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Alasdair Gray

Sad, sad news.

Alasdair Gray has died.

If he had never done anything else in his life his first novel Lanark (arguably four novels) would have made him the most important Scottish writer of the twentieth century’s latter half, if not the whole century. (Perhaps only Lewis Grassic Gibbon rivals him in that respect.)

But of course he published 8 more novels, the last of which I read in 2009, 4 books of short stories – see this review of one of them – 3 of poetry (I reviewed a couple here and here,) many pieces for theatre, radio and television plus books of criticism (as here) and commentary (eg see here).

Yet that was not the least of it. There is also his work as an artist and illustrator to take into account. His drawing/painting style was unique and uniquely recognisable; much admired and sought after.

A polymath and curmudgeon, learned and contrary, Gray was one of a kind.

Even as his work lives on we will miss his acerbic presence.

And I still have his The Book of Prefaces to peruse.

Alasdair Gray: 28/12/1934 – 29/12/2019. So it goes.

Another List

I recently came across this list of ten of the best Scottish fiction books. (A bit late I must admit. It was produced five years ago by the Irish Times on the eve of the Scottish Independence Referendum.)

The ones in bold I have read.

The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie by Muriel Spark (1961)
The Girls of Slender Means by Muriel Spark (1963)
Lanark by Alasdair Gray (1981)
The Wasp Factory by Iain Banks (1984)
The Trick is to Keep Breathing by Janice Galloway (1989)
Swing Hammer Swing! by Jeff Torrington (1992)
Trainspotting by Irvine Welsh (1993)
Morvern Callar by Alan Warner (1995)
Black and Blue by Ian Rankin (1997)
Day by A L Kennedy (2007)

Most of the usual suspects appear here. Trainspotting is the only one I haven’t read.

The list seems to be biased towards more modern novels. Remarkable for its absence is Lewis Grassic Gibbon’s Sunset Song (now nearly 100 years old, however.) I doubt that’s an omission any such list produced in Scotland would make, though.

Scotland’s Art Deco Heritage 51: Laurencekirk

Laurencekirk is a small town in the former Kincardineshire in north-east Scotland, now administratively part of Aberdeenshire. We dropped by there on our way up to the cup tie at Peterhead last year (which sadly was postponed so I missed one of our few wins last season.)

Kincardineshire lies in the Mearns, so splendidly delineated in the fiction of Lewis Grassic Gibbon who lived in nearby Arbuthnot.

I was quite surprised to see a minor example of Art Deco there, Hantons Garage:-

Hantons, Laurencekirk

Frontage. Stepped roofline, rule of three in central first floor windows:-

Hantons, Laurencekirk Frontage

Clearly no longer in use as a garage but the Clydesdale Bank sign marks the presence of a cashpoint so it seems it still serves the town:-

Hantons, Laurencekirk Again

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 Thirteenth Disciple by J Leslie Mitchell (Lewis Grassic Gibbon)

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

 The Thirteenth Disciple cover

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

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

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

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

Scotland’s Favourite Book Update

You may have noticed from my sidebar I am currently reading Val McDermid’s The Wire in the Blood.

This is my latest from the list of Scotland’s Favourite Books I posted about here.

Of the thirty books shown there that will be 27 I will have read, the only exceptions being:
An Oidhche Mus Do Sheol Sinn (The Night Before We Sailed) by Angus Peter Campbell which being written in Gaelic I could not attempt except in translation,
Harry Potter & the Philosopher’s Stone by J.K. Rowling, which simply does not appeal to me, and
Trainspotting by Irvine Welsh.

That last is, along with Lewis Grassic Gibbon’s Sunset Song, one of only two books to appear on all four lists of Scottish books I have slowly been working my way through.
(The other lists are:- the 100 best Scottish Books; the Herald’s “100” best Scottish Fiction Books; the Scotsman’s 20 Scottish Books Everyone Should Read.)

