Archives » Religion

The Towers of Trebizond by Rose Macaulay

Flamingo, 1990, 283 p. First published in 1956.

The Towers of Trebizond cover

Reading this was an odd experience. It is couched as a first person memoir of a trip to Turkey by narrator Laurie who is accompanying her Aunt Dot (plus camel) and her companion, the very high Church Father Hugh Chantry-Pigg, both of whom wish to convert the natives to Christianity. Their camel steps are dogged by Seventh Day Adventists desirous of witnessing the Second Coming on Mount Ararat, spies who may not be spies, Billy Grahamites, and a BBC van recording the singing of the inhabitants. As a narrator Laurie has a very chatty style, it is as if she is talking to the reader, yet everything is considered and the sentences are beautifully balanced. The narration is interspersed with diversions on all sorts of topics, religion foremost among them – pages 4 and 5 present a potted history of Anglicanism, and there are more such discursions – but also ruminations on Laurie’s life, which seems to be provisional, in a kind of limbo. The chattiness can be engaging but also wearing. In the guise of Laurie, Macaulay is excessively fond of the word “and”. Lists joined by it abound; in one paragraph there must have been at least twenty instances.) The whole for a long time seems like little more than entertainment, a comic novel with only its lightness to recommend it.

Yet there are serious aspects. Both the redoubtable Aunt Dot and Laurie display that peculiar English attitude to religion, which simultaneously treats it as a serious matter but at the same time, secure in the knowledge that theirs is the best possible, is very off-hand about it. Dot is much exercised by the position of Muslim women, one exemplar of which, Dr Halide Tenpinar, reluctant to marry a Muslim man for the lack of expression that will entail, joins the expedition for a while. Dot remembers the good old days, when travelling was only for those and such as those. At one point she laments, “‘Abroad isn’t at all what it was,’” while Laurie feels that foreigners (ie tourists – of which she does not appear to consider herself to be one) only want to see the old things of a country, not the fruits of the country having got on which the locals are more keen to exhibit.

On an objection to a proposed foray into the Soviet Union Aunt Dot replies to the question whether that would condone its government, “if one started not condoning governments, one would have to give up travel altogether, and even remaining in Britain would be pretty difficult,” while on the suggestion that Turkish men would never accept freedom from dress restrictions for women as it might inflame their passions we have, “‘Men must learn to bridle their temptations’ said aunt Dot, always an optimist.” Those last three words certainly hit the target.

Having reached Trebizond, or Trabzon as it is in Turkish, (it has no towers, Laurie envisions them in a later dream she has of an ideal fantasy city) they go still further until Aunt Dot and Father Hugh venture off on their own and disappear – presumably over the border into the Soviet Union – and eventually become something of a minor press obsession. This is about the only eventful occurrence in the book apart from a small sub-plot concerning the theft of the work of a now-deceased writer by one of Laurie’s acquaintances. It is notable that these incidents are only relayed to us. Laurie is not directly involved in either of them.

Left to her own resources Laurie retraces her steps and goes on to travel with the camel round Asia Minor and the Levant. Reading the names Aleppo, Palmyra, Baalbek, Homs and Damascus as being safe places for a young(ish) Englishwoman to travel safely accompanied only by a camel is a reminder of how the world can change. This passage of the trip also lets Macaulay describe the early manifestations of what has become the enduring antipathy between Israelis and Palestinians.

Laurie’s wanderings give ample scope for reflection. Pondering the phrase “met his/her/its Waterloo” she remarks, “curious how we always seem to see Waterloo from the French angle and count it a defeat.” After a week spent with her (adulterous) lover Vere, Laurie continues her travels and her thoughts on religion grow deeper, “.. the Church, which grew so far, almost at once, from anything that can have been intended, and became so blood-stained and persecuting and cruel and war-like and made small and trivial things so important and tried to exclude everything not done in a certain way and by certain people, and stamped out heresies with such cruelty and rage. And this failure of the Christian Church, of every branch of it in every country, is one of the saddest things that has happened in all the world.”

As to the reliability of the Gospels – written after all long after the events they describe – she considers some things which might have been very important may have been forgotten or left out, and some things put in may have been wrong, “for some sound unlikely for him to have said. That is a vexatious thing about the Gospels. You cannot be sure what was said, unless you are a fundamentalist and must believe every word, or have an infallible Church.” There is “no need to be so drastic” as to take it or leave it “and few things are ever put down quite right, even at the time.”

