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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.)

Grey Granite by Lewis Grassic Gibbon

In “A Scots Quair,” Hutchinson, 1966, 156 p. First published 1934.

A Scots Quair cover

After the form of Sunset Song and Cloud Howe, the previous books in Gibbon’s A Scots Quair trio, the text of Grey Granite is divided into four sections, here named after semi-precious stones, Epidote, Sphene, Apatite and Zircon, though unlike its predecessors there is no prelude, proem nor epilude in Grey Granite.

Following the death of her second husband Robert Colquohoun – whose last action to shock his ex-parishioners was to have himself cremated – Chris Guthrie has used what money remains to her to move from Segget and take a half share in a boarding house in the city of Duncairn. [An authorial note at the start informs us this name is amended from the author’s first choice Dundon, since early reviewers in English journals were mistaken in thinking it represents Dundee, nor yet (though it has a Cowgate, a Canongate and a Royal Mile) is it Edinburgh as an American newspaper had it, nor even – notwithstanding its granite buildings – is it Aberdeen (two Scottish sheets) but the city which the inhabitants of the Mearns have hitherto failed to build.]

It is perhaps this setting that makes Grey Granite seem less grounded than the previous two novels in A Scots Quair. While Gibbon’s descriptions of the industrial cityscape are fine they do not have the lyricism of his evocation of rural landscapes. Indeed it is notable that when the story breaks the bounds of the city the writing lifts. But in his defence here Gibbon certainly cannot do without Duncairn. It is absolutely necessary in a novel sequence about modern Scotland (as he was essaying) to encompass the industrial habitat in which most Scots live. And this is only a criticism in the context of Sunset Song and Cloud Howe. Taken on its own Grey Granite would stand as a fine mid-twentieth century Scots novel.

Another factor contributing to Grey Granite’s relative lack of force is the focus moving from Chris to her son Ewan. He is drawn into socialism after taking a job in a metal works which later gains an arms contract. He organises a subsequent strike and is arrested and beaten up by the police. It seems that police accounts of incidents diverging somewhat from what actually happened are never new. In addition, Ake Ogilvie, who had also come from Segget to work in Duncairn, opines, “there was as much graft in the average Scots toun as in any damn place across the Atlantic.”

Once again there is the shifting of narrative viewpoint familiar from Sunset Song and Cloud Howe, by which the Rev MacShilluck for example is well drawn; in a few devastating paragraphs scattered through the book. The text is of its time in some of its references: “psychoanalyst Jewboy chaps” reads shockingly today.

Her business partner, Ma Cleghorn, tells Chris there’s nothing worse than “some old runkle of a woman body living on with no man to tend and no bairns.” As to men, “(they) never live at all. They’re just a squeeze and a cuddle we need to keep our lives going. They’re nothing themselves.” Ewan himself thinks, “A hell of a thing to be History! …. LIVING HISTORY ONESELF.” His treatment of Ellen Johns, a teacher who lodges in the boarding house and helped Ewan along the socialist path is in the end less than gallant. Chris had warned her, though, as we were forewarned in Cloud Howe.

Chris certainly does not have her troubles to seek. Ma Cleghorn dies, Chris contracts a misguided and doomed marriage with Ake Ogilvie, who is instrumental in effecting Ewan’s release from prison. She muses that, “SHE HAD NOTHING AT ALL, she had never had anything, nothing in the world she’d believed in but change… Nothing endured,” and, “We’re all on leading strings out of the past.” She tells Ewan, “The world’s sought faith for thousands of years and found only death or unease in them.” He replies, “It’s the old fight that maybe will never have a finish…. The fight in the end between FREEDOM and GOD.”

On reflection, and after rereading passages, my initial feeling that Grey Granite was not quite at the level of Sunset Song and Cloud Howe may be a touch harsh. It’s a fitting enough conclusion. As Chris comes full circle, “She’d open her eyes and see only the land, enduring, encompassing.”

