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Where the Apple Ripens by Jessie Kesson

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

 Where the Apple Ripens  cover

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

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

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

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 Lament: A Scottish Tradition.

I mentioned recently in my review of Christopher Rush’s A Twelvemonth and a Day that it fell into that long list of laments with which the Scottish novel is liberally bestowed – going back at least as far as the poem on the state of the nation written on King Alexander III’s death after falling from a cliff in Fife in 1286, but which may well be an oral tradition older still.

This sense of things lost seems to be an itch which Scottish letters is unable not to scratch.

Many of the books on the 100 best Scottish Books list fall into this tradition; of the ones I have read not only the Rush but also Iain Crichton Smith’s Consider the Lilies, Archie Hind’s The Dear Green Place, William McIlvanney’s Docherty, George Mackay Brown’s Greenvoe, Neil M Gunn’s The Silver Darlings, Lewis Grassic Gibbon’s Sunset Song certainly qualify. Arguably Jessie Kesson’s The White Bird Passes also fits the bill; its title certainly does.

Whether this dwelling on things gone by is due to a sense of lost nationhood or not is a matter for debate but the itch is played out not just in Scottish literature, the lament is a major strand in bagpiping and has a long history in song (eg The Flowers o’ the Forest.) The Proclaimers’ Letter From America – “Bathgate no more” etc – is merely a modern take on the form.

Another important strand in the Scottish novel is that of the döppelganger/the supernatural. Here James Hogg’s Private Memoirs and Confessions of a Justified Sinner, which can certainly be seen as a reflection on the duality of the Scots psyche after the Treaty of Union as well as an illustration of Scottish literature’s fascination with the Devil, is the prototypical – and arguably the finest – example though Robert Louis Stevenson’s Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde is perhaps better known furth of Scotland.

On thinking about all this I realised that, despite being Science Fiction, my own novel A Son of the Rock was also such a lament (though it eschews any truck with the supernatural.) The book was certainly conceived in part as an allegory of the decline of shipbuilding on the Clyde which had occurred in my early lifetime but I had not consciously been aware of any wider resonances while I was writing it. I did though somewhat impertinently consider it as a “condition of Scotland” novel.

Perhaps Scotland’s condition has always been in decline, its writers always noticing what has been, is being, lost. I note here that Andrew Grieg’s Fair Helen is a retrospective lament for the loss of “wit and laughter, music and dance and kindliness” in the Reformation.

The Herald’s 100 Best Scottish Fiction Books.

The Herald – formerly The Glasgow Herald – is, along with Edinburgh’s The Scotsman, one of the two Scottish newspapers of note. (Aberdeen’s Press and Journal and Dundee’s Courier could never compare; not least in circulation terms.)

I found the following list of The Herald’s 100 Best Scottish Fiction recommendations just under a year ago at a now defunct webpage http://www.heraldscotland.com/books-and-poetry/your-100-best-scottish-novels where only thirty works were actually given; with a solicitation to readers for further suggestions. Perhaps the page has been removed. It provides some fuel for future reading, though.

Of the 30, I have read 19 (asterisked below – where I also include from the Herald’s webpage the comments which accompanied the nominations, complete with any typographical and other errors.) Where applicable I have also linked to my review on this blog of that particular novel. Those in bold also appear on the list of 100 best Scottish Books.

