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Wild Harbour by Ian Macpherson

British Library, 2019, 220 p, including a v p Introduction by Timothy C Baker, and Wild September a vi p article by MacPherson. First published in 1936. Reviewed for Interzone 290-291, Summer 2021.

 Wild Harbour cover

In the mid- to late twentieth century Science Fiction by Scottish authors was all but invisible. Only four names spring to mind as being much in evidence at the time; J T McIntosh (who did though manage to publish over 20 SF novels,) Angus McVicar – whose output was aimed at YA readers (such books were called juvenile at the time) – and a reprint in the early 1960s of David Lindsay’s 1920 novel A Voyage to Arcturus, which despite its impeccably Science-Fictional title was arguably more of a fantasy than SF as such. Alasdair Gray produced his monumental Lanark in 1981 but that was such a unique novel (or four novels) that it hardly represented a trend or a model practicable to aspire to. And again it leaned towards fantasy, though some of his short stories were more recognisably SF. A tendency towards fantasy and horror in Scottish fiction had always been present – taking in George MacDonald’s Lilith etc and some of Robert Louis Stevenson’s stories (notably of course The Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde) – as was the tale of the supernatural or, at least, encounters with the devil, whose origins go back even further than Victorian times. Forty to fifty years ago though, of evidence of SF either in that present or from earlier decades, there was barely a trace, neither as reprints nor on library shelves. Not until Polygon’s republishing of the novels of Lewis Grassic Gibbon – some of them published originally under his real name of J Leslie Mitchell – did I become aware that there had indeed been a Scottish tradition of writing SF before the appearance of Iain (M) Banks. Ken Macleod swiftly followed him. That dam having been broken by their success in the field, there are as of now a fair few Scots active in the genre.

With Ian Macpherson’s Wild Harbour, the British Library, whose new editions of British Crime Classics from the 1930s have brightened up bookshop shelves with vibrant Art Deco style covers redolent of the railway posters of that decade, has pulled another long languishing work of Scottish Science Fiction out of obscurity.

The book was written in the shadow of the looming Second World War. In it, something has happened in Europe and war has been declared, exactly what and between whom is unspecified. The novel starts sometime after with protagonist Hugh and his wife Terry being woken up in the middle of the night by the sound (and sight) of gunfire in the distance, towards Inverness. It soon becomes obvious they are taking refuge in a cave – the text goes on to lay out how well they had customised it to the requirements of living in the wild – as an escape and hiding place from the outside world. Hugh had had no inclination to fight in a war, had refused to follow the instructions of his call-up papers and the pair made off into the country to fend for themselves. Despite his aversion to war Hugh nevertheless has to kill animals to survive, hunting deer, fishing, snaring the odd rabbit.

The text takes the form of diary entries by Hugh with chapter titles which usually consist only of dates (from 15 May 1944 – 11 October) except for the final one, Night. Oddly, despite numerous mentions of salting of deer for the winter, when October comes we are told they have run out of meat.

In an observation on modern humans’ capacity to get by unaided that has even more relevance these days Hugh remembers an acquaintance from before the war telling him, “Our senses are blunted. We depend on a multitude of people to make our clothes and food and tools for us. We have noses that can’t smell, ears that are deaf -”

The pair’s struggle to survive and maintain their seclusion is threatened by human intruders into their surroundings, intruders whose shadowy nature and motivations only heighten the sense of threat. In this context Wild Harbour prefigures British SF’s “cosy” catastrophes of the 1950s.

The Introduction tells us, “Place is formative in all Macpherson’s novels, but the human relationship with place is never an easy one.” That is a statement that could be made about the Scottish novel in general. Another Scottish novelistic trait displayed here is a close attention to depiction of the land.

The writing is of its time, though, and the feel very reminiscent of Gibbon’s slightly earlier SF novels Three Go Back and Gay Hunter, both of which involve sojourns in almost deserted countryside, but also of John Buchan’s John Macnab, (plus there is the merest whiff of Geoffrey Household’s Rogue Male.) Macpherson, however, has an absurd overfondness for the phrase “commenced to” and from the perspective of over 80 years after publication it is noticeable that Terry’s contribution to the pair’s survival is confined almost entirely to the domestic sphere, within the cave.

