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Bookshelf Travelling For Insane Times

The good lady is taking part in a meme, which originated with Reader in the Wilderness in the USA.

It’s not quite in the spirit of the meme but I thought I would give you a glimpse of some of my bookshelves over the next few weekends. (Monday counts for this.)

So these are the top four shelves of the bookcase where I keep those works of Scottish Fiction I have already read. (Unread books are kept elsewhere.) The bookcase was bought from IKEA and fitted well in our old house which had high ceilings. When we moved to Son of the Rock Acres we wondered where it could go. Not downstairs, not enough clearance. Upstairs though, the ceilings are three inches higher! The removal men were great at manœuvring it into place with so little margin for error. It now sits on the top corridor just outside my study. (You can’t always see the books so clearly, there’s usually more stuff placed in front of them. A few history books are still perched above some in the bottom row.)

Scottish Books 1

Scottish Books 2

Edited to add:- The meme was set up to include recommendations for reading. Well, on that note Lewis Grassic Gibbon is always worth it, most especially Sunset Song in the A Scots Quair trilogy. So too are Alasdair Gray, Iain Banks, Anne Donovan, Margaret Elphinstone, Andrew Crumey, Andrew Greig, James Robertson.

Gone Are the Leaves by Anne Donovan

Canongate, 2014, 361 p.

 Gone Are the Leaves cover

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Romanno Bridge by Andrew Greig

Quercus, 2008, 316 p

 Romanno Bridge cover

Set in the mid 1990s – someone “says there’s going to be an election soon and things can only get better” – this novel reunites the reader with all the main characters from Greig’s earlier book The Return of John Macnab and throws in two more here for good measure in the shape of Maori rugby player Leo Ngatara and Norwegian musician Inga Johanssen.

The plot has more of a thriller touch this time, centring round the genuineness or otherwise of the Stone of Destiny. In her job as a journalist in Dumfries Kirsty Fowler meets Billy Mackay, an old man in his last days, who tells of his participation in the making of two replacement stones during the time the “original” was missing in 1950. This leads to designations such as fake fake as opposed to the real fake foisted on England’s Edward I and kept at Westminster ever since (until recently at least.) It is the whereabouts of Columba’s Pillow, the real crowning stone, hidden from Edward at the time and kept in the care of Moon Runners – whose guardianship is embodied in rings inscribed with runes (Moon rune-ers, you see, with only ever three extant at one time) – ever since that drives the plot. Mackay gifts Kirsty one such ring and thus unwittingly places her in danger at the hands of a ruthless intermediary calling himself Adamson who came to know of their existence via Inga’s brother Colin – and has a buyer for the real stone. The goings-on in uncovering the hiding places of the two fake fake stones and the original fake itself, take the characters to various parts of Scotland and even on an excursion to Norway.

All this gives Greig an opportunity to display his familiarity with the art of rock climbing and the music scene and to comment about Scots’ habit of revering their homeland, “‘Ye’d hae thought Scotland was Helen of Troy the way some folk sighed over her,’” even as seen through the eyes of foreigner Inga, “Strange place to inspire such belonging.” There are wider ruminations too. We are told an ancient Sumerian manuscript bemoans the times as violent, chaotic and strange, the young don’t speak properly, the gods are unrespected, etc, etc. – which only means the writer was elderly. And Leo Ngatara comes to reflect bleakly that, “None of us will be all right. Mountains, sunsets, good times, bad times, mates, children – nothing endures. Nothing. No exceptions.”

Greig is never less than an insightful novelist but here the thriller plot sits a little uneasily with his gifts for illuminating character, describing landscape and revealing the complexities of human affairs.

Pedant’s corner:- a missing comma before a piece of direct speech, “The last thing he saw were the three stones” (The last thing he saw was… ,) Burns’ (Burns’s,) “George V was dying” (George VI,) bonzer (is that NZ speak or only Aussie? Only Aussie if you check this though it seems “rack off” and strewth are used in NZ,) midgies (midges,) medieval (we had had mediaeval before,) “‘Hey Johnny Cope are ye wakin’ yet?’” (more usually ‘Hey Johnnie Cope are ye waukin’ yet’,) reorted (retorted,) “the passage way” (passageway,) bonzer Scone? (bonzer stone makes more sense,) rowboat (rowing boat,) “only the remnant” (the only remnant makes more sense,) the Irish bazouki, bazouki, (both bouzouki,) Merkdal (was Myrdal earlier,) snuck in (sneaked in.) “The crowd were spellbound.” (The crowd was spellbound.) “‘Yes, but we didn’t know that.’” (Yes, but he didn’t know that,) Dundas’ (Dundas’s,) Taynult (Taynuilt, spelled correctly a few pages later,) maw (it’s a stomach, not a mouth,) Firth of Lorn (more usually Lorne,) iron grill (grille.)

