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Shoreline of Infinity 1: Summer 2015

Science Fiction Magazine from Scotland, The New Curiosity Shop, 104 p.

Shoreline of Infinity 1 cover

Apart from the fiction, in this first issue of a new venture there is an interview with Charles Stross; Steve Green’s column Border Crossings1 discusses two SF films made mostly in Glasgow over twenty years apart, Bertrand Tavernier’s Death Watch adapted from D G Compton’s The Continuous Katherine Mortenhoe and Jonathan Glazer’s adaptation of Michel Faber’s Under the Skin; in SF Caledonia – John Buchan SF writer,2 Paul Cockburn examines that writer’s SF credentials. Reviews3 discusses five books.

The fiction is varied in scope. Each story has its own one-page art work and a title page to itself. Internal illustrations accompany some others.
More fantasy than SF, The Three Stages of Atsushi4 by Larry Ivkovich is set in Japan in 1531. A woman whose son, Omasu, was swept away in a flood the year before petitions the God Amaterasu to bring him back to life. A strange man in odd armour appears with an entourage of samurai and helps her (in stages,) for Omasu has a destiny.
In Alex Barr’s very well written The Spiral Moon5 a woman astronaut whose mission has suffered a catastrophic failure sets out to circumnavigate the small planetoid she is on, eventually hallucinating as she succumbs to oxygen starvation.
Symbiosis6 by Colleen Anderson has another member of a doomed space mission, on a planet this time, trying to survive by going native. The story’s ending is fantastical rather than SF.
The protagonist of See You Later7 by M Luke McDonnell gets herself a set of AR lenses to match the ones her husband needed for work and finds the settings he uses for his something of a surprise.
In what is intended to be a humorous piece, but is far too over the top to be so, David Perlmutter’s The Brat and the Burly Qs8 gives us an alien superhero, who is part mechanical, flying to Mars to apprehend a wrongdoer whom it has sent to jail once already.
Approaching 43,000 Candles9 by Guy T Martland. Controlled by the Moon, time is switched off once a year, and British Lighthouses travel to attend a conference. At one of these, Voth, from the Isles of Scilly, overhears the Bishop Rock and two other Cornish Lighthouses planning a shut down so that the Bishop’s much needed maintenance will be expedited.
In Broken Glass by Joseph L Kellogg, Slide Stations allow travel between five parallel worlds. RedBrian envies the other Brians who all have their Pats as lifetime companions.
In TimeMachineStory10 by Richmond A Clements a man goes back (and forward) in time but the effects aren’t what he expected.
The extremely short, almost throwaway, Cleanup on Deck 7 by Claire Simpson features a new female crew member on a spaceship under attack seeking refuge in a cupboard with only solvents and bleach available to her as weapons.
Space11 by John Buchan is one of Buchan’s Leithen stories where that gentleman relates to a companion on a deer shoot the tale of his acquaintance Hollond, who forms a theory that so-called empty space is full of “mathematical pandemonium” with “halls and alleys in Space shifting .. according to inexorable laws” and there are Presences within it.

Pedant’s corner:- 1Good Friday isn’t – and never has been – a public holiday in Scotland, PBS’ (PBS’s,) embue (imbue,) 2Given in the contents as page 82, it’s actually page 80. 3Stross’ (Stross’s,) “for an entertaining a ‘management team for dummies’” (one indefinite article is enough,) “their alien mind set giving homo sapien the chance” (either homo sapiens or homo sapien) 4Written in USian, a missing start quote at the beginning of a paragraph, thusly (thusly??? What sort of a word is that?) 5CO2 (it’s CO2.) 6While their normal prey is referred to as herbivores the planet’s top predators are described as cats. However they appear they would not be cats. They are alien. Ditto the so-called trees. “The night painted the blood a sinister substance” (substance? Colour surely?) “Keela tramped determinably” (?? Determinedly, I think.) 7Written in USian. 8Written in USian; on their own free will (of their own free will,) synthetic water (????) embarrasing (embarrassing,) said my peace (my piece that would be,) sat (seated; or sitting,) liquid mercury (even piping hot at normal atmospheric pressure it has no other option but to be liquid, it doesn’t boil till 357 oC) jail-after (jail after.) 9And anyways (a Scot – even if a lighthouse – would say anyway, not anyways,) “couldn’t see more that a few yards” (more than.) 10“there’ll be cure in the end” (a cure,) one sentence had two full stops at its end, Arch Duke Ferdinand (Archduke.) 11caldron (cauldron,) “as keen is a keen sword” (as keen as; or, as keen as is,) Prescences (Presences,) Holland (always Hollond elsewhere,) a missing start quote when a piece of dialogue continues after a narrative interpolation, plus a missing end quote at its end, and another at the end of a paragraph where the next was not a continuation of speech.