In valediction, Macpherson offers us the thought that, “We are victors over fate when we choose well, though it destroy us.”

A subsequent article by Macpherson, entitled Wild September, which was published in September 1940, rounds off this edition, and in it he reflects on the actual war which started in 1939.

As Science Fiction, though, Wild Harbour on balance falls down. Its background is too sketchy and there is no real necessity for such a story to be placed in a putative future (except for the international situation at the time it was written.) It could as easily have been a present-day narrative with a more mundane reason than dodging conscription for escaping to the hills. However, that might be argued to be an unwarranted criticism as it projects twenty-first century ideas onto an older text and a work of SF is always about the time it was written, never the future. As a historical curiosity and a reminder that SF by Scottish writers has an extended history Wild Harbour is welcome. Modern SF readers, though, might prefer more meat on its bones.

Pedant’s corner:- in the Introduction; “depictions of violence in books bears little relation to” (depictions …. bear little relationship to.) Elsewhere; a lower case letter at the start of a sentence after a question mark at the end of the previous one, ditto after an exclamation mark, digged (dug,) “‘there didn’t use to be’” (used to be,) a switch of tense from past to present then back, “where I sunk his rifle” (where I had sunk his rifle,)

Project Completed (Almost)

Two posts ago I listed my review of Robert Alan Jamieson’s A Day at the Office, one of the 100 Best Scottish books.

That makes it just about all of the fiction on that list that I have now read, plus the non-fiction The Golden Bough

The only exceptions are The Wind in the Willows (which I believe I did read as a child but can’t remember actually doing so,) the J K Rowling Harry Potter book (which I won’t be reading) and Trainspotting, which along with Lewis Grassic Gibbon’s Sunset Song has appeared on all the lists of Scottish books* which I have covered over the past few years.

Since it was written in Gaelic I’ve also not read An Oidhche Mus Do Sheòl Sinn (The Night Before We Sailed) by Aonghas Pàdraig Caimbeul (Angus Peter Campbell.)

I feel a sense of satisfaction at not only having tracked down these books but finally reading them.

I have seen the film of Trainspotting, which did not encourage me to read the book. I suppose that is a bullet I must bite sometime though.

*As well as the 100 Best there were:-
The Scotsman’s 20 Scottish Books Everyone Should Read (from 2005.)
The Herald’s 100 Best Scottish Fiction Books
Scotland’s Favourite Book

Bookshelf Travelling for Insane Times – Lewis Grassic Gibbon

This will be my final entry for Judith’s meme now collated by Katrina.

This one concentrates on Scotland’s best writer of the twentieth century; J Leslie Mitchell, better known as Lewis Grassic Gibbon.

Boks by Lewis Grassic Gibbon

Here you’ll find his classic A Scots Quair, whose first instalment, Sunset Song, is the best Scottish novel of the past 150 years plus.

Also present are his two Science Fiction novels Three Go Back and Gay Hunter, his historical novel Spartacus, two other novels, two collections of shorter stories and a history book, Nine Against the Unknown, recounting the voyages of various explorers.

Another collection of his shorter fiction Smeddum is on my tbr pile as is A Scots Hairst, which contains non-fiction pieces.

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.

Persian Dawns, Egyptian Nights by Lewis Grassic Gibbon

Polygon, 1998, 274 p, plus vi p Introduction (The Other Grassic Gibbon) by Ian Campbell and 3p Foreword (Good Wine) by J D Beresford.

 Persian Dawns, Egyptian Nights  cover

This edition was published as by Lewis Grassic Gibbon but originally saw the light in 1932 under the author’s real name J Leslie Mitchell. It is divided into two sections.

