Classics Club Round-Up 5 – Scottish

When I joined the Classics Club back in June 2016, I created a list of 90 books which I planned to read and review during the next five years. I divided the original list into five sections: American, English, Scottish, Crime and Science Fiction. So rather than trying to summarise the whole thing in one post, I’ve decided to give each section a post to itself as I complete it. Here’s the fifth and final…

THE SCOTTISH SECTION

As I’ve said many times, I’m ashamed of how few Scottish classics I’ve read, partly because we were mainly taught English literature in our education system and so English classics have always been my comfort zone. But this isn’t a good enough excuse to cover the several decades since I left school! So I was keen to have a Scottish section on my CC list – 20 books, some of which are well known and many others I’d never heard of, selected from various Best Of lists or from the recommendations of family and fellow bloggers. As well as reading the novels, I’ve read a little along the way about the history of Scottish fiction and its characteristics, and learned the meaning of the wonderful phrase “Caledonian antisyzygy” – “the existence of duelling polarities within one entity” or, more simply, duality or opposites – which features in different forms throughout Scottish fiction and, indeed, life: Jekyll and Hyde, good and evil twins or siblings, Highlander/Lowlander, Jacobite/Hanoverian, Protestant/Catholic, nationalist/unionist, etc., etc.

Starting with the bad and working up towards the good then – the quotes are from my reviews or, in the case of abandoned books, from my notes on Goodreads:

ABANDONED AND REPLACED

Annals of the Parish by John Galt – removed from the list to make room for one I acquired and wanted to include, Marriage.

Grey Granite by Lewis Grassic Gibbon – “I wonder what happened to Lewis Grassic Gibbon? Sunset Song is undoubtedly great, Cloud Howe is mediocre and dull, and this one is dreadful. Did he only write the other two to cash in on the success of the first?” Replaced by The White Bird Passes.

The Game of Kings by Dorothy Dunnett – I know loads of people love Dunnett, but I hated her writing style, and gave up on this one at a very early stage. Replaced by The Silver Darlings.

THE BAD ONES

Bad is, of course, a subjective term…

Children of the Dead End by Patrick MacGill – “It wasn’t long after this point that I decided I’d had enough of the adventures of Mr Misogyny and his dog-kicking boots.”

The Bull Calves by Naomi Mitchison – “It has its good points, but it fails in the major criterion of what makes a good novel – it has no plot to speak of, certainly not one that builds any suspense or tension, or makes the reader care about the outcome.”

THE MIDDLING ONES

Marriage by Susan Ferrier – “One can tell Emily’s opinion of Mary’s constant moralising and rejection of fun is rather similar to my own – i.e., one suspects she often wants to slap Mary with a wet fish. But for some reason, despite this, Emily grows to love Mary and indeed, (to my horror), even occasionally wonders if she should emulate her.”

The House with the Green Shutters by George Douglas Brown – “Well, I’m willing to bet Brown would have got on well with my old friend John Steinbeck. They could have had misanthropy competitions to see who could be the most miserable. I’m tempted to suggest that Brown might have won.”

Cloud Howe by Lewis Grassic Gibbon – “There’s a lot of drunkenness which would certainly have been true of Scottish society, but a lack of warmth and generosity of spirit, which doesn’t ring true to me and seems in direct contrast to the feeling of community in Sunset Song.”

Whisky Galore by Compton Mackenzie – “It takes about half the book before the shipwreck happens, and for most of that time we are introduced to a variety of quirky caricatures . . . and listen while they tell each other how awful life is because they have no whisky.”

The Cone-Gatherers by Robin Jenkins – “…religious symbolism abounds in an Old Testament, Garden of Eden corrupted by nasty humanity kind of way, but it’s all a bit simplistic – the good people are so very innocent, and the bad people are hissably dastardly villains.”

THE GOOD ONES

Flemington by Violet Jacob – “Jacob takes us from high society to low, into the drawing-rooms of Edinburgh in the company of the self-important Lord Balnillo and his friends, and into the world of intrigue carried out in inns and back streets under cover of night…”

Imagined Corners by Willa Muir – “As Ned descends into madness, and William wrings his hands helplessly and looks unavailingly to his God for help, their sister, Sarah, rolls up her sleeves and gets on with the job of trying to hold all their lives together. It’s not made explicit, but Muir clearly implies that, in a crisis, forget God and man – it’ll all end up on the shoulders of the womenfolk.”

No Mean City by Alexander McArthur and H. Kingsley Long – “Its brutal, violent depiction of gang culture is in a large measure responsible for the persistent reputation of Glasgow as the city of gangs – a reputation still exploited by many contemporary Glaswegian crime writers…”

The Silver Darlings by Neil M. Gunn – “His portrayal of the sea as a heartless mistress, dealing out wealth and death arbitrarily, is wonderful, and the sailing scenes are some of the best parts of the book.”