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.

The Scottish Tradition in Literature by Kurt Wittig

The Mercat Press, 1978, 304 p, including ii p preface, ii p contents. A facsimile of the 1958 edition.

The Scottish Tradition in Literature cover

On the surface it seems a little odd that a book on Scottish literature should be written by a German but Wittig’s second sentence begins, “Scottish literature is part of our European heritage.” He goes on to say he does not wish to erect an invisible barrier that would isolate it from “the larger world to which it inseparably belongs,” but nevertheless, “We must do the literature we are studying the honour of recognising that it has both ‘a local habitation and a name.’” He notes, “Deep down in the heart and mind of many Scotsmen there is a kind of schism arising out of the clash of his conflicting loyalties,” but stresses that “someone from outside can distinguish between the typical and the specific.”

Wittig’s starting point for the Scottish tradition is John Barbour’s epic poem The Bruce, which is, he says, without parallel in the Middle Ages, finding its neglect by scholars (of whatever stamp) truly astonishing. The Bruce predates Chaucer’s great poems and its theme that knightly virtues are of no account unless supported by the ideals of “fredome” and “richt” – ‘A! Fredome is a noble thing!’ – sets it apart from its contemporaries. Barbour is the “first of a long series of Scottish writers who seem not only to be on terms of an informal intimacy with God (or the Devil), but even to be disposed, on occasion, to argue with him. No wonder that the Scottish people were later to find the spirit of the Reformation so congenial.”

Since it manifests itself in pre-Reformation works (of which – William Dunbar’s “Lament ‘Quhen he was sek’” (aka “Lament of the Makars”) with its Timor mortis conturbat me refrain apart – to my shame I was mostly unaware) it would seem therefore that the gloomy prognostications and demeanour of Scots (“the mistrust even of happiness”) are not so much derived from Calvinism but are much more deep-rooted, part of the character induced by harsh, dark winters and the sair fecht of scratching a living from the land. It’s almost as if Scots were marking time till a belief system to embody their experience came along; and thereupon embraced it with masochistic fervour.

Barbour also employs what Wittig identifies as a typical Scottish trait; understatement, particularly in regard to the emotions, and he possessed a keen enjoyment of sense impressions. In Robert Henryson he notes, “genuine emotions of the soul are rather suggested than expressed, but the airs men give themselves are heightened to grotesquerie.” Such sense impressions, personification, or animism – visualisation – is another thread that Wittig discerns in the Scottish tradition. Others include alliteration, an intense economy of expression. He notes that much Scottish poetry is interlinked with music, using traditional metres, often very complicated, internal rhymes, frequent refrain on a thematic word.

After Gavin Douglas – the last of the Makars – and David Lyndsay this spring tide, as Wittig puts it, of the tradition begins to ebb and Scots as a language began to diminish in importance and scope. While the Union of the Crowns meant the old cultural ties with France were cut, more significantly the printing presses were in London and, perhaps crucially, the Bible, and therefore the word of God – in Church and elsewhere – was in English and so English came to be associated with serious, dignified subjects. As a result “‘guid hamelie Scots’ seemed unfit for higher and more intellectual purposes.” In the meantime the Scottish Ballads – “A Treasure-trove” – helped to keep the language alive.

A resurgence came in the eighteenth century with once again as in the Makars an expansion of the language and its uses. This reached a “High Water Mark” with Robert Burns and Walter Scott before tailing off again. In the twentieth century “Another Spring” had its highlights in Hugh McDiarmid, Lewis Grassic Gibbon and Wittig’s prime exemplar Neil M Gunn.