Persian Dawns is a series of tales supposedly mediated (and commented on) by our author from archive manuscripts in the Monastery of Mevr, written by Neesan Nerses, a Nestorian bishop of the 1200s, stories he called the Polychronicon.
I The Lost Constituent is the tale of Islam’s greatest General, Mirza Malik Berkhu, who comes back to Baghdad after his latest triumph to be told by the Caliph to sequester himself. He spends the next ten years in pursuit of the secret of eternal youth but is rudely interrupted by the Mongols.
II The Lovers are two men, one a Christian mercenary, Hormizd, son of Bishop Nerses, saved from slaughter at the hands of the Mongols by the other, a chief of the Outer Horde, who is later imprisoned for his pains, but set free by Hormizd as the Mongols return home. Theirs is a complicated relationship but it endures.
III The Floods of Spring is again set after the sack of Baghdad. A deputation from a Christian village on the Euphrates comes to the bishop at Alarlu to ask for a priest as theirs had been killed. The bishop returns with them to rouse the villagers both from their torpor and from the influence of Zeia and Romi, two wanderers who had turned up in the Mongols’ aftermath, to rebuild the dams that the Mongols destroyed.
IV The Last Ogre lives in a cleft in the rocks in the mountains of the Kablurz Beg where the bishop’s daughter, Amima, effective manager of Alarlu while her father pores over his manuscripts, had gone hunting despite his refusal of permission. The Beg is said to be the haunt not only of wild animals but also strange mythical demons. Having lost her weapons and horse in an encounter with a lion Amima finds shelter with the creature, a last vestige of prehistoric times.
V Cartaphilus is a cyclic tale; of Baisan Evid, imprisoned in a lightless dungeon for consorting with the Caliph’s favourite, Miriam. He has a companion in the darkness, eventually revealed as Cartaphilus, the denier of Christ, Wandering Jew of Christian legend. On his release, fired with a desire to persuade Cartaphilus of Christ’s godhood and so precipitate the Second Coming, Evid roams the Middle-Eastern world in search of Cartaphilus, via the tomb of Doubting Thomas among other places, before returning to Baghdad and a different realisation.
VI Dawn in Alarlu might have been crafted to counterpoint the biblical phrase What shall it profit a man though he gain the whole world and lose his own soul? as the bishop’s daughter takes the side of a monk escaped from the monastery where he was taken as a child and subjected to its harsh discipline. By escaping he stood to lose his soul; but he had gained the world.

The stories in Egyptian Nights are listed alternately under the titles of two poems by John Keats, L’Allegro and Il Penseroso. All the L’Allegro stories are prefaced by the same paragraph of introduction and are as-told-by tales which Sergie Lubow, a former White Russian, relates to our unnamed narrator. The Il Pensero stories are more straightforwardly written.

L’Allegro
I Amber in Cold Sea tells of Gavril Dan’s escape from the Crimea as the Bolsheviks took over and how that relates to the couple Lubow and our narrator see coming out of a taxi one Cairo night.
Il Penseroso
II Revolt. The same night as his sick son Hassan’s life hangs in the balance, Rejeb ibn Saud is to give the final exhortation to a crowd before a projected uprising. He resolves to encourage or condemn the revolt according to the message he will receive as to his son’s survival.
L’Allegro
III Camelia Comes to Cairo. Camelia is a woman who had left London under the cloud of a common complaint five years earlier, then studied medicine in Dresden, before coming to Cairo as it needed a female doctor. She has to prove her worth to Lubow’s friend Adrian – and his catty sister.
Il Penseroso
IV Dienekes’ Dream tells of how a street in Cairo came to have ϴΕΜΟΠΥLΑΙ inscribed on its wall, the site of a last stand against eviction by Greek immigrants who had settled on a midden and turned the site into a thriving weaving concern.
L’Allegro
V Siwa Plays the Game. Lubow tells of his commissioning by an English author of novels set in Egypt (a place said author had never visited) to show him the real Egypt. When this reality fails to live up to the author’s imaginings – too mundane, too squalid – Lubow and his Egyptian guide determine to furnish him with what he desires.
Il Penseroso
VI The Children of Ceres is a kind of Good Samaritan story, with everyone passing a poor old woman in the street until one woman recognises her.