Spot the Spelling Mistake

I took the photo below well before our trip to The Netherlands. It’s of a poster advertising a production of Sunset Song at the Adam Smith Theatre, Kirkcaldy.

Spot the spelling mistake.

I notice the “schools £9 age 12+” concession rate. I hope that in future exams none of the scholars attribute the book incorrectly.

Cloud Howe by Lewis Grassic Gibbon

In “A Scots Quair,” Hutchinson, 1966, 156 p. First published 1933. The cover shown is of a Canongate edition.

Cloud Howe cover

Cloud Howe takes up the story of Chris Guthrie from Sunset Song at the point where her new husband, Minister Robert Colquohoun (strange spelling that, Colquhoun is more usual,) is about to try for the vacant post in the parish of Segget, still in the Mearns and not far away from the Kinraddie of the earlier book. Segget is a divided community, not to mention class ridden and status conscious, with the folks in the old part of town despising the spinners who work in the jute mills. Robert’s self-imposed mission there is to improve Segget. On their first walk in Segget Robert, gassed in the Great War, is horrified by Segget’s War Memorial, an angel set on a block of stone, “like a constipated calf.”

The story unfolds over the 1920s, covering almost incidentally the growth of socialism – and its first betrayal – the (lack of) industrial relations, the grinding poverty, the insensitivity of the rich. The narrative voice is not straightforward, shifting, but not obtrusively, back and forth from a tight focus on Chris – or on occasion someone else – to an unnamed kirkgoer of a conservative bent (small and large C.) Gibbon captures the smugness of that holier than thou voice perfectly, “The English aye needed the Scots at their head, right holy and smart at the same time,” is one of the milder observations. Also well captured is its hypocrisy, “You’d seen it all in the People’s Journal, what the coarse tinks did in Russia with women – man they fair had a time with the women, would you say ‘twould be easy to get a job there?”

Segget is replete with characters and nicknames. Ag Moultrie, prone to outbursts of weeping is known as the Roarer and Greeter, the mayor’s resemblance to a monkey has him dubbed Hairy Hogg. Old Leslie at the Smiddy is prone to reminisce, “I mind when I was a loon in Garvock.”

If Kinraddie thrived on gossip then Segget gloats in it. The morning after the Segget Show a farmer and his wife are delighted to come upon two couples “in such a like way” in their barn. “They’d be able to tell the story about them all the years they lived on Earth; and make it a titbit in Hell forbye.” It doesn’t take long after the Colquohouns arrival for tales detrimental to Chris to start to circulate – even before Robert attempts to change Segget for the better. Chris is damned either way. If she speaks in Scots she is common, if in English she is putting on airs.

Cloud Howe also begins to focus on Chris’s son Ewan, who is four times referred to in the text as grey granite. Ewan sees nothing wrong with either nakedness or sex and doesn’t take nonsense from anyone. When confronted by Ag Moultrie with a piece of gossip about himself he replies, “I’m sorry I don’t know what you’ve heard, Miss Moultrie, but no doubt Segget soon will. Good Morning.”

It struck me that when a farmer’s wife says she’s heard of Chris from her son, “he lived in London and wrote horrible books,” might be Gibbon referring to himself. I remember reading somewhere that Chris is intended as a metaphor for Scotland. Gibbon foregrounds this twice; once when the local toff, Mowatt, meets Chris and, “was to say later he felt he was stared at by Scotland herself,” and secondly when Robert refers to her as Chris Caledonia. I’m not quite sure whether the narrative is enough to sustain the metaphor.

As in Sunset Song Gibbon once again asserts that the Scots have never really BELIEVED in God. All that is real is the land. “Only the sky and the seasons endured, slow in their change.” The author’s eye and ear for rural and village life is acute. I have no doubt that this is how it was in the Mearns a hundred years ago.

One curio. The phrase, “leave me to twitter,” reads a little differently nowadays from the way Gibbon intended.

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