Wittig emphasises the cross fertilisation of Scots with Gaelic. The two languages existed side by side for centuries, even at court. Many Scots sentence constructions have their roots in Gaelic which, according to Alexander MacDonald, is supreme over all other languages, “strong, fluent, copious, resonant, and so forth” but in the main “it is the one language in which, since the Tower of Babel, bard or satirist can scold best. Modern Scottish speech, too, is often said to be unsurpassed for deflating an opponent.” It is especially apparent in poetry, “The chief respects in which Scots differs from English poetry are that it shows a stronger feeling for colour (and for other sense impressions); imagery is sharper and more detailed, it is capable of greater metrical complexity, is apter to personify inanimate objects, takes a keener interest in nature, is full of the spirit of clannishness, and makes a speciality of flyting and extravaganza,” all features, Wittig says, even more strikingly characteristic of Scottish Gaelic poetry.

Wittig states that, “Perhaps no other European literature is so dramatic” yet contrasts that with the lack of Scottish drama, a delicate, developing flower at the time he was writing. Nevertheless quoting James Bridie (Dr O H Mavor) “we cannot perceive the Universe except as a pattern of reciprocating opposites.”

The Scot displays “sometimes an aggressive spirit of independence or egalitarianism,” and is adept at the art of flyting, a contest consisting of the exchange of insults, often conducted in verse, between two parties. Then again the mediaeval Scots proverb has it that, “nippin and scartin’s Scots fowk’s wooin.” “The Scots as a nation are passionately addicted to argument.” “The Scots argue not to find a compromise but in order to disagree, to make their point, to assert their rugged independence and individuality. It is an innate tendency to challenge blind acceptance.” Disputatious for the sake of it, “the fervid Scottish delight in arguing – with themselves if no other opponent is available – ” is prevalent in the works of Scott, the first Scottish writer who endowed landscape with a life of its own to the extent of making it one of the protagonists in his novels. (Wittig’s italics.) Landscape in Scott is much more than mere background, it is a formative influence.

James Thomson the younger wrestled with sin and guilt, and repeatedly saw himself as two separate personalities: “I was twain,/Two selves distinct that cannot join again;/One stood apart and knew but could not stir” typical of the emotional and intellectual dualism of Scots – the “Caledonian Antisyzygy” – which may have arisen due to coming to use one language to express thought, another to express feeling.

In the context of why a Scots tale seems to need a sharply portrayed character to tell it Wittig quotes Robert Louis Stevenson as saying, “the English speak with less interest and conviction, while the Scot puts his whole personality into it” and asks, “Is there any such thing as an absolute detached prose in Scots? Is it indeed, possible?”

Wittig occasionally casts aspersions. He calls William McGonagall the “shabbiest of public-house rhymesters” and says that here it is “not rock-bottom that we touch…. that would suggest something solid; with him, poetry is irretrievably sunk in mire,” while John Buchan’s English verse “reads like exercises in a foreign language.”

He notes how many Scots poets do not mention the sea at all. Neither do most writers of prose. (This may well, though, be related to the lack of fishing till well on in the eighteenth century.)

Drink is “a gateway to a new kind of world that provides distortion, new perspectives, and surprising insights.” Wittig says, “I do not know of any other country in which is found a similar attitude to drink: but when Magnus Merriman speaks of this violent Scotland with its hard drinking as a country worth living in and refashioning it reminds me at once of several Scottish acquaintances, poets and others.”

J Leslie Mitchell (Lewis Grassic Gibbon) produces the effect of a “reality that is both subjective and communal. This is the culmination of the inherently dramatic character of Scots, for all the time somebody is imagined to be speaking – or letting his thinking become audible – though his identity may not be specified.” A person can view himself as “you.”

This is a magnificent book. Wittig’s knowledge of his subject appears encyclopaedic, his insights are sharp, his advocacy of the existence of such a thing as a Scottish tradition in literature and his demonstration of its importance and enduring relevance a stirring redress to those who would claim otherwise.

Pedant’s corner:- Reflexion (reflection,) connexion (connection,) medieval, irreverance (irreverence, which appears four lines later!) simplyc alled (simply called,) for convenience’ sake (convenience’s sake,) sublter (subtler,) Blaweary (Blawearie.)

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.

The Thirty-Nine Steps by John Buchan

Penguin, 2007, 159 p. One of the 100 best Scottish books. Borrowed from a threatened library.