All the stories are accomplished enough in themselves but could perhaps have done without the ‘throat-clearing’ introductions. Very little hint of Gibbon’s Scottishness shows through. But that is as it should be, given their settings. But Gibbon is never less than readable.

Sensitive souls should note that the text contains the word “nigger”.

Pedant’s corner:- In the Introduction; Wells’ (Wells’s,) Nerses’ (Nerses’s.) Otherwise; Nerses’ (Nerses’s,) noice (noise,) Tigris’ (Tigris’s,) Dienekes’ (Dienekes’s)stratagem (stratagem,) staunching (stanching,)

Scottish Short Stories Edited by Theodora and J F Hendry

Penguin, 1945, 123 p.

Scottish Short Stories cover

The back cover says this book was mostly edited by Theodora Hendry but she was killed in the London Blitz. The criteria for selection in the volume was Scottish stories with a Scottish setting or else it “would almost certainly have assumed an international aspect.”
The first, The Coasts of Normandy by George Blake, is the story of a tragedy which befell the narrator’s childhood friend and its effect on the child’s mother as reflected through the prism of a chance encounter with a stranger many years later on the coast of Normandy. It takes a slightly circuitous route to its revelation (which the reader intuits well before the narrative gets there) but this allows for such thoughts as, “The simple feel as warmly as the clever and the learned.” Another of its observations is a reminder that, for some soldiers at least, the Great War was not only a horrific trial and ordeal but also an opportunity to remake their lives in its aftermath.
In A Sunday Visit by Colm Brogan two boys are dragged along by their mother to the Mortons’ house, where the family has just suffered a bereavement. Amid all the whispering, the boys are left to their own devices.
A Hike to Balerno by Ronald McDonald Douglas sees two boys on the titular hike, the escapades they get up to, the banter between them, “daft, just plain daft.”
Clay by Lewis Grassic Gibbon is the story of Robert Galt, a man from a chancy background who takes a farm and devotes all his time to it, to the neglect of his wife and his daughter’s prospects.
Beattock for Moffat by R B Cunninghame Graham tells of the last journey of a dying Scot on the train up from London with his cockney wife and his brother come to take him home to die. The author observes of the accomodations married couples make with each other that “usually … good points, seen through prejudice of race, religion, and surroundings, appear … defects,” and refers to the Cockney wife’s reticence being explained by, “the English theory, that unpleasant things should not be mentioned, and that, by this means, they can be kept at bay.” The prose evidences that Scottish authors’ eye for landscape.
In The Sea by Neil M Gunn a twelve-year-old overcomes his fears, staggering through the night down to the harbour to witness the perilous return of his father’s and brother’s boats during a great storm. Here it is seascape (or land-meets-sea-scape) which the descriptive powers bring to life.
J F Hendry’s Chrysalis is a fragment of the childhood of a boy who wants to be good but fears he is bad because he sometimes is too enthusiastic in his activities.
Clock-a-Doodle-Doo by Willa Muir is set in a room full of clocks (all wag-at-the-wa’) which can speak to each other, having theological discussions over whether the Son or Moon is the primum mobile and aspiring to Pure Horological Thought.
Neil Munro’s The Lost Pibroch could be characterised as a Scottish version of the Pied Piper of Hamelin. Two pipers come to Half-Town. After a night of musical vying with the blind piper there he finally plays them the titular pibroch he “got from a man in Moideart.” It has “something of the heart’s longing and the curious chances of life” and sets up a wanderlust in those who hear it.
In The Matinee by Fred Urquhart a fifteen-year-old newly graduated into long trousers reverts to shorts to get into the cinema more cheaply, dragging his younger brother along for corroboration. Engrossed in a film where a factory owner exploiting the workers is presented as virtuous he fails to acknowledge his brother’s increasing personal discomfiture.
Eric Linklater’s Kind Kitty is an old woman who likes a drink, then dies through lack of it a few days after throwing a party for Hogmanay. She inveigles her way into heaven but finds the company there uncongenial, and the beer far too poor.

Pedant’s corner:- a missing full stop, “brigh” (is missing a final ‘t’,) missing commas before pieces of direct speech.

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.)

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