As Though We Were Flying by Andrew Greig

Bloodaxe, 2011, 62 p

 As Though We Were Flying cover

One of the best authors I have discovered since starting the blog, Andrew Greig, started out as a poet. His first publications were books of poetry and then in amongst those he took to writing prose about another of his interests, climbing. He only took up novel writing after twenty years or so. He has also written a book about golf, another on fishing and the Scottish landscape, and, with Mike Heron, one about The Incredible String Band.

I thought I should sample his poetry, hence reading this, one of his most recent collections of poems.

The slim volume (nearly all poetry books are slim) is divided into three sections, Home for Now, The Light of Day and A Moment’s Liberty. The first poem, The Tidal Pools of Fife, is a lament for those lost pleasure grounds and there are five other poems set explicitly in Fife. More than a few deal with marriage – in especial A Long Shot compares the incredulous certainty of holing a putt as it moves across the green with the equally chancy outcome of being in the estate of matrimony. All are thoughtful and illuminating. But they need to be read, not written about.

Pedant’s corner:- In the contents page a poem is titled Eck Hutcheson but on page 20 is Eck Hutchinson (and twice in the poem itself,) “the fruit … are so nearly ripe” (the fruit is so nearly ripe,) “How could I live so long ……. and somehow failed to grasp” (and somehow fail to grasp,) “the crowd stream” (the crowd streams,) “her eyes propels the bird” (propel?) “above the river ,” (no space between river and comma.)

Autumn by Ali Smith

Hamish Hamilton, 2016, 270 p.

Autumn cover

This is a short novel, very short. Nevertheless it has no fewer than five epigrams. That it starts with the sentence, “It was the worst of times, it was the worst of times,” is perhaps a signifier that it aspires to literary memorability. It was written in the aftermath of the 2016 referendum on the EU and reflects (though only in asides) the divisions in the country which that revealed but addresses more fully the latent racism which it brought to the surface. The book has that unjustified right-hand margin that is a feature of Smith’s publications and like Andrew Greig’s When They Lay Bare, which I read immediately prior to this, does not use quotation marks for dialogue, which impairs comprehension not at all.

The narrative is mainly concerned with Elisabeth Demand who as a child formed a friendship with her much older next-door neighbour, Daniel Gluck, but also has an eye for the absurdities of everyday life. Along the way Elisabeth develops an interest in the female Pop Artist Pauline Boty who Elisabeth finds has been all but removed from the histories of British Pop Art because she was a woman.

The novel is good on Elisabeth’s problematic relationship with her mother but appears a little unfocused, indeed rambling at times. It’s all easily taken in and has some amusing moments but like most of Smith’s writing (with the possible exception of How to be Both) it’s all a little flat. I don’t feel the burn.

Pedant’s corner:- “it’s one of those coincidences ……but in real life mean nothing at all” (one of those coincidences … but in real life means nothing at all,) “to taxiderm real children” (is taxiderm a verb? I thought the verb was stuff,) dismissible (dismissable.)

When They Lay Bare by Andrew Greig

faber and faber, 1999, 326 p.

When They Lay Bare cover

So much enduring literature is about love, sex and death. Greig is good on all three, especially love and its tragedies. In When They Lay Bare David Elliott comes to the family home to show off to his father, Simon, his intended. Meanwhile a strange woman has moved into a cottage on the estate. In David’s childhood Simon had had an affair with Jinny Lauder – for whose death he had been tried for murder, and found not proven. The shadow of those events lies over the book, as, since it is set in those same debatable lands Greig would return to in Fair Helen (but here we are in the twentieth century,) does the history of the borders. Border Ballads are frequently quoted and the book’s epigram is an extract from The Twa Corbies. Throughout Greig does not separate off direct speech by quotation marks but this is never a problem to decipher.