1 The Death of Men, Allan Massie, 2004*
Anne Marie Fox says: Compelling as suspense and profound as a philosophical exploration of political ideologies and terrorism, ‘post-Christian’ consumer society and family.
2 The White Bird Passes, Jessie Kesson, 1958*
Alistair Campbell, Elgin, concludes: Writing of the highest quality, pared to poetic essence. The unforgettable tale of Janie’s childhood in crowded backstreets richly peopled by characters who live on the margins.
3 The Well at the World’s End, Neil Gunn, 1951*
Janet Feenstra recommends Gunn’s most personal novel: The metaphor of light reflects Gunn’s quest for personal enlightenment. Its optimism has relevance for Scotland now more than ever.
4 The Bridge, Iain Banks, 1986*
Allen Henderson, on Facebook, says: I’m a big Banks fan and for me, The Bridge just pips the Wasp Factory.
5 Cold in the Earth, Aline Templeton, 2005
Julia MacDonald, on Facebook, says: a novel with a clear description of Scottish towns and folk.
6 Fergus Lamont, Robin Jenkins, 1979
Ian Wishart, Edinburgh made this choice.
7 The Antiquary , Sir Walter Scott, 1816
Bryson McNail, Glasgow, writes of the second Scott entry to our list: It has some of the finest descriptive writing ever – the scenes and vistas open before you. It also has a great story line.
8 Joseph Knight, James Robertson, 2004*
Megan Mackie says: It is both a great story and a powerful history lesson rolled into one…a narrative of family relationships, betrayal and social justice told within the context of Scotland’s involvement in the slave trade.
9 Body Politic, Paul Johnston, 1999
Elaine Wishart, Edinburgh, concludes: As well as a great crime novel it paints a very very believable picture of Edinburgh as a city run for tourists – brilliant satire and cracking characters. I read it in one sitting.
10 A Disaffection, James Kelman, 1989*
Mark Barbieri says: Any one of Kelman’s novels could make the top 100 but the story of frustrated school teacher Patrick Doyle is his finest. Sad, honest, funny, vital, incomparable and simply brilliant..
11 The Holy City, Meg Henderson, 1997
Diane Jardine, Glasgow, says: Captured my home town with unnerving accuracy and helped me appreciate its psychology and community just a little bit more.
12 Young Art and Old Hector, Neil M. Gunn, 1942
Myra Davidson, Livingston, concludes: Wonderful depiction of childhood and old age. A Glasgow child, I was evacuated to a croft on Arran and I am still grateful for the introduction to a way of life I would not otherwise have had.
13 Whisky Galore, Compton Mackenzie, 1947
Elizabeth Marshall says: A lovely book that deserves to be included.
14 The House with the Green Shutters, George Douglas Brown, 1901*
Joan Brennan: This has to be among the very top of the finest 100 Scottish novels
15 Consider the Lilies, Iain Crichton Smith, 1968*
Derek McMenamin nominates the writer’s best known novel, about the Highland clearances.
16 Gillespie, J. MacDougall Hay, 1914*
Alan Mackie, Kinghorn says: An epic tale. And just as dark, if not darker than Crime and Punishment as an insight into what it means to be human. Not the happiest book but in terms of style and sheer enjoyment it is right up there with the best for me.
17 The Private Memoirs and Confessions of a Justified Sinner, James Hogg, 1824*
Kenneth Wright justifies his choice: Theology might not sound like a promising subject for fiction, but Hogg’s critique of the hardshell Calvinism that was Scotland’s religious orthodoxy c.1700 is compellingly expressed as ghost story, psychological thriller, earthy kailyaird comedy and drama of personal morality.
18 One Fine Day in the Middle of the Night, Christopher Brookmyre, 1999*
Vicky Gallagher says: I really enjoyed Christopher Brookmyre’s books, especially this one and A Tale Etched In Blood And Hard Pencil – very funny – very Glaswegian!
19 The Heart of Midlothian, Sir Walter Scott, 1818
Robert Miller is convinced it’s a forgotten masterpiece: This book has a real Scottish heroine and is very accurately based in a interesting time in Scottish history.
20 Greenvoe, George Mackay Brown, 1972*
Siobheann Saville says: Tragic, funny, poetic, descriptive – a book that has it all. Some of the passages read like poetry and have to be re-read several times. The wit and setting of ‘Local Hero’ and the family sagas of ‘Stars look down’ – a personal favourite I can read many times and still be surprised.
21 Sunset Song, Lewis Grassic Gibbon, 1932*
The first – and best – part of the Scots Quair trilogy explores several key issues, such as Scottish identity and land use, war, and the human condition. All bound up in an accessible, moving human tale. An evergreen classic.
22 The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie, Muriel Spark, 1961*
First published in the New Yorker magazine, the novel’s heroine was memorably brought to life by Maggie Smith, complete with the girls who comprised her “crème de la crème”. It’s a bitingly funny examination of love, relationships, and power.
23 Trainspotting, Irvine Welsh, 1993
The graphic portrayal of a group of junkies made a huge impact, helped by Danny Boyle’s film. Welsh added a sequel, Porno, and a prequel, Skagboys, is due out in 2012.
24 Kidnapped, Robert Louis Stevenson, 1886*
It may have been written as a “boys’ novel”, but the book’s basis in historical reality and its ability to reflect different political viewpoints elevates it to a far higher place, drawing praise from such figures as Henry James and Seamus Heaney.
25 The Thirty-Nine Steps, John Buchan, 1915*
The first of five novels to feature Richard Hannay initially appeared in serialised form in Blackwood’s Magazine. A rollicking good read ¬- if rendered slightly outdated by its kanguage and attitudes – it inspired British soldiers fighting in the WWI trenches, and the various film versions cemented its place in the literary canon.
26 Lanark, Alasdair Gray, 1981*
Gray’s first novel but also his crowning glory: a marvellous mixture of storytelling, illustration, and textual subversion which set the tone for his future work. The author cited Kafka as a major influence, but just about any interpretation of his words is possible…and that’s the fun.
27 Black and Blue, Ian Rankin, 1997
Not everyone will agree with this choice, but Rankin is the acknowledged king of Tartan Noir, and the eighth Inspector Rebus book won him the Crime Writers’ Association’s Macallan Gold Dagger.
28 The Princess and the Goblin, George MacDonald, 1872
This son of Aberdeenshire’s fantasy is regarded as having had a seminal influence on children’s literature, with such luminaries as Mark Twain and GK Chesterton paying homage. Film versions of the book have not been huge successes, but it appears in the 100 Classic Book Collection compiled for the Nintendo DS.
29 Clara, Janice Galloway, 2002
Galloway first came to prominence with The Trick is to Keep Breathing, but Clara, based on the life of the composer’s wife Clara Schumann and which won her the Saltire Book Award, is seen as her finest achievement.
30 The Expedition of Humphry Clinker, Tobias Smollett, 1771*
Born in Renton, West Dunbartonshire, Smollett trained as a surgeon at Glasgow University, but moved to London to find fame as a dramatist. A visit back to Scotland inspired his final novel, a hilarious satire on life and manners of the time. His fiction is thought to have influenced Dickens.

