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A Pass in the Grampians by Nan Shepherd

Part of “The Grampian Quartet,” Canongate, 1996, 120 p, plus vi p Introduction by Roderick Watson. First published in 1933.

 The Grampian Quartet cover

The village of Boggiewalls lies in the lee of the Grampians; beneath a pass through which various military commanders have travelled on their transitorily important campaigns. It is one of those deceptively sleepy communities wherein lie universal human dilemmas and dramas, hidden or otherwise.

From it the Kilgour family had spawned scholars. His three brothers had all gone off to University and made a place for themselves in the world but Andrew Kilgour had preferred to stay on the farm. The impact of two deaths, his wife’s and his son’s (in the Great War) had led his daughter Mary first to give up her ambition to follow in her uncles’ footsteps until the second provided the chance for the widow, Milly, to come, with her daughter Jenny, to tend to the house – allowing Mary to fulfil her desires, and eventually set up a typing school in London. Jenny is the apple of Andrew’s eye but, now she has grown, her friendship with elderly local shepherd, Durno, who lives with his spinster sister Alison, is seen as no longer seemly.

But now the return of well-known singer Dorabel Cassidy, the one-time Bella Cassie, whose mother Peggy had fallen to her death from a hayrick in Andrew’s farmyard and whose welfare he had seen to by taking her in as part of the family – leading to the inevitable gossip – before she took off to make her way in the wider world, her building a modern house within sight of the Kilgour farm, her unconventional behaviour, all threaten the delicate balance of the relationships in the village. Dorabel has a capacity to enthrall others. She has an artist, Barney, in tow, on a string, obedient to her every whim and Jenny, too, falls under her spell. Andrew Kilgour is less enamoured.

There is an awful lot packed into these 120 pages, a network of complications, obligations and acceptances. A whole existence of self-abnegation is summed up in a phrase relating to Milly’s “eternal grey jersey – this year’s, last year’s, sometime’s.” We all know uncomplaining women like this. And it is conveyed in just eight words.

Shepherd’s usual eye for landscape description is demonstrated and the economy with which the plot unfolds, we find the true reasons for Peggy’s death, and the real identity of Bella’s father is exemplary.

There is an aside on good Scots stories, “For salt and subtlety these ….. were unmatched, and, at their best, great art, in which, as in a perfect lyric, not a word could be altered.” You could say the same for Shepherd’s writing.

Pedant’s corner:- a missing comma before a piece of direct speech.

Children of the Dead-End by Patrick MacGill

Caliban, 1983, 310 p, plus ix p Introduction. First published in 1914. One of the 100 best Scottish Books.

Children of the Dead End cover

In some respects this is an odd choice of book for inclusion in that 100 best Scottish Books list. MacGill was Irish and the book starts off in Ireland with the early life story of Dermod Flynn, offspring of a poor family living off potatoes and buttermilk (with the occasional variation of buttermilk and potatoes.) When Dermod takes exception to his schoolmaster picking on him and hits him back, his schooling is over and he is packed off to be an agricultural hired hand – in effect, a slave for six months – so that he can send money back to his mother and father. But the majority of the book is set in Scotland to where Flynn decamps as a member of a gang of potato-pickers and ends up as a tramp until, via a stint on the railway, he joins the workforce building the aluminium works at Kinlochleven.

In the text MacGill affects to be giving us Flynn’s unvarnished autobiography, denying any artifice, explicitly stating that he has taken incidents from his (Flynn’s) life – though the assumption is that they are from MacGill’s own as his biography is all but identical – and written them down, but there is an organisation to them, a novelistic arrangement that belies such simplicity.

The itinerant life, the characters Flynn meets, are described in detail. The brutal existence of the life of a navvy, the arbitrary dangers it involved, admirably demonstrated. The only interests of the men of the gangs at Kinlochleven – outside working hours – are drinking, gambling and fighting one another. Somehow through all that Flynn learns to read, to jot down poems and incidents which he sends to a newspaper and whose acceptance is briefly parlayed into a job as a journalist in London. But the “civilised” life does not suit him.

However, at the core of the book is Flynn’s connection with Norah Ryan, a girl from his village of Crossmoran in Donegal, who came across to Scotland as part of the potato-picking gang but to whom Flynn neglected to pay attention as he fell into gambling and, consequently, she into a relationship with a farmer’s son which will not end well.