The novel has a central conceit wherein the story is foreshadowed by the descriptions of illustrations on a set of eight plates belonging to the woman in the cottage who at first gives her name as Mary Allan but then says she is Jinny’s daughter, Marnie. The eight sections into which the novel is divided are designated as Plate 1, Plate 2 etc – though 4 and 5 are titled Lover’s Plates (Rose and Red respectively.) These descriptions are rendered in italics. The rest of the narration is carried from the viewpoints of David, Marnie, Simon (from whom we learn the details of his doomed affair with Jinny, a grand passion indeed) and his factotum Tat, a voyeur in his youth whose evidence was crucial to the verdict and who leveraged his knowledge into gaining his position on the Elliott estate. Tat’s narration is littered with Scots words and phrases, as is Simon’s but to a much lesser extent.

Marnie is one of those women whom Greig draws so well. She often alludes to Spook, her word for manifestations of sixth sense, a phenomenon not at odds with Borders history (though in that regard the appearance of Jinny to Tat at the novel’s crux was perhaps a step too far.) Important, too, is a precarious bridge over the Liddie Burn, the scene of one of those Border tales from times past.

Marnie is the heart of the book, the driving force of its motor, the hinge around which the other characters revolve – though Jinny’s actions and her motivations for them are almost as influential – but the most Greigian of sentiments is voiced by David, “Sin and sex make us glow like coals in the dark. That’s why we do it. To burn.” One of the reasons we read novels is to experience that burn, if only at second hand.

Pedant’s corner:- Quite why the title is all in lower case on the cover is beyond me. It isn’t on the title page. Otherwise: “the prosecution were” (was,) “only a name and a brief tale remains” (remain; in an extract from a piece about border legends,) usually before a piece of dialogue or unspoken thought there is some sort of punctuation. In one instance it was missing, smoothes (smooths.) “That is the cause of the love he feel for his companions” (feels,) “‘he’d had to have grovelled’” (OK it was in dialogue but, “he’d have to have grovelled”,) imposter (impostor.)

The Return of John Macnab by Andrew Greig

Headline Review, 1996, 285 p.

The Return of John Macnab cover

This, Greig’s second novel, takes as its template John Buchan’s John Macnab which I reviewed here. Once again three men – but this time not “gentlemen” – form an alliance to poach a salmon, a brace of grouse and a stag respectively from three different estates, Mavor, Inchallian and Balmoral, and then deliver the poached items back to the “owners”, as a challenge to “absentee landowners and the Criminal Justice Act” and as a wager to the three estates’ owners; issuing a statement to this effect in the Scotsman newspaper. The “John Macnab” here comprises at first Neil Lindores, Murray Hamilton and Alasdair Sutherland, each with his own special talent useful for the enterprise, but not long after arriving in “a small Highland town” Lindores is sussed out by local journalist Kirsty Fowler who is excited by the project and offers to help them.

Greig’s background in climbing comes to the fore in his description of the scramble needed to get to the pool for the salmon poach and his life as a poet in the sentence, “Seldom had a celebration broken up so fast, as if someone had announced an evening of performance poetry would commence in thirty seconds.”

His descriptions of landscape are loving and there is the odd reflection on the condition of Scotland. On feeling himself squeezed as at the narrow waist of an hour-glass with more past than future as the minutes ran through Neil thinks, “What a depressingly Scottish image. Its negativity was another thing that was true about his country. It went along with tholing, bearing, putting up with, and taking a certain satisfaction in the expected bad news when it came.” Yes indeed. That’s Calvinism for you. Neil does go on, though, to sense “it was a wrong picture. He was groping for another, still true but more affirmative.” At another point, “He hugged Murray. This was a first – they were Scottish, after all.”

The big problem John Macnab faces here is Balmoral. It is late summer and HRH is in residence. Consequently the place is hoaching with Special Services, Army and Police as well as the usual ghillies and gamekeepers. The authorities cannot ignore the possibility that John Macnab is merely a cover for a terrorist attempt on HRH’s life.

The text occasionally refers to Buchan’s novel, as it has to, and even critiques it in mentioning that Buchan’s women are really just chaps – though with (small) breasts. Greig’s intent is somewhat different; and his women are certainly far from chaps. Kirsty is as rounded and complex a character as you could wish (such women are a common factor in Greig’s novels) and is thoroughly involved in the poaching efforts – as are Sutherland’s and Hamilton’s wives and the former’s family – at least in the second one. Sutherland’s wife, though she has had an affair, tells Kirsty she would kill him if he were to do the same. Ellen Stobo, a policewoman attached to the security services but who finds herself coming to an understanding of John Macnab, is also well drawn. To be fair to Buchan he was writing adventure tales for a male audience in a time that was less aware. Greig is by far the better examiner of the human condition though.