I have long doubted that Trainspotting could be as good as Sunset Song and have so far resisted its charms. One day I suppose I’ll bite that bullet but for now The Wire in the Blood is the last from this particular list.

The Weatherhouse by Nan Shepherd

Canongate, 2017, 211 p, including 3 p Glossary: plus ii p Dramatis Personae and vi p Introduction. First published 1930.

 The Weatherhouse cover

I don’t normally pick up a book according to its cover but I did in this case. It helped that the novel was by Nan Shepherd whose The Quarry Wood I enjoyed a year or so ago. Yet I was also attracted by the illustration which is almost in the style of a 1930s railway poster – a very Art Deco form – even down to the lettering. The house shown is actually wrong though; in two ways. It is much more of an English type of building rather than Scottish and it bears no relation at all to the hexagonal construction described in the text. Pretty, just the same.

That titular Weatherhouse is the home in Fetter-Rothnie of the Craigmyle family, which consists of matriarch Lang Leeb plus her daughters Annie, Theresa and the widowed Ellen. The story though, is more to do with how Garry Forbes, the intended of Lindsay Lorimer, in turn the daughter of Andrew, Lang Leeb’s cousin, came to become a proverb in Fetter-Rothnie.

The former Minister’s daughter, Louie Morgan, claimed after Forbes’s friend David Grey had died in the Great War that she and Grey had been secretly betrothed and carries Grey’s mother’s ring about her neck as proof. Forbes, home from the war as a convalescent, is convinced that can not be the case. He attempts, first to bring the falseness of Louie’s claim to the attention of the Kirk Session (which upsets Lindsay) and then to prevent his knowledge of Louie’s theft of the ring becoming more widely apprehended.

Despite what appears to be a focus on small matters The Weatherhouse nevertheless has a wider resonance, and has some humorous observations. The incidental mention of the man who, because of his brother, waited twenty years to wed his fiancée (who nevertheless brought him children “as a wedding gift”) shows life in those times was not entirely as straight-laced as might perhaps be thought.

Human dilemmas and emotions occur in all places and at all times. Shepherd shows us the humanity of her characters, in all their complexity. This is a fine companion piece to The Quarry Wood. Both these novels bear some similarities to Lewis Grassic Gibbon’s Sunset Song and Cloud Howe but don’t quite have the sweep of the first of those.

Pedant’s corner:- Amy Liptrot’s introduction says Shepherd’s writing is very localised to the foothills of the Grampian mountains and quotes two of the words she uses, stravaigin and collieshangie as being specific to that area. Stravaigin certainly has no such specificity.
In the glossary: keeing (keeking,) snored (smored.) Otherwise: “you’re as light ’s a feather” (light’s,) knit (knitted,) chose (choose,) “a moment before made up on her sister on the road” (before she made up,) a missing comma before a start quote mark.

The Scotsman’s 20 Scottish Books Everyone Should Read

This is a list which was published in 2005.

Again those in bold I have read. 11 out of the 20. Most of the rest are on my “to be read” list for this year.

Driftnet by Lin Anderson
Sunset Song by Lewis Grassic Gibbon
The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie by Muriel Spark*
Knots and Crosses by Ian Rankin*
Buddha Da by Anne Donovan*
Whisky Galore by Compton Mackenzie*

44 Scotland Street by Alexander McCall Smith
Boswell’s Edinburgh Journals
Trainspotting by Irvine Welsh
Selected Poems of Carol Ann Duffy
Greenvoe by George Mackay Brown*
Kidnapped by Robert Louis Stevenson
Lanark by Alasdair Gray*

The Missing by Andrew O’Hagan
New Selected Poems by Edwin Morgan
The Wasp Factory by Iain Banks*
Young Adam by Alexander Trocchi*

Waverley by Sir Walter Scott
The Cone-Gatherers by Robin Jenkins*
Divided City by Theresa Breslin

Again we find Sunset Song and Trainspotting; the two constants in such lists.

