Wild Harbour by Ian Macpherson

An alternative to bone spurs…

😀 😀 😀 😀

When it looks as though war is inevitable, Hugh and his wife, Terry, decide that he will not fight – that killing is wrong especially when the reasons for it seem so obscure. So they decide to flee into the wild highland country of the north of Scotland, making their home in a cave to wait the conflict out. Hugh knows how to hunt and poach while Terry has a full range of country skills in preparing and preserving food, so they are better equipped than most to survive. But in the distance they can hear the guns of war, and they seem to be coming nearer…

This is issued as part of the British Library’s Science Fiction Classics series, but it doesn’t seem to me to sit comfortably there. First published in 1936 and set in a then future of 1944, I suppose it’s that speculative element that allows it to be categorised as science fiction, but in reality it’s more of a survival adventure with the bulk of the book being a man versus nature story. I use “man” advisedly here – although Terry is present throughout, she is certainly the weaker of the two, following Hugh’s lead and existing, it seems, merely to provide him with the domestic and emotional support that a good wife should.

Sometimes it’s difficult not to allow our own prejudices to colour our view of a book. I have great admiration for those conscientious objectors who refuse to fight in wars, but who either choose to serve in some other capacity – in the ambulance service, for example – or are willing to take a public stand and risk going to jail for their principles. I’m afraid I have very little respect for people who run away and hide while waiting for other people to return the world to safety for them. Macpherson does his best to show that Hugh’s decision is born of principle, but the whole premise made it impossible for me to sympathise with Hugh and Terry as I felt I was supposed to, as they endured the various hardships and misadventures of their life in the wild.

The book has two major themes, it seems to me: firstly, man’s relationship to the natural world and his ability to survive without the trappings of civilisation; and secondly, how even those so strongly-held principles can be eroded as the veneer of that civilisation is stripped away, quickly returning man to a state of survival instinct. The writing is at its strongest when Macpherson is describing the beauty and power of nature and man’s vulnerability to its whims. It is at its weakest when Hugh tells us again and again in exalted and overblown terms of his great love for and need of Terry – this idealized woman who seems to be mother to him as much as wife.

Book 55 of 90

There is much killing and butchering of deer and other animals, but in the realism of the need for food rather than in any gratuitous way. There are also detailed descriptions of the practical steps Hugh and Terry take to make life in the cave possible, such as cutting peat and making a fireplace, making lamps from fish oil and animal fat, pickling eggs and salting venison, and so on. I veered between fascination and boredom throughout all of this, but fascination won in the end, and I found even the stalking and hunting scenes won me over, done with authenticity and a great sense of man’s deep connection to the natural world – something I, as a city girl, completely lack. The descriptions of the landscapes are great, although there were many times I felt the need for a map of the area. It was only once I’d finished reading that I discovered there is in fact a map, tucked in at the end of the book and not listed in the index – annoying.

The book is a bleak account of this survivalist life – there’s no attempt to present some kind of false idyll. As summer becomes autumn and then winter, the harshness of the weather, the scarcity of food and the fragility of health are all shown in full. And as the distant war rumbles closer, the story turns bleaker yet, with the tone becoming almost dystopian towards the end.

A strange book which I found compelling despite my distaste for the premise, which is a tribute to how well it is done. There’s a short essay from Macpherson included at the end (after the map!), written in 1940 when the real war had been underway for a year, and it’s intriguing to contrast his own views about participation in the war effort to those of his character, though they certainly seem to share their opinion of women. Recommended, but more to those who enjoy bleak survival stories than to science fiction fans.

NB This book was provided for review by the publisher, the British Library.

Amazon UK Link
Amazon US Link

32 thoughts on “Wild Harbour by Ian Macpherson

  1. You make a good point, FictionFan, about people who object to war. I more or less agree with you, but it bears reflecting, and I’m glad you brought the topic up. Something to think about… Interesting point, too, about the sort of book this is (adventure/spec fiction/etc..). I think I’d probably want Terry to play a different sort of role in the novel, although I do know that, considering when it was written, she might not. Still! It does sound interesting, though, and I’m glad you found things to like about it.