The John Macnab template – while driving the events of the plot – at times gets in the way of Greig’s greater facility with personal relationships but in the end his own concerns overwhelm Buchan’s. Still, he nearly overdoes it, veering very close to the tradition of the Scottish sentimental novel (compare Iain Banks’s Espedair Street,) in the final pages. But he is too canny to yield a conventional ending.

That template means that The Return of John Macnab is not quite up there with Greig’s best – all the other novels of his I have read; see “Andrew Greig” in my categories – but for an exploration of human uncertainties, hesitations, lust for life and willingness to take risks, emotional as well as physical, it’s still pretty damn good.

Pedant’s corner:- midgies (midges – which spelling does occur in the book once but otherwise with the extraneous “i”,) swopped (swapped,) “‘but there a problem comes with it’” (but there’s a problem,) autogiro (autogyro,) hoochin’ (usually spelled – and pronounced – hoachin’,) the main work party were loading gear (the party was,) none of the computer systems were down (none was down,) a missing end quote mark.

In Another Light by Andrew Greig

Pheonix, 2004, 510 p.

In Another Light cover

Love, sex and death again; but literature’s subject matter doesn’t get any bigger. And Greig deals with them superbly.

In In Another Light it is death which is the early preoccupation of Eddie Mackay, though love and sex do get a look in. Prior to the immediate events of the novel Eddie suffered from hydrocephalus as a result of a colloid cyst which meant fluid built up in his brain. He therefore feels the imminence of extinction everywhere, “‘Because I was nearly dead once and I’m trying to live with that.’” During his recovery from having a shunt fitted to drain the fluid from his brain to his stomach Eddie experiences the presence of his dead father, who according to Eddie’s mother had, long before she met him, been sent home in disgrace from Malaya after an affair with his superior’s wife. Eddie doubts the truth of this but sets out to find as much as he can about his father’s time in the colony. Eddie is working for a tidal generation project whose headquarters overlook Scapa Flow in Orkney. The jungle drums and the tangled relationships of Stromness become a running theme in the book. Of comments about his liaison with Mica Moar, another of Greig’s complicated female characters (a bit – but only a bit – like Kim Russell in Electric Brae) he says, “‘In my experience there’s only one way to keep a secret in a wee town’ … ‘Plant the sapling of truth in a forest of rumours.’”

This strand of the book, delivered in a first person past tense looking back over the path which brought Eddie to the final scene, with occasional present tense interludes setting that scene, is intertwined with a third person present tense narration of the voyage of his father Sandy, as he was then known, to Penang in Malaya and his brief sojourn there. Medical graduate Sandy hopes to improve the birth survival rates in Penang’s maternity hospital. The boat out is a hotbed of illicit goings on of which deeply moral Sandy is mildly contemptuous. The acquaintances he makes on the trip, US citizen Alan Hayman and the two Simpson sisters, Ann and Adele, “both beautiful, one a gazelle” the elder of whom, Adele, is married and chaperoning the younger, are fateful. A further sister, Emily, also on the boat, is still a child. Each chapter contains several sequences from both stories, generally alternating. The greeting, “‘Oh, there you are,’” bounces around the two narratives. Both strands are thick with metaphor. The descriptions of Orkney and Penang make them almost characters in themselves – particularly Orkney. Certain images also resonate between the two locations.

The text is seasoned with sly critiques of Scottish attitudes, “I was in joyous life-affirming Scottish mode that morning and no mistake.” “Scotland’s a place where everyone explains what is not possible, that it’ll all end in tears, we’re here to make the best of a bad job then die and get a good rest till we’re woken up to be informed we’re damned.” To Sandy’s traditional toast “‘Here’s tae us, wha’s like us? Gey few – and they’re aa deid’” Hayman says, “‘You guys, you can’t even celebrate without bringing death into it.’”

Eddie’s thoughts occasionally stray back to the subject of death. He raises with us the question of “How are we to live in the face of the sure and certain knowledge we will lose parents, friends, lover, the whole shebang and caboodle?” only to answer it immediately with, “Wholeheartedly. Of this one thing I am sure.” Later he tells us, “It’s such a simple and shallow thing, death, only there’s no bottom to it and no way across.”