Reading Scotland 2015

A lot of my Scottish reading this year was prompted by the list of 100 best Scottish Books I discovered in February. Those marked below with an asterisk are in that 100 best list. (In the case of Andrew Greig’s Electric Brae I read it before I was aware of the list and for Robert Louis Stevenson his novella was in the book of his shorter fiction that I read.)

Electric Brae by Andrew Greig*
A Sparrow’s Flight by Margaret Elphinstone
The Guinea Stamp by Annie S Swan
The Girls of Slender Means by Muriel Spark
The White Bird Passes by Jessie Kesson*
Attack of the Unsinkable Rubber Ducks by Christopher Brookmyre
Buddha Da by Anne Donovan*
Flemington by Violet Jacob*
Tales From Angus by Violet Jacob
Annals of the Parish by John Galt
The Book of Strange New Things by Michel Faber
Change and Decay in All Around I See by Allan Massie
The Hangman’s Song by James Oswald
Wish I Was Here by Jackie Kay
The Hope That Kills Us Edited by Adrian Searle
Other stories and other stories by Ali Smith
Young Adam by Alexander Trocchi*
The Gowk Storm by Nancy Brysson Morrison*
No Mean City by H McArthur and H Kingsley Long*
Shorter Scottish Fiction by Robert Louis Stevenson*
The Expedition of Humphry Clinker by Tobias Smollett*
Girl Meets Boy by Ali Smith
Fair Helen by Andrew Greig
The Dear, Green Place by Archie Hind*
Fur Sadie by Archie Hind
Greenvoe by George Mackay Brown*
Stepping Out by Cynthia Rogerson
Open the Door! by Catherine Carswell*
The Silver Darlings by Neil M Gunn*
Scotia Nova edited by Alistair Findlay and Tessa Ransford
After the Dance: selected short stories of Iain Crichton Smith
John Macnab by John Buchan
Another Time, Another Place by Jessie Kesson
Consider the Lilies by Iain Crichton Smith*
The Thirty-Nine Steps by John Buchan*
Poems Iain Banks Ken MacLeod
Mistaken by Annie S Swan
Me and Ma Gal by Des Dillon*
Tea with the Taliban: poems by Owen Gallagher
A Choosing by Liz Lochhead
The Cone Gatherers by Robin Jenkins*
Born Free by Laura Hird*
the first person and other stories by Ali Smith