    • Yes, it’s not something I’d really given a lot of consideration to, but my reaction first to Trump and his bone spurs and then to this book made me realise I actually feel instinctively quite strongly about it. Probably being the daughter of two parents who both served in WW2 and my father’s family being a military one has formed my attitude without me really being aware of it. But it did mean I couldn’t get up any sympathy for the perfectly fit and able Hugh. And I fear both Hugh and his author clearly think women should be domestic and decorative.., he probably wouldn’t have liked me much either… 😉

  2. This book would be difficult to shelve in a bookstore with its blended genres. I can see why you found it fascinating despite the issues. I’m always fascinated by people who are knowledgeable about how to live off the land. I was a city kid. I’m knowledgeable about bus schedules and avoiding pickpockets.

    • I have a feeling that might be why it’s “forgotten” – too hard to classify. Hahaha – yes, I fear I wouldn’t fare well in a post-apocalypse world. No supermarket, no fridge and no hairdryer??? Unthinkable!!

  3. I’m a bit torn with this one. I find “survival” tales fascinating, but almost prefer them in this modern age than the past. (I’ve read a few “prepper” blogs over the years) I grew up in a small town, but have been a country girl for more than 30 years… so I could at least feed myself, even if that meant going back to being a carnivore. 😉

    I will say I really do like the covers on all these classic Sci-Fi releases.

    • I’d have to become a vegetarian since, although I quite happily eat meat that comes vacuum-packed in plastic complete with cooking instructions, I couldn’t kill an animal nor would I have the least idea what to do with it once it was dead! Total hypocrisy. 😂 Mind you, I wouldn’t really know how to grow vegetables either. This could be the most successful diet plan ever invented…

      Me too – the BL are really excelling with their covers these days.

      • Despite the fact I’m now a total plant-eater and have grown terribly soft-hearted, I’ve done my share of hunting over the years (a variety of game). So if it came down to it, I’d stand a better chance of staying alive that way than by foraging. Turn me loose with wild plants and mushrooms and I’d end up poisoning myself! 😱 Growing my own crops might prove too dependent on the environment. (does it sound like I’ve maybe thought about this a little too much?? 😂 )

  4. It does seem odd in the sci-fi section! I wondered if the war setting was really necessary, it sounds a good survivalist novel – or did he just need to give them a reason for running away?

    • I thought it might say more about the war than it actually did. He touched on the horrors of war and how easily people slip into a kill-or-be-killed mentality, but really most of the book was about man v nature. I’d probably have enjoyed it more without the war aspect…

  5. It seems like such a bold choice to write a speculative novel set in the very near future. Does he get much right about 1944? How specific is he about the war? Why not set it during the first world war? Our little community was popular with American draft dodgers during the Vietnam War and I’ve had some interesting talks with a couple of them who are still here. I’m not quite sure where I fall when it comes to conscientious objectors but this book does sound fascinating.

    • Nothing at all – he suggests the war happens on British soil which of course it didn’t except for aerial bombing. The whole war thing was odd – he didn’t go into who the war was with or why it was happening, just leaving it all very vague. There were moments when I even wondered if it was some kind of civil war. I must admit I wasn’t particularly pro the Vietnam draft dodgers even while it was happening although I was against the war as such – I’d have preferred them to stay at home and face the consequences, however hard. I hero worshipped Muhammad Ali for refusing to fight because he used his celebrity to make a stand, and lost so much over it even though in the end he didn’t get sent to jail. I know he’s considered a hero now, but back then he was utterly vilified for daring to be a black man with opinions.

      • That’s a good point that, at least with the Vietnam War, there was a certain amount of privilege tied to being able to be a draft dodger or somehow find another way out of serving. (Like having bone spurs, just for a wild example.)

