I?” said by characters brought up in Scotland. I also note that the cousin raised in England says, “aren’t I?”
Otherwise; “a timpani” (timpani is plural; one of them is a timpano,) “walked away towards to his son” (either ‘towards’, or, ‘to’, not both.) “‘Are you, hell,’” (that comma removes the sense, which was, ‘“are you hell”’,) a sentence which started with ‘Within seconds’ and finished three lines later with ‘disappeared out of sight in seconds.’ The Black Narcissus (the film – and book it was derived from – was titled simply Black Narcissus, staunch (x 2, stanch,) Burns’ (Burns’s,) a missing comma before a piece of direct speech, “two candelabras” (as a word ‘candelabra’ is already plural; one is a candelabrum,) “until a torrent of tears forced their way through” (a torrent … forced its way.) “The sat drinking” (They sat,) “she saw pure white vapour trail” (she saw the pure white vapour trail.) In the Acnowledgements, “where the remains of Frantisek Hekl’s Spitfire rests” (where the remains rest.)

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