Progress in Scottish Reading

A suitable post for St Andrew’s Day.

You may have noticed on my sidebar that I am reading Neil M Gunn’s Young Art and Old Hector.

This is one of The Herald’s “100” best Scottish Fiction Books.

Of the thirty books that were actually listed on that now defunct web page this means I will now have read twenty-nine (having made that my Scottish reading project for the year.)

The only one from that Herald list I have so far missed is Trainspotting by Irvine Welsh, which has appeared on all four lists I’ve been working from* – a distinction it shares only with the otherwise incomparable Sunset Song by Lewis Grassic Gibbon.

For some reason I have a reluctance to tackle Welsh’s book. I have seen the film that was made from it and wasn’t overly enthused. I’ll get round to it sometime.

*Those four lists:-
100 best Scottish Books;
The Herald’s “100” best Scottish Fiction Books;
Scotland’s favourite books;
and The Scotsman’s 20 Scottish Books Everyone Should Read (from 2005.)
This last is the one I shall be working from next year. I’ll post the list in the new year.

Scotland’s Favourite Book

In a programme on BBC 1 Scotland last night the results of a poll to discover Scotland’s favourite book were announced.

These were apparently voted on from a long list of thirty books.

As usual the titles marked in bold I have read; italics are on my tbr pile.The ones marked by a strike-through I may get round to sometime.

An Oidhche Mus Do Sheol Sinn (The Night Before We Sailed) by Angus Peter Campbell
Garnethill by Denise Mina
Harry Potter & The Philosopher’s Stone by J.K. Rowling
How Late It Was, How Late by James Kelman
Imagined Corners by Willa Muir
Knots & Crosses by Ian Rankin
Laidlaw by William McIlvanney
Lanark by Alasdair Gray
Life After Life by Kate Atkinson
Morvern Callar by Alan Warner
Rob Roy by Sir Walter Scott
So I Am Glad by A.L. Kennedy
Sunset Song by Lewis Grassic Gibbon

The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes by Arthur Conan Doyle
The Cone Gatherers by Robin Jenkins
The Cutting Room by Louise Welsh
The Panopticon by Jenni Fagan
The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie by Muriel Spark
The Private Memoirs and Confessions of a Justified Sinner by James Hogg
The Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde by Robert Louis Stevenson
The Testament of Gideon Mack by James Robertson
The Thirty-Nine Steps by John Buchan
The Trick is to Keep Breathing by Janice Galloway

The Vanishing Act of Esme Lennox by Maggie O’Farrell
The Wasp Factory by Iain Banks
The White Bird Passes by Jessie Kesson

The Wire in the Blood by Val McDermid
Trainspotting by Irvine Welsh
Trumpet by Jackie Kay
Under the Skin by Michel Faber

Thanks to my working through of the 100 best Scottish Books and the Herald’s “100” best Scottish Fiction Books I have read nineteen of these, with two on the tbr and others maybe to consider.

I suspect that in the fullness of time some of the more modern of them will fall away from public affection.

My strike rate for the final top ten was 7/10. The list (in descending order) was:-

10. The Private Memoirs and Confessions of a Justified Sinner by James Hogg
9. The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle
8. Knots & Crosses by Ian Rankin
7. Trainspotting by Irvine Welsh
6. Harry Potter & The Philosopher’s Stone by J K Rowling
5. The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie by Muriel Spark
4. The Thirty-Nine Steps by John Buchan
3. Lanark by Alasdair Gray
2. The Wasp Factory by Iain Banks
1. Sunset Song by Lewis Grassic Gibbon

I am particularly pleased that James Hogg’s The Private Memoirs and Confessions of a Justified Sinner made it here and the strong showing of Alasdair Gray was also welcome. Personally I don’t think The Wasp Factory is Iain Banks’s best book but only one from each author was on the long list.

Gibbon’s Sunset Song was the one I predicted to the good lady would come first. Since its publication it has been an enduring favourite with Scottish readers.

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