The 39 Steps cover

This is another story which, like Stevenson’s “Jekyll and Hyde” being familiar from film and television, people perhaps think they know.

In it, Richard Hannay begins as a bored ex-patriate in London who perhaps should have been careful what he wished for. His upstairs neighbour, who calls himself Franklin P Scudder, a man who refers to “the Jew” being behind the conspiracy he regales Hannay with, begs for shelter in Hannay’s flat for a few days till he can thwart said conspiracy. But of course Hannay returns to the flat one day to find Scudder dead and so has to flee under suspicion of murder. The majority of the novel then consists in Hannay being chased around southern Scotland in what is now Dumfries and Galloway getting into and out of various scrapes and predicaments which are sometimes evaded too handily, meanwhile solving the puzzle of the thirty-nine steps and disrupting the plans of his adversaries of the Black Stone. It all rattles along at a glorious pace without much pause for thought and incidentally allows descriptions of the landscape he flees through; a common Scottish authorial trait.

Unlike all three film adaptations I have seen – and the most recent TV one – there is not a woman companion in sight. Barring a wifie who provides shelter to Hannay one night there aren’t any women at all. It does, though, have the merit of being able to be read quickly.

I can only think that this creeps into that 100 best list for historical reasons. It has no literary pretensions. Buchan himself, in his preface (addressed to Thomas Arthur Nelson) refers to it as “the type of tale which Americans call the ‘dime novel,’ and which we know as the ‘shocker’”.

Once again the prose shows itself to be of its time: as in John Macnab, there are several unflattering mentions of Jews not in particular but as a type, and a “you’re a white man”, plus also here a Greek is referred to as a dago.

I note, too, a “minutes later” count of six or seven.

Pedant’s corner:- There were several editions at the library (they’re running a Buchan competition.) I chose this one because I liked the 1930s style of its cover. Yet the book was first published in 1915. Moreover the biplane is wrong. The text several times emphasises that Hannay is being chased by a monoplane. Buluwayo (Bulawayo,) Liepsic (context suggested Liepzig,) jiffey (jiffy,) – were these words spelled that way in the 1910s? – rung (rang,) whiskys (whiskies,) Karolides’ (Karolides’s.)

John Macnab by John Buchan

Polygon, 2007, 274 p (+ v p introduction by Andrew Greig.) Returned to a threatened library.

 John Macnab cover

I would not normally have picked this up but when I saw the cover and that the introduction was by Andrew Greig I realised his The Return of John Macnab (on my tbr pile) must have some relation to this original, first published in 1924.

In it, three professional men, one a Cabinet minister, all bored with their lives, get together as “John Macnab” to send out a challenge to three Highland landowners that they will poach a stag or salmon on their land, remove it, then later return it, with money for charity depending on the result either way. The book is merely the unravelling of this premise and the delineation of the incidents which occur in its prosecution. It does give a peek at the huntin’, shootin’, fishin’ brigade of the Western Highlands in the 1920s.

It is none of the three gentlemen however who is the book’s most rounded and intriguing character. That accolade belongs to Janet Raden, daughter of the owner of one of the estates to which “Macnab” issued his challenge. To their host Sir Archibald Roylance, who has fallen tongue-tiedly in love with her, she at one point says that the old aristocracy is dying because it deserves to, “We’ve long ago lost our justification.” However, in his introduction Greig says of her, “Like all Buchan’s good women she is essentially a chap,” a view to which there is more than a grain of truth.

It is not too surprising in a book concerned with field sports that descriptions of landscape should be prominent but this also places it in common with a swath of Scottish writing.

The authorial voice perhaps pokes through when we are told that “It is a melancholy fact which exponents of democracy must face that, while all men may be on a level in the eyes of the State, they will continue in fact to be preposterously unequal.” Here meaning if you’re used to ordering others – or being ordered – that affects how your actions are perceived and acted on.

To those of delicate dispositions I ought to say that – indications of the attitudes of the times in which it was written – there is more than one mention of Jews as being either fond of money or influential, an instance of the word “nigger,” and an utterance of the phrase, “I’m a white man, I am,” as an assertion of integrity.

The book is not really more than an adventure story. It will be interesting to see what Greig makes of the premise.

Pedant’s corner:- The Miss Radens (The Misses Raden.)

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