THE GREAT ONES

The Expedition of Humphry Clinker by Tobias Smollett – “To Matthew, Bath is a dreadful place, full of riff-raff and the nouveau riche, and he is deeply concerned about the unsanitary conditions prevailing in the famous spas where people drink the waters for their health.”

The Fair Maid of Perth by Sir Walter Scott – “Rothsay’s followers include some great baddies – Ramorny, who has a personal reason to want vengeance against Henry; Bonthron, Ramorny’s beast-like assassin; and the marvellous Henbane Dwining, a skilled physician who uses his arts for evil as well as for good and is deliciously sinister and manipulative.”

Catherine and Ramorny in the dungeon

The Master of Ballantrae by Robert Louis Stevenson – “When Bonnie Prince Charlie arrives in Scotland in 1745 to reclaim the lost Stuart crown, the Durie family of Durrisdeer must decide where their loyalties lie. If they make the wrong choice, they could lose everything, but pick the winning side and their future is secure.”

The New Road by Neil Munro – “First published in 1914, Munro is clearly setting out to drag some realism back into the narrative of the Jacobite era, in contrast to the gradual romanticisation that took place during the 19th century both of the risings and of Highland society in general.”

The Valley of Fear by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle – “The background story takes us to the Pennsylvanian coal-mines of the 1870s, where we meet Jack McMurdo, an Irishman who has just arrived there after fleeing justice in Chicago. He quickly becomes involved in the Scowrers, a gang of unscrupulous and violent men who control the valley through fear, intimidation and murder.”

The Gowk Storm by Nancy Brysson Morrison – “The quality of the writing and characterisation; the beautiful descriptions of the wild landscape and weather of the Highlands; the delicately nuanced portrayal of the position of women within this small, rather isolated society; the story that manages tragedy without melodrama and hope without implausibility – all of these mean it richly merits its status as a Scottish classic.”

The White Bird Passes by Jessie Kesson – “…allowing the reader to find amusement, along with Janie herself, in the scrabbling existence of the women of the Lane and the hardships of Janie’s life. And Janie’s uncomplicated love for her neglectful, inadequate mother makes the reader see her with sympathetic eyes too, for, whatever Liza’s flaws may be, she loves her daughter.”

The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie by Muriel Spark – “Spark skewers this Edinburgh society with its fixation on class, its soul-destroying respectability, still suffering from the blight of Calvin’s and Knox’s self-righteous, unforgiving Protestantism, obsessed by immorality and sin.”

The wonderful Maggie Smith in her prime…

THE BEST ONE

Oh, this was a tough decision! The Gowk Storm, The Master of Ballantrae, The New Road, The White Bird Passes – all wonderful books, all eminently Scottish. But my winner has to be the most Scottish of all, full of that Caledonian antisyzygy stuff! It’s a satire on the idea of predestination, an examination of the origins of the sectarianism which still disfigures Scotland today, a tale of sibling rivalry, a story of madness, murder and the devil. And surprisingly, it’s also full of humour…

The Private Memoirs and Confessions of a Justified Sinner by James Hogg – “The justified sinner of the title is the younger brother, Robert. Abandoned by the man the law says is his father, and subjected to the religious fanaticism of his guardian and his mother, it’s perhaps not surprising that the boy grows up to be somewhat twisted and jealous of his elder brother, who seems to have a golden life. But Robert’s problems really begin when Reverend Wringhim informs him that God has decided Robert should be one of the elect, predestined for salvation. The question the book satirises is – if one is predestined for salvation, does that mean one can sin free of consequences? In fact, is it possible for the elect to sin at all or, by virtue of their exalted status, do things that would be sinful if done by one of the damned cease to be sins when done by one of the elect? The book is not an attack on religious faith in general, but Hogg has a lot of fun with all the gradations of extremity within this particularly elitist little piece of dogma.”

Portrait of James Hogg by Sir John Watson Gordon

* * * * *

In summary, then, too many Jacobites in the historical fiction, too many miserable drunks in the 20th century batch. But also loads of great reads and it’s been a thrill seeing a few of my fellow bloggers read some of the books I’ve loved, and mostly loving them too. I also enjoyed doing a review-along of one of the books on the list, The Silver Darlings, which surprisingly my fellow review-alongers enjoyed even more than I did. I still wouldn’t count myself as well-read in Scottish classics, but I’m better than I was!

And that, as they say, is a wrap for my first Classics Club list!

Thanks for your company on my journey!

Children of the Dead End by Patrick MacGill

Sympathy has its limits…

🤬

Dermod Flynn lives for the first few years of his life with his family in Donegal. His parents make it clear that his main, perhaps sole, purpose in life is to go off to work to send home money to keep his parents and younger siblings from sinking further into poverty than they already are. So at a young age he is packed off “beyond the mountains” to the hiring market, where farmers hire workers on a seasonal basis. After a series of jobs, treated well in some, appallingly in others, Dermod joins a gang of workers bound for Scotland for the potato-picking season, and this begins his life as an itinerant worker, a “navvy”, in Scotland in the early days of the twentieth century.