He reflects that maturity is, “knowing you’ve more or less arrived at yourself and the world will keep changing but you won’t much, and then living with that,” while, “Pure lust, I’d noticed, eventually collapses under the weight of its own contradictions – rather like capitalism, but much quicker.” However, “We need meaning, I thought. The world might not have any, but we need it,” and, “Meaning is something we have to make.”

Greig’s numerous characters are all well drawn, their behaviour sometimes unexpected and contrary. I wouldn’t go quite so far as the cover quote (from The Times) “It will be a long time since a book has made you care as much.” Not for me. At least not since the same author’s Fair Helen. He seems to have a gift for it. Add in computer programmes for generating music from tidal movements, the compromises of secret service work in the colonies, a thoroughly worked through plot (which admittedly may be a little too neatly tied in,) the perennial failure of true love (or lust) to run smooth and the whole thing’s a delight.

Pedant’s corner:- “‘I’d left my [gas] mask back in the Mess’” (the Mess? In the trenches in WW1?) Brechin Pier (does Brechin have a pier?) “for a while neither of them speak” (neither speaks.) “Stacked alongside the reference books are a series of different coloured hardback files” (is a series,) baragraphs (barographs,) the phrase, “he was sad under his funny,” (seems to be missing a final word,) furlough (is more a USian usage,) “The Moonlight Band play foxtrots” (plays,) “a think about what the heck’s he’s getting into,” (what the heck,) sub-periphrenaic abscess (a google search for sub-periphrenaic yields only a quote from In Another Light: Andrew Greig,) whigmalerie (spelling of Scots words can be variable but this is usually whigmaleerie,) murmers (murmurs,) Theramin Dr Who electronic music (Theremin: also Dr Who’s electronic instrument wasn’t a theremin which as an instrument should be lower case,) “he scooped more peanuts down his maw” (I suppose it could mean stomach here,) “a group of macaque monkeys come running” (a group comes,) “He’s stares” (He stares,) whispy (context suggests wispy,) tweaked it it (one it is enough,) an assortment of … appear (an assortment appears,) Siouxie and the Banshees (doesn’t she spell it Siouxsie?) vocal chords (it’s cords,) Arshak Sarkies’ (Sarkies’s,) for completeness’ sake (completeness’s,) light defraction (diffraction? refraction? or is this a portmanteau word Greig has invented?) became (in a present tense narration this should be becomes.)

Live It Up 30: Dear Prudence

A reference to Siouxsie and the Banshees in Andrew Greig’s In Another Light (review to come) reminded me of the band’s treatment of this Beatles’ song.

Siouxsie and the Banshees: Dear Prudence

My 2015 in Books

This has been a good year for books with me though I didn’t read much of what I had intended to as first I was distracted by the list of 100 best Scottish Books and then by the threat to local libraries – a threat which has now become a firm decision. As a result the tbr pile has got higher and higher as I continued to buy books and didn’t get round to reading many of them.

My books of the year were (in order of reading):-
Bring Up the Bodies by Hilary Mantel
Electric Brae by Andrew Greig
The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet by David Mitchell
Station Eleven by Emily St John Mandel
Europe in Autumn by Dave Hutchinson
Traveller of the Century by Andrés Neuman
The Affair in Arcady by James Wellard
Flemington and Tales from Angus by Violet Jacob
The Book of Strange New Things by Michel Faber
Ash: A Secret History by Mary Gentle
Young Adam by Alexander Trocchi
Song of Time by Ian R MacLeod
The Gowk Storm by Nancy Brysson Morrison
The Bridge Over the Drina by Ivo Andrić
To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee
Fair Helen by Andrew Greig
The Dear, Green Place by Archie Hind
Greenvoe by George Mackay Brown
The Tin Drum by Günter Grass
Europe at Midnight by Dave Hutchinson
The Cone-Gatherers by Robin Jenkins
A God in Ruins by Kate Atkinson
Go Set a Watchman by Harper Lee
Born Free by Laura Hird
We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves by Karen Joy Fowler

If you were counting that’s 25 in all, of which 15 were by male authors and 10 by women, 8 had SF/fantasy elements and 11 were Scottish (in the broadest sense of inclusion.)

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