MacGill also brings out the ungratefulness of the general public who do not care about the dangers the navvies endured, the risks they took, but after they are laid off – all but en masse – only see itinerant wasters before them.

Flynn’s bitterness towards the church – both Catholic, in Ireland and Scotland, and Presbyterian in Scotland – is no doubt a reflection of MacGill’s own. “The church soothes those who are robbed and never condemns the robber, who is usually a pillar of Christianity….. To me the industrial system is a great fraud, and the Church which does not condemn it is unfaithful and unjust to the working people….. I have never yet heard of missions for the uplifting of MPs, or for the betterment of stock exchange gamblers; and these people need saving grace a great deal more than the poor untutored working men. But it is the nature of things that piety should preach to poverty on its shortcomings, and forget that even wealth may have sins of its own.” He goes on, “In all justice the lash should be laid on the backs of the employers who pay starvation wages, and the masters who fatten on sweated labour. The slavery of the shop and the mill is responsible for the shame of the street.”

In its unalloyed description of the life of the working man Children of the Dead End is of a piece with many works of Scottish literature, so maybe its place on that 100 Best list is justified after all.

Pedant’s corner:- In the Introduction; “is, indeed, that of MacGill’s” (that of MacGill.) Otherwise; “‘His name in Jim MaCrossan’” (is Jim Macrossan,) pig-stys (pig-styes or pig-sties,) “shot the crow” is defined in a footnote as ordering and drinking whisky without intent to pay (in my experience it has always meant to leave, to leave anywhere – or anyone – without notice,) “a group of children were playing” (a group was.) “A shower of fine ashes were continuously falling” (a shower was continuously falling,) by-and-bye (by-and-by,) Lough Lomond (yes, the Irish spelling is Lough, but Loch Lomond is in Scotland; so ‘Loch’. I would never write ‘Loch’ Neagh for the loch in Northern Ireland,) “a pair of eyes were gazing at me” (strictly, a pair was,) “there were a fair sprinkling of them” (there was a fair sprinkling,) sprung (sprang,) pigmies (pygmies,) dulness (I gather it’s an alternative spelling but I’ve only ever seen it before as dullness.) “For whole long months I saw a complete mass of bruises” (I was a complete mass of bruises makes more sense,) a phenomena (a phenomenon.)

The Lantern Bearers by Ronald Frame

Duckbacks, 2001, 244 p. One of the 100 best Scottish Books.

 The Lantern Bearers cover

In a very short Part One we find Neil Pritchard is about to turn down a contract to write the biography of a famous musician, Euan Bone, he knew in his youth. A diagnosis of cancer persuades him to change his mind. The much longer Parts Two to Four relate his remembrances of the summer he spent living with his Aunt Nessie in the town of Auchendrennan on the Solway Coast, where he was sent while his parents worked through the problems in their marriage. His boyhood treble singing voice gained him an entry to Slezer’s Walk, the house where Bone lived with his companion (as such a relationship was publicly referred to in those days) Douglas Maitland. To test how the music sounded, Neil was to be the vocal guinea pig performer of a piece Bone was composing inspired by a Robert Louis Stevenson essay “The Lantern Bearers”. Part Five rounds off the tale of Pritchard’s entanglement in Bone’s life.

Frame’s style here is writerly but nevertheless highly readable. The author being Scottish we of course have various comments on the country’s attitudes. “The Scots have a way of cutting other Scots down to size but Bone was lucky in that respect ….. received opinion” holding that he was a leading figure in Scotland’s musical renaissance. Via Neil, Frame tells us Bone’s music has a “typical unresolved Scottish conflict of intellect and emotion, that timid repressed life of the feelings.” We also have a typically Scottish observation where Neil says of his father, “My mother shot him A Look.”

The unfolding of Neil’s relationship with Bone, the explanation for Maitland’s unease at Neil’s presence in Slezer’s Walk, the awkwardnesses of Aunt Nessie’s navigation of ‘difficult’ areas of life to do with an adolescent boy, the repression of feeling in 1950s Scotland (I might add of Scotland since the Reformation till very recently indeed) are all brilliantly and subtly depicted. Neil’s complicated response to Bone’s distress, and distancing when biology intervenes in their relationship (which lead to the actions for which Neil wishes to atone years later) are beautifully handled. The only off note I could detect was the introduction – albeit offstage – of Scottish nationalist activists, but that provided the impetus for the novel’s defining moment.

