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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.

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.

Progress in Scottish Reading

A suitable post for St Andrew’s Day.

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Lament: A Scottish Tradition.

I mentioned recently in my review of Christopher Rush’s A Twelvemonth and a Day that it fell into that long list of laments with which the Scottish novel is liberally bestowed – going back at least as far as the poem on the state of the nation written on King Alexander III’s death after falling from a cliff in Fife in 1286, but which may well be an oral tradition older still.

This sense of things lost seems to be an itch which Scottish letters is unable not to scratch.

Many of the books on the 100 best Scottish Books list fall into this tradition; of the ones I have read not only the Rush but also Iain Crichton Smith’s Consider the Lilies, Archie Hind’s The Dear Green Place, William McIlvanney’s Docherty, George Mackay Brown’s Greenvoe, Neil M Gunn’s The Silver Darlings, Lewis Grassic Gibbon’s Sunset Song certainly qualify. Arguably Jessie Kesson’s The White Bird Passes also fits the bill; its title certainly does.

Whether this dwelling on things gone by is due to a sense of lost nationhood or not is a matter for debate but the itch is played out not just in Scottish literature, the lament is a major strand in bagpiping and has a long history in song (eg The Flowers o’ the Forest.) The Proclaimers’ Letter From America – “Bathgate no more” etc – is merely a modern take on the form.

Another important strand in the Scottish novel is that of the döppelganger/the supernatural. Here James Hogg’s Private Memoirs and Confessions of a Justified Sinner, which can certainly be seen as a reflection on the duality of the Scots psyche after the Treaty of Union as well as an illustration of Scottish literature’s fascination with the Devil, is the prototypical – and arguably the finest – example though Robert Louis Stevenson’s Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde is perhaps better known furth of Scotland.

On thinking about all this I realised that, despite being Science Fiction, my own novel A Son of the Rock was also such a lament (though it eschews any truck with the supernatural.) The book was certainly conceived in part as an allegory of the decline of shipbuilding on the Clyde which had occurred in my early lifetime but I had not consciously been aware of any wider resonances while I was writing it. I did though somewhat impertinently consider it as a “condition of Scotland” novel.

Perhaps Scotland’s condition has always been in decline, its writers always noticing what has been, is being, lost. I note here that Andrew Grieg’s Fair Helen is a retrospective lament for the loss of “wit and laughter, music and dance and kindliness” in the Reformation.

Sunset Song

Hurricane Films, Iris Productions, SellOutPictures. Directed by Terence Davies.

We don’t go to the cinema much, life and children got in the way not to mention Kirkcaldy’s dedicated cinema closing down years ago now so we had only what passes for the local “Art House” Cinema to rely on unless we wanted a trek to Dunfermline.

However we couldn’t miss seeing the film of Lewis Grassic Gibbon’s classic book Sunset Song. So it was off to the Adam Smith Theatre again. (But that’s also a longer trip since our house move.)

It is difficult for a film to capture the essence of Gibbon’s masterpiece. I suppose this one made a valiant effort but I have huge reservations. The human story of Chris Guthrie’s life was well enough done but though references to it were made via voice-over (and in the odd bit of dialogue) and there were cutaways to sumptuous views of the countryside the importance of the land to the novel (and Gibbon’s intentions for it) did not come across with anything like enough force.

I noticed that the church used – at least for the exterior shots – was actually the one in Arbuthnott (the village with which Gibbon is most associated) where his memorial is situated. I can’t vouch for the interior as I’ve never been inside. I did feel that the soundtrack choir singing All in the April Evening in the lead-up to the church scene was ill-judged; too lush by far. We also had the minister wearing a surplice; not at all likely in a Presbyterian Kirk. And that pulpit looked disturbingly modern.

Peter Mullan as Chris’s father gave his usual Peter Mullan hardman performance and Agyness Dein’s acting as Chris was fine but really her accent was all over the place. At one point I thought she’d said, “they were burning the winds,” when it was whins. (The h in “wh” words is aspirated in Scots and Scottish English; the sound is more like hwins.) She also pronounced the g in “rang” and for her to be unable to say “loch” properly verges on the criminal for someone playing a Scotswoman. None of the accents struck me as being particularly of the Mearns though.

I also felt the prominence given to Chris’s husband Ewan’s fate towards the end of the film made it seem more of a lament for the fallen of the Great War in general rather than the more particular loss about which Gibbon was writing, for which Ewan stood as a metaphor.

Watch the film by all means – it says a lot about the harsh times and attitudes of the Scotland of a century ago – but for the full Gibbon experience the book is certainly to be preferred.

An Appreciation of Sunset Song

In Wednesday’s Guardian G2 there appeared a piece written by James Naughtie on Lewis Grassic Gibbon’s Sunset Song.

This was I assume occasioned by the imminent release of a film of the book directed by Terence Davies (which I hope does it justice. On that score the outlook is good as, by what I’ve read, Davies seems very struck by it.)

Naughtie was brought up in the Aberdeen hinterland – not quite in the Mearns as was Gibbon – and says many of the terms used and scenes observed in the book are familiar from his youth.

Naughtie sums it all up very well.

My thoughts on Sunset Song are here.

The White Bird Passes by Jessie Kesson

One of the 100 best Scottish Books. Also in the Herald’s “100” best Scottish Fiction Books list and one of Scotland’s favourite books.

B & W, 2009, 153 p. First published in 1958.

 The White Bird Passes cover

Janie MacVean lives with her mother Liza in a tenement in “the Lane,” a thoroughfare in an unnamed Scottish town just after the Great War. Watched over by Poll Pyke, Battleaxe and the Duchess, the Lane is a friendly enough place with folks more or less looking out for each other. Despite their poverty stricken circumstances, Janie loves her mother and the Lane. The occasional (finance dependent) trip to see her grandmother, who lives in a much more salubrious house in the country, only serves to highlight Janie’s contentment with her lot. It is on the one such trip in the narrative that darkness intrudes into the book. Janie’s grandmother is friendly enough but her grandfather disapproves. For in the Lane, Janie has no father – and Liza no husband – to protect her.

Through a series of vignettes the details of Janie’s life are slowly revealed, perennial nits being only one of her burdens. Her attachment to it, her ease with it, are both manifest, the web of her relationships beautifully rendered. But things come to a head when the “Cruelty Man” intervenes and Janie is removed from the Lane as being a neglected child. Between Chapters Eight and Nine eight years have passed and we then see Janie, by now adapted to life in the Aberdeenshire orphanage in the shadow of the Cairngorms to which she has been sent, getting ready for adult life.

In an echo of a phrase in Lewis Grassic Gibbon’s Sunset Song we are told, “Everybody believed in God on Sundays, then laid Him carefully away with their best clothes for the rest of the week.”

The White Bird Passes gives more of an indication into the realities of life in poor areas of Scotland than did the recently read The Guinea Stamp.

Pedant’s corner:- remarkably – even if it is such a short book – I found only a single typo; the lights lit up she street (the.)

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