        • Ha, yes! It was my reaction to the bone spurs that first made me realise I had a prejudice on this subject! I think it was the same over here, except that some of the sons of the rich and privileged went into administration of the war, avoiding fighting but still contributing. But also our aristocracy have a long, long connection with the military so many of them were already army or navy officers. Indeed, Prince Andrew, currently being reviled (rightly), was once a hero for insisting on actively serving in the Falklands war when the powers that be wanted him to stay safely at home. (And don’t get ancient Brits started on the subject of the brave and beloved Queen Mother refusing to leave London for the safety of the countryside during the Blitz… 😂)

          • Oh yes, even in Canada I’ve heard about the bravery of the royal family for staying put during the war. We don’t really have the same military culture in Canada; there’s no elevation of those who serve like there seems to be in the US. We like to think of our army as international peacekeepers, even though that’s not really true.

            • Funnily enough, I don’t think we’re as military minded either these days. My brother and I were trying to think if we could name any current UK generals, because of all the generals who pop up all the time in US politics. He could name a couple but I couldn’t think of any. We’re proud enough of the job our forces do, but we kinda expect them to stay in the background, I think…

            • I’m the same. I think it’s kinda healthy though – the societies that bang on about their military prowess all the time tend to be authoritarian dictatorships, which is why America’s obsession with the flag and the military is so worrying…

  6. I thought this looked interesting – about how people viewed the coming war, a sort of alternative view of the future, how Macpherson imagined it would be. From what you say about his own views about participation in the war effort I take it that he didn’t agree with Hugh.

    • I found his little essay quite intriguing. He didn’t fight because he was a farmer and therefore exempt from the draft. But he was strongly saying that everyone should either fight or contribute in some other way. I wondered whether he really thought that, or if he just felt he had to show that attitude in 1940. He was also very patronising about the land girls – kind of metaphorically patting them on the head as if it was nice of them to try even if they were useless! I don’t think we’d ever have become friends… 😉

  7. Interesting idea. I’ve caught snippets of doomsday prepping shows on television and the people all seem mad, but then I remember that I bought loads of tinned food I before the Y2K bug wiped out civilisation as we knew it!

  8. I have literally never come across a map in the back of the book-very annoying! And I agree with you-although it’s probably crossed everyone’s minds to just run away from things and live in a cave, we don’t do that, because we are part of a society, and running away is NEVER the answer. It’s something we learn as children, but some adults don’t seem to have gotten the hint…

    • It was so annoying, especially since I spent most of the book wishing I had a map! Exactly – you put it much better than I did! There were plenty of ways he could have contributed to the war effort even if he really had strong convictions against war. Or made a stand against it…

  9. Wonderful sense of contradiction in the title, isn’t there: the dichotomy between a harbour being a safe shelter and wilderness being a place of possible jeopardy. Something in the way you outlined this reminded me of Olaf Stapledon’s Sirius, also set during the war but mostly in the wilds of Wales and with a great deal more SF about it than this seems to be.

    • I haven’t read Sirius, but this one really had no SF element other than the speculative future war, and in 1936 that wouldn’t even have been very speculative! I don’t know why it gets listed as SF really, and I do wonder if it’s that woolly description that has meant it has been “forgotten”. It seems to me much closer to John Buchan than SF, only with a not very heroic hero…

  10. Even Conscientious Objectors, while not engaging in fighting, will take on other responsibilities for the effort, often administrative or medical.

    But it’s interesting that this book was published in 1936. I wonder how it was received?

    The Colonel Bone Spurs reference–when life meets art 🙂

    • Yes, and I find that admirable, whereas hiding in a cave just seems like letting other people do the dangerous stuff for you. I get he impression it was well received at the time, but I think he was reasonably well known then so had an existing “fan” base. And of course the war hadn’t happened. I think reading about it after the war makes the perspective different…

      Thanks for popping in and commenting! 😀

Please leave a comment - I'd love to know who's visiting and what you think...of the post, of the book, of the blog, of life, of chocolate...

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.