On the evidence of this novel Frame is a master, The Lantern Bearers well worth inclusion in that 100 best list. Why had I not heard of him before encountering it? I obviously read too many London-based reviews.

Pedant’s corner:- On the back cover blurb “on the the Solway Firth” (only one ‘the’ required.) Otherwise: arrengements (arrangements,) “vocal chords” (x2: they are cords,) “bundling them in a boorie – every which way – ” (Frame doesn’t feel the need to explain other such Scots words in the text,) McLuskie (I’ve never seen this alternative spelling to McCluskey before,) “a prospect of canal, the Clyde and Forth” (it’s usually called the Forth and Clyde canal, I’ve never the reverse before,) “the Arts Galleries” (this is the one in Kelvingrove, Glasgow, usually designated as just ‘the Art Gallery’,) cromandel (coromandel.)

The Ballad of Peckham Rye by Muriel Spark

Penguin, 1960, 141 p.

 The Ballad of Peckham Rye cover

Dougal Douglas has been hired by Meadows, Meade & Grindley, manufacturers of nylon textiles, because “the time has come to take on an Arts man.” The novel relates the effect this appointment has on some of the workforce and also on the inhabitants of Miss Frierne’s lodging house where he holds a tenancy. One of these effects is that Humphrey Place jilted his intended, Dixie Morse, at the altar, an incident referred to in the book’s first lines but not fully described till later.

I confess I find myself totally underwhelmed by Spark’s writing. There is something about it which is just too detached. I never feel I get close to understanding why her characters behave the way they do, what motivates them; Humphrey’s jilting of Dixie being a case in point. Spark is held in high regard though, so maybe it’s my expectations of fiction that are at fault.

That this was published in another time – nearly sixty years ago now – is evidenced by the casual use of the phrase “nigger minstrels”.

I have two more Sparks on my to be read shelves so I will be coming back to her – but perhaps not in the immediate future.

Pedant’s corner:- a missing end quotation mark after a piece of direct speech (x 2,) “ the brussels” (Brussels,) Hooch (it’s heeooch, or heeugh.) “‘You did, a matter of fact’” (the phrase is ‘as a matter of fact’ but this was in dialogue,) ditto “‘What you know about kids?’” (What do you know?)

The Land the Ravens Found by Naomi Mitchison

Collins, 1968, 190 p. Illustrated by Brian Alleridge.

The Land the Ravens Found cover

This is what may nowadays be called a YA novel. In a long-ago Caithness, still forested, Anlaf, the son of Thorstan the Red, himself son of Anlaf the White, longs to become an adult and go on raids with his father against the indigenous Scots. His future is unutterably altered when, perhaps due to information given to a Scot by one of his family’s thralls his father is killed on an expedition. Wise to the possibility of their new-forged vulnerability being exploited they build a boat and set sail for Iceland, the land the ravens found, where Anlaf’s grandmother, Aud, has kin.

Mitchison builds her story well, the obvious research required being well disguised. Reading this would be a relatively painless way for anyone to learn some history of the Dark Age period and the earliest settlement of Iceland. Particularly well-handled are the tensions between those adherents of the Old Faith and the New (Christianity,) the conventions of Viking society and the relative power women held, but the language is tailored to a young audience. Embedded within it is a prophecy that two of the characters are forebears of the first Europeans to have a child born in the Americas.

On the face of it this would seem to be Anlaf’s story but it is really more that of Aud, Cetil’s daughter. It is her family connections that bring the group to Iceland and her influence that pervades the book.

Pedant’s corner:- “‘Doesn’t he knew?’” (know,) prophecying (prophesying,) a missing full stop. In the Postscript; “There are any amount of stories” (There is any amount.)

Sartor Resartus by Thomas Carlyle

Canongate, 2002, 320 p (including 2p biographical note on Carlyle and 10p Index,) plus x p Summary of Contents, viii p Introduction by Alasdair Gray, iii p Letter of Introduction from the Illustrator, (Edmund J Sullivan, for the 1898 edition,) ii p list of illustrations, viii p Testimonies of Authors. (One of the 100 best Scottish Books.)