A potential flaw is that Laurie’s lover Vere is something of an absence in the book. They meet rarely and none of what is said between them is revealed to us so we do not get a flavour of their relationship beyond that it exists. He only appears on the page in a speaking role once and that more or less as an aside, an adjunct to that sub-plot and in a piece of reported speech. As a result, what Laurie tells us at the end does not have the emotional pay-off it might have had. Macaulay is, perhaps, aiming for a pathos her book therefore hasn’t earned. On the other hand another way to look at it is that the whole thing is an exercise in displacement, a desperate enumeration of little things, ramblings and considerations of the nature of faith in order to avoid contemplation of the seriousness of life. Here we are again with love, sex and death. But while Macaulay – through Laurie – mentions them she rarely addresses them head on. As an authorial approach that is arguably very subtle but here runs the risk of early disengagement. Such considerations are in any case somewhat at odds with the generally light tone.

The Towers of Trebizond won the James Tait Black Memorial Prize in 1956. I would probably not have picked it up had the good lady not been working her way through as many of the winners as she can find. I’m glad I did though.

Pedant’s corner:- There are several 1950s spellings – Moslem, haarem, yoghourt, Irak, Erivan – but raise cheers for archæology/archæological and manœvre/manœvring (except why, then, penny-plain medieval?) Otherwise; aunt Dot is used throughout (as a relative Dot’s designation ought to be a proper noun, so Aunt Dot,) manicheeism (Manichaeism or Manicheism,) everthing (everything,) occasional commas omitted before a piece of direct speech, “‘as we had to often heard of it’” (too often,) “did not probably think it peculiar” (probably did not think it peculiar,) “once for all” (I’m more familiar with once and for all.)

The Screwtape Letters by C S Lewis

Letters from a senior to a junior Devil, Fount, 1991, 160 p (first published in 1942)

The Screwtape Letters cover

Many years ago, before we moved to Braintree, the good lady and I lived for a few months in Welwyn Garden City. We joined the library there and came across a book – which we both read and enjoyed – about angels and devils (and, I think, a war between Heaven and Hell.) Our recollection was, and is, that it was by someone reasonably well known, with a surname that began with a letter towards the end of the alphabet, but that the book wasn’t typical of his (it was a man) output. Since we moved from WGC we’ve never found the book elsewhere and can no longer remember its title nor who the author was.

When we heard of The Screwtape Letters both our thoughts were that, no, Lewis is too religiously minded to be the unknown author and his name does not begin with a letter in the latter half of the alphabet. I chanced upon this copy at a charity book sale and thought well, why not try it anyway?

The book is arranged as a series of epistles to “My Dear Wormwood” – the junior devil of the sub-title – all bar two of which are signed off with, “Your affectionate Uncle, Screwtape.” They outline Screwtape’s responses to Wormwood’s attempts to ensnare a soul and the various stratagems that may be employed for that purpose. In this Lewis highlights numerous human frailties and misconceptions, as he sees them. The whole thing is rather dry, coming over as an arid intellectual exercise, and strangely rooted in time by its many references to the “current European War.”

That book from Welwyn Garden City was funny and a delight. The Screwtape Letters is not.

Does my description of the WGC book strike a chord with anyone? Can you enlighten me as to its author and title? I’d like to read it again to see if it stands up to memory.

Pedant’s corner. All these despite this being a forty-fourth impression!:- dulness (that’s two books in a row now; did it used to be spelt that way?) strategem, in which a stranger self preyed upon a weaker (stronger self, surely?) “reckoning in light years” used as if a light year were a unit of time rather than distance, to watch a man doing something is not to make him to it (“make him do it” makes more sense,) a shell-like tetter (??? – tetter is a skin disease.)

the testament of Gideon Mack by James Robertson

Penguin, 2006, 386 p

Gideon Mack

From the first sentence of the framing device – a consideration by a publisher of a submission from a journalist – I felt on familiar territory; Scots Gothic. Echoes of Hogg’s Confessions Of A Justified Sinner – explicitly referred to in the main text – Stevenson’s Jekyll and Hyde and Angus McAllister’s Canongate Strangler abounded.

Yet this was something of a tease. The actual testament of the main narrator, Gideon Mack, a Church of Scotland minister, is a more or less straightforward contemporary tale of the unfolding of his life from childhood through adolescence, university and marriage with only the merest infiltration of weird when, out on a run, he encounters a standing stone that previously had not been there. Not till well into the book’s 386 pages do we encounter any darker mysteries.

Early on there is one glorious Scottish joke when Mack’s rigidly Presbyterian father allows television into the house in the mid 1960s in order to watch the news and football (but emphatically not any trashy American shows such as Gideon’s school friends enjoy) yet still treats it with suspicion, “and glowered at it in the parlour – as if it were only a matter of time before it did something outrageously offensive.” Which, of course, in 1966 it did.

At the book’s crux – the turning point of the story is actually revealed by the fictional publisher in the prologue part of the frame so this is not a spoiler- Mack falls into a gorge called the Black Jaws while trying to save a dog and disappears for three days during which time he later claims to have met the Devil.