That makes 42 books in all (plus 2 if the Violet Jacob and Archie Hind count double.) None were non-fiction, 3 were poetry, 2 SF/Fantasy, 19 + (4x½ + 3 doublers) by men, 13 + (3 doublers and 1 triple) by women, 2 had various authors/contributors.

Another Time, Another Place by Jessie Kesson

Black and White, 2003, 136 p. Borrowed from a threatened library.*

 Another Time, Another Place cover

I vaguely remember seeing a TV dramatization of this novel in the long ago but had forgotten most of the detail. In any case it seems to have been a film.

The novel focuses on the lives of a small farming community during World War 2. Three Italians, prisoners of war, have been billeted in a bothy next door to where the main character – described only as “the young woman” or “she” throughout, apart from one reference to “Mistress Ainslie” – lives with her husband. She is attracted to one of them, Paolo, but he seems oblivious and it is Luigi who is forever asking her if it is possible for them to “jiggy-jig,” to which she always says no. The ending of the war and the impending repatriation of the three leads the young woman to reflect on her own imprisonment, on the farm.

The (short) novel is good on the details of wartime farming and the complex emotions and resentments the situation engenders.

The White Bird Passes by Jessie Kesson

One of the 100 best Scottish Books. Also in the Herald’s “100” best Scottish Fiction Books list and one of Scotland’s favourite books.

B & W, 2009, 153 p. First published in 1958.

 The White Bird Passes cover

Janie MacVean lives with her mother Liza in a tenement in “the Lane,” a thoroughfare in an unnamed Scottish town just after the Great War. Watched over by Poll Pyke, Battleaxe and the Duchess, the Lane is a friendly enough place with folks more or less looking out for each other. Despite their poverty stricken circumstances, Janie loves her mother and the Lane. The occasional (finance dependent) trip to see her grandmother, who lives in a much more salubrious house in the country, only serves to highlight Janie’s contentment with her lot. It is on the one such trip in the narrative that darkness intrudes into the book. Janie’s grandmother is friendly enough but her grandfather disapproves. For in the Lane, Janie has no father – and Liza no husband – to protect her.

Through a series of vignettes the details of Janie’s life are slowly revealed, perennial nits being only one of her burdens. Her attachment to it, her ease with it, are both manifest, the web of her relationships beautifully rendered. But things come to a head when the “Cruelty Man” intervenes and Janie is removed from the Lane as being a neglected child. Between Chapters Eight and Nine eight years have passed and we then see Janie, by now adapted to life in the Aberdeenshire orphanage in the shadow of the Cairngorms to which she has been sent, getting ready for adult life.

In an echo of a phrase in Lewis Grassic Gibbon’s Sunset Song we are told, “Everybody believed in God on Sundays, then laid Him carefully away with their best clothes for the rest of the week.”

The White Bird Passes gives more of an indication into the realities of life in poor areas of Scotland than did the recently read The Guinea Stamp.

Pedant’s corner:- remarkably – even if it is such a short book – I found only a single typo; the lights lit up she street (the.)

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