 Sartor Resartus cover

To call this a novel (as the book’s Wikipedia page does) is stretching things a bit. It contains none of the things usually associated with the form, human interaction, character development, anything that could reasonably be called a plot – plus there is no dialogue to speak of. Rather it is a member of that sub-genre of literary endeavour; the book about a non-existent book.

The text adopts the stance of a commentary by an unnamed editor – who may be thought to be Carlyle but who refers to himself as English (as distinguished from the putative British reader he envisages, in which Carlyle seems to me to be emphasising the difference) – on a book supposedly written in German by one Diogenes Teufelsdröckh, whose name translates as God-born devil-dung. Teufelsdröckh is professor of “Things in general” at Weissnichtwo (“Know not where”) University. His book’s title is Clothes, Their Origin and Influence, in effect a philosophy of clothes, and this conceit enables Carlyle, through Teufelsdröckh, to animadvert on any subject he pleases, to point up, mock and highlight the folly of human society and attitudes. As befits his supposed source our ‘editor’’s text is spattered with German phrases most of which are translated either in the text or as footnotes.

How seriously we are meant to take all this is debatable. Teufelsdröckh’s uncertain origins could be taken from a fairy tale, his childhood home Entepfuhl (duck pond in English) is a microcosm of mediocrity.

Sartor Resartus is an acknowledged classic, not only of Scottish but of world literature. Reading it in the twenty-first century it does seem of its time, though.

Pedant’s corner:- In the biographical information; Jeffries’ (Jeffries’s,) briliant (brilliant.) In Alasdair Gray’s introduction; “Gold in the vaults of banks …. represent the wealth of nations” (gold … represents.) In Testimonies of authors; a capital letter when a sentence takes a new direction (this is an early nineteenth century habit though and is also to be found in the main body of the text.) Otherwise: Sanhedrim (Sanhedrin,) quoting Shakespeare “‘We are such stuff as dreans are made of’” (I believe the line reads ‘such stuff as dreams are made on’.)

Hy Brasil by Margaret Elphinstone

Canongate, 2002, 444 p.

Hy Brasil cover

Hy Brasil is a fictional mid-Atlantic archipelago, its main island geologically active. Supposedly first discovered by St Brendan, its original inhabitants were so keen on keeping themselves unknown to the outside world that betraying its existence was a capital offence. It was later colonised by the British, and, despite gaining independence via a daring coup against the NATO base which enabled it to garner US and UN support, still uses pounds, shillings and pence as its monetary system. It still seems to be close enough to the UK though for one of its main communications links to be the Southampton ferry.

The novel is carried through the first person jottings of Sidony Redruth (engaged by a London publisher to produce a guidebook for the archipelago after misrepresenting herself in a writing competition) as a set of Notes for her projected book – working title Undiscovered Islands – and third person accounts featuring some of the islands’ inhabitants, most notably Jared Honeyman, amateur explorer of the wreck of a Spanish galleon, the Cortes.

Elphinstone manages to convey the archipelago’s odd mixture of apparent Britishness, names such as St Brandons, Ferdy’s Landing and Lyonsness, with some aspects of ex-colonial polities elsewhere, strong man government, illiberal policing, the sensitivities of the locals. There is a wonderful description of a volcanic eruption with lava rendered in the terms, “It’s rock, it’s liquid, and it’s fire. Three incompatible things made one.” Other felicitous writerly touches include, “like the smoke from a gigantic steamer that’s gone over the horizon along with the age it came from.” We also have one character observing, “‘Your family imbues you with guilt. That’s what families are for.’”

Elphinstone seems to be incapable of writing badly though here her strengths are perhaps not best served by a thriller style plot involving events just after the coup that ensured Hy Brasil’s independence and which resonate down to the present day. The characters and their relationships and Elphinstone’s landscape descriptions are very well rendered though.

