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Bookshelf Travelling For Insane Times

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

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

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

Scottish Books 1

Scottish Books 2

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

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.)

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.

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