Taken on its own, Mack’s testament, while an enjoyable account of his crabbed childhood, his unsatisfactory adult life and the compromises with his lack of faith which are implicit in his choice of profession, is not really Gothic enough to carry the central conceit. The framing prologue and epilogue do something towards redeeming this, but do not do so entirely.

Perhaps Robertson meant to contrast modern normality with the sudden incursion of the old certainties – a C of S minister who had talked with the Devil would have had no quibblers in earlier centuries – and to emphasise how the past lingers and lies in wait to trap us. However, the encounter with the Devil (if it was he) is almost matter of fact – with only two insertions of strangeness, one when Gideon hirples to a sort of manhole cover above what could be Hell but could be just as easily be magma and the other when the Devil heals Gideon’s damaged thigh by the laying in of hands. (Yes; not laying on.) These passages feel divorced from the remainder and do not sit well with the main thrust of Mack’s narrative even though he is supposed to be relating it all as a result of his experience. Though having read the prologue we know it is coming, in the testament the meeting with Satan is not really effectively foreshadowed, despite some retellings of an old myth about what may lie beneath the Black Jaws.

There are occasional footnotes where the publisher comments on various statements in Mack’s narrative. Some might find this irritating but I didn’t mind.

The epilogue signals that Mack’s testimony is unreliable. Do we really need this spelled out? He does claim to have met the Devil after all. (Speaking of spelling, I would like to know why, in a book by a Scotsman, from a British publisher, is “mediaeval” rendered in the American way?) The final paragraph may have been one twist too many, however.

In the end we can make up our own minds as to whether or not Mack was deranged or suggestible, or if he really did meet the Devil lurking somewhere below a Scottish gorge.

In sum the testament of Gideon Mack is not as impressive an achievement as Robertson’s The Fanatic but for anyone interested in contemporary Scottish fiction, or indeed Scots Gothic, it’s a worthy addition to the canon. And it is eminently readable. It did keep me turning the pages late at night.

The Fanatic by James Robertson

Fourth Estate, 2001

The Fanatic cover

I had a strange sensation when I started reading this book. It’s not as if I haven’t read novels using Scottish vernacular before so I don’t understand why its use in this book in particular should have made me feel quite so much like I was settling into a warm bath.

The temperature soon became hotter, however, as the novel skips between a more or less contemporary setting in Edinburgh and the Scotland of the Seventeenth Century, specifically the Covenanting times after the Restoration. Here the dialogue is in very “braid Scotch” indeed.

These chapters set in the 1670s are harder going, not just due to the language but also because the historical figures and events described have not been so thoroughly mined as others in Scottish history. (They were mostly unfamiliar to me at any rate.) The book is also notable for containing my first encounter in print, or as a noun, with the word “whang” which I had only met previously as a verb.

The Edinburgh sections are set just before the General Election of 1997, when Andrew Carlin is cajoled into taking part in one of those Ghost Tours of the Old Town, impersonating a Major Weir for whom he develops an instant interest and whose life he attempts to research.

Carlin is a loner, a bit of a misfit, who is nonetheless sympathetic. He talks to his mirror and it answers back, pithily and challengingly, so much so that Carlin begins to wonder if he is delusional, and so did this reader.

Researching Weir, Carlin comes upon the story of James Mitchel, a Seventeenth Century religious fanatic who attempted to assassinate the Bishop of St Andrews. There is a strange prefiguring here of our modern preoccupation with religious terrorists (the book was first published in 2000 and hence before Al Qaida came to general attention; perhaps Robertson sniffed the Zeitgeist.)

Since the twin narratives do not marry up till late on (though we know they must) the figure of Weir as Carlin’s primary focus initially seems disjointed, as it is Mitchel’s life story we are given in the 1670s sections, where Weir is only a marginal figure.

Robertson has done a power of research and the historical detail appeared to me to ring true but the multiplicity of Seventeenth Century characters at times made proceedings there difficult to follow.

The hard, religious certainties of the Seventeenth Century are thankfully not so prevalent in modern Scotland (though some remnants still exist.) The mindset of someone who will submit to torture for the sake of his beliefs is out of kilter with these self-interested times, in the Western world at any rate. This renders the motivations of some of the historical characters more opaque than the modern ones (though not less acceptable within the setting.) Others are just as venal and petty as in modern times. It is to Robertson’s credit that he can bring them all alive for us.

The past shown here is not a world where I would find it congenial to live. However, real world events subsequent to the book’s publication have made the incidents in the novel seem more timely; particularly those dealing with how people in power treat those who have none.

It is not a straightforward read but I would recommend “The Fanatic” to anyone with an interest in Scottish history and to the general literary reader; but sadly those without a Scottish background may struggle.

free hit counter script