Pedant’s corner:- Millais’ (Millais’s, x2,) “apart from….apart from” (twice in two lines, only six words separating them,) “a bowel of fruit” (a bowl, I would think,) desdendents (descendants, x2,) halbards (halberds,.) “‘Dorrado? you don’t think anything’s happened in Dorrado?’” (Dorrado? You don’t think…) “The only indication anything had changed were the big rooflights, and a satellite dish” (The only indications … were … the lights,) Aristophanes’ (Aristophanes’s,) the island called Despair in the text is rendered in Sidony’s journal as Ile de l’Espoir (espoir actually means hope,) Coleman’s mustard (Colman’s,) “various Gunns, Hawkins,” (Hawkinses,) archeology (archaeology – or even archæology,) Hawkins’ (Hawkins’s,) “among less privileged stratas of society” (among less privileged strata of society. Strata is already the plural, one of them is a stratum,) “and so he told it her again” (told it to her is a less awkward formulation,) Ormulu (Ormolu,) pernickity (pernickety,) atop of them (just ‘atop threm’, or else, ‘on top of them’,) the Marseilleise (the Marseillaise.)

Tunes of Glory by James Kennaway

Canongate Classics, 1989, 180 p, plus v p Introduction by Allan Massie. One of the 100 best Scottish Books.

 Tunes of Glory cover

Lt Colonel Jock Sinclair, ex-Barlinnie, has come up from the ranks and the Pipe Band via a good war to become acting commander of a battalion of an unnamed Scottish regiment. While the battalion is engaged in boisterous dancing practice the new Colonel, Basil Barrow, graduate of Eton, Oxford and Sandhurst (and a Japanese POW camp,) arrives the evening before he was expected. His displeasure at the raucous activity is clear and the seeds of conflict are sown. The new Colonel is soon dubbed Barrow boy, and his demand that all officers gather in the early morning three days a week to practice dancing in a more refined style incurs resentment.

Sinclair has a penchant for drink and a daughter, Morag, of whom he is overly protective. He also maintains an interest in Mary Titterton, an actress in the local Repertory company, with whom he can relax. These two women are the only two in the book and are little more than placeholders. Kennaway’s interests lie elsewhere, in the exigencies of army life, the necessity of sticking to military etiquette and the drawbacks these entail.

Sinclair’s behaviour on a night out in the town eventually puts Barrow in an impossible position. Neither can deal with the consequences.

I watched the film made from this on television a few years ago. As far as I recall it, it stayed remarkably true to the book. In his introduction Allan Massie says the ending works better cinematically than in the novel, mainly due to Alec Guiness’s presence as an actor. There is something to this analysis but Kennaway’s examination of army life and the pressures it puts on emotional life is nevertheless illuminating.

Pedant’s corner:- in the author’s background information page; Aucherarder (Auchterarder.) The publishing information says first published in 1933 in Canada; the text mentions television sets and is clearly set post-Second World War , so 1953? In Allan Massie’s Introduction; “a corporal, unknown to him, is his daughter’s boyfriend” (a corporal who, unknown to him, is….) locak (local,) Reportory (Repertory,) “He didn not.” (He did not,) respsonsibility (responsibility.) Otherwise: hooched (this can be read to be an allusion to illicit alcohol. The sound referred to is more usually written as ‘heughed’,) Jesus’ (Jesus’s,) a missing comma before a piece of direct speech, clack-handed (usually it’s cack-handed.) “There were a score of details” (there was a score.)

Romanno Bridge by Andrew Greig

Quercus, 2008, 316 p

 Romanno Bridge cover

Set in the mid 1990s – someone “says there’s going to be an election soon and things can only get better” – this novel reunites the reader with all the main characters from Greig’s earlier book The Return of John Macnab and throws in two more here for good measure in the shape of Maori rugby player Leo Ngatara and Norwegian musician Inga Johanssen.

The plot has more of a thriller touch this time, centring round the genuineness or otherwise of the Stone of Destiny. In her job as a journalist in Dumfries Kirsty Fowler meets Billy Mackay, an old man in his last days, who tells of his participation in the making of two replacement stones during the time the “original” was missing in 1950. This leads to designations such as fake fake as opposed to the real fake foisted on England’s Edward I and kept at Westminster ever since (until recently at least.) It is the whereabouts of Columba’s Pillow, the real crowning stone, hidden from Edward at the time and kept in the care of Moon Runners – whose guardianship is embodied in rings inscribed with runes (Moon rune-ers, you see, with only ever three extant at one time) – ever since that drives the plot. Mackay gifts Kirsty one such ring and thus unwittingly places her in danger at the hands of a ruthless intermediary calling himself Adamson who came to know of their existence via Inga’s brother Colin – and has a buyer for the real stone. The goings-on in uncovering the hiding places of the two fake fake stones and the original fake itself, take the characters to various parts of Scotland and even on an excursion to Norway.

All this gives Greig an opportunity to display his familiarity with the art of rock climbing and the music scene and to comment about Scots’ habit of revering their homeland, “‘Ye’d hae thought Scotland was Helen of Troy the way some folk sighed over her,’” even as seen through the eyes of foreigner Inga, “Strange place to inspire such belonging.” There are wider ruminations too. We are told an ancient Sumerian manuscript bemoans the times as violent, chaotic and strange, the young don’t speak properly, the gods are unrespected, etc, etc. – which only means the writer was elderly. And Leo Ngatara comes to reflect bleakly that, “None of us will be all right. Mountains, sunsets, good times, bad times, mates, children – nothing endures. Nothing. No exceptions.”

Greig is never less than an insightful novelist but here the thriller plot sits a little uneasily with his gifts for illuminating character, describing landscape and revealing the complexities of human affairs.

Pedant’s corner:- a missing comma before a piece of direct speech, “The last thing he saw were the three stones” (The last thing he saw was… ,) Burns’ (Burns’s,) “George V was dying” (George VI,) bonzer (is that NZ speak or only Aussie? Only Aussie if you check this though it seems “rack off” and strewth are used in NZ,) midgies (midges,) medieval (we had had mediaeval before,) “‘Hey Johnny Cope are ye wakin’ yet?’” (more usually ‘Hey Johnnie Cope are ye waukin’ yet’,) reorted (retorted,) “the passage way” (passageway,) bonzer Scone? (bonzer stone makes more sense,) rowboat (rowing boat,) “only the remnant” (the only remnant makes more sense,) the Irish bazouki, bazouki, (both bouzouki,) Merkdal (was Myrdal earlier,) snuck in (sneaked in.) “The crowd were spellbound.” (The crowd was spellbound.) “‘Yes, but we didn’t know that.’” (Yes, but he didn’t know that,) Dundas’ (Dundas’s,) Taynult (Taynuilt, spelled correctly a few pages later,) maw (it’s a stomach, not a mouth,) Firth of Lorn (more usually Lorne,) iron grill (grille.)

The Driver’s Seat by Muriel Spark

Polygon, 2018, 93 p, plus iv p Foreword (common to the edition?) and xi p Introduction by Andrew O’Hagan. First published in 1970.

The Driver's Seat cover

Polygon seems to have published all Muriel Spark’s works in a uniform edition to mark the 100th anniversary of her birth. As I have others of hers on my bookshelves I might not have read this particular one had the good lady not picked it up at a local library.

The novel starts with Lise buying some clothes in absurdly clashing colours after she left a previous shop in high dudgeon when the saleswoman informed her the fabric was stain resistant. Lise clearly wants to draw attention to herself. The clothes are for wearing during the holiday she is about to embark on.

She spends her time on the plane looking for a man who is her type, thinks she has settled on him but he is frightened off. On the ground she engages with random people she meets, constantly looking for her “type” and dismissing men who don’t fit the bill, taking up with Mrs Fiedke, having unusual encounters in shops and (deliberately) leaving her passport in a taxi.

About the only flash of humour is the sentiment spoken by one character, “I never trust the airlines from those countries where the pilots believe in the afterlife.”

As the – very short – book hastens to its denouement it becomes obvious that Lise is the one in control of her own destiny. She, a woman, is in the driver’s seat, unlike in most fictions covering dark subject matter. Spoiler alert. Responsibility for the crime, when it occurs does not lie with its perpetrator.

This is another odd one. Like in others of Spark’s books I found her style unengaging. It’s as if you’re observing her characters through a layer of glass. Lise’s psychology may be sound but since we only observe her obliquely it comes across as just weird.

Pedant’s corner:- “Lise and Bill pull down the table in front of their seats” (tables,) “moving quickly away and away” (away and away?) “a charging head of buffalo …. cross the two patches” (a … herd of buffalo … crosses the two patches,) curb (kerb,) “another pair appears” (strictly, another pair appears.) “I was away out” (I was a way out makes more sense.)

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