Dermod is MacGill’s fictional representation of himself. In his foreword, he claims that most of the people he meets and most of the incidents in the book are true although he has used some licence to create a kind of plot to hold the thing together. Mostly the book is remembered (if at all) as a record of a way of life now gone, though some (oddly) praise it for its (non-existent) literary merits. Since I am already fairly well aware of the appalling conditions of itinerant Irish workers at this period and of the poverty and ill-treatment they suffered, the lack of aforesaid literary merit meant that it wasn’t worth enduring the intense dislike I developed for Dermod/MacGill for anything I might learn. I therefore abandoned it halfway through, merely flicking to the end to discover if the mawkish love story MacGill used as his plot had a happy or tragic ending. I won’t spoil it for you, in case you ever feel inspired to read the book.

Book 89 of 90

Had Dermod been truly fictional, I might have been able to tolerate him as a character. It was the knowledge that he is in fact MacGill by another name that caused me to find the book intolerable. Despite being at the bottom of the social heap, Dermod has a wonderful ability to look down on others, clearly because by disparaging them he thinks it somehow makes him look superior. I might even have found this psychology interesting or pitiable had it not been for his clear dislike of humanity as a whole, and the female half of humanity in particular. The language he uses to describe women is repellent – perhaps normal for men of that class and era, but it seemed to me indicative of a real hatred for women, especially those who had lost the physical attractiveness of youth. Here he is describing Gourock Ellen and her friend Annie – whores in their younger days but now too old for that job, they eke out a pitiful living crawling across muddy fields on their knees picking up potatoes. And yet Gourock Ellen is kind to beggars, washes Dermod’s clothes for him and generally shows a generous soul despite having nothing herself. Here’s what lovely Dermod says of her and Annie:

Nearly everyone in the squad looked upon the two women with contempt and disgust, and I must confess that I shared in the general feeling. In my sight they were loathsome and unclean. They were repulsive in appearance, loose in language, and seemingly devoid of any moral restraint or female decency. It was hard to believe that they were young children once, and that there was still unlimited goodness in their natures.

Patrick MacGill

This from a man also with nothing, also filthy from working in the fields, also viewed with contempt and disgust by those who think themselves superior to the poor. Funnily enough, he can find justifications quite easily for his own weaknesses. He gets drunk and gambles his money away because society makes him do it, not because he is “devoid of any moral restraint” and his routine unprovoked violence is apparently not an indication of any lack of “male decency”. Here he is on a night when he has been prowling round a large house, peering through a window at a dinner party in progress:

At the further end of the table a big fat woman in evening dress sat facing me, and she looked irrepressibly merry. Her low-cut frock exposed a great spread of bulging flesh stretching across from shoulder to shoulder. It was a most disgusting sight, and should have been hidden.

He throws a stone through the window, showering broken glass over those inside, and the householder lets the dog loose:

Before I reached the gate a fairly-sized black animal was at my heels, squealing as I had heard dogs in Ireland squeal when pursuing a rabbit. I turned round suddenly, fearing to get bitten in the legs, and the animal, unable to restrain his mad rush, careered past. He tried to turn round, but my boot shot out and the blow took him on the head. This was an action that he did not relish, and he hurried back to the house, whimpering all the way.

It wasn’t long after this point that I decided I’d had enough of the adventures of Mr Misogyny and his dog-kicking boots.

Amazon UK Link

No Mean City by A McArthur and H Kingsley Long

The story of the Razor King…

😀 😀 😀 😀

Johnnie Stark is the son of a violent drunk who beats his wife so badly he nearly kills her and then dies in jail. Although Johnnie hated and feared his father, he is just like him, drunkenness and violence being the norm for the men, and often the women, living in the Gorbals in Glasgow in the depression years between the wars. This is the story of Johnnie’s rise to become the Razor King, a gang-leader and violent fighter, feared and admired in equal measure, and of his eventual fall.

The book was written by A McArthur, himself a Gorbals man, who wanted to show what life was like in the deprivation of one of the worst slum areas of Britain. The publisher Neville Spearman was interested in the story but thought it badly written, so brought in a journalist, H Kingsley Long, to work with McArthur to polish it up. It became a massive bestseller, reprinted many times over the decades. Its brutal, violent depiction of gang culture is in a large measure responsible for the persistent reputation of Glasgow as the city of gangs – a reputation still exploited by many contemporary Glaswegian crime writers, although it is in reality long out-dated and was in fact already becoming so when this book was first published in 1935. The book is also often credited with having turned things around – forcing those in authority to recognise the squalor in the slums, and the danger this represented to social order both in terms of violence and in the growth of Communism in these areas, and therefore to act to improve conditions for the slum-dwellers. Again, not quite true, though it did bring the question to a wider public. Gang violence peaked in Glasgow around 1929 and was declining somewhat by 1935, and the authors recognise this themselves in the final chapters when they talk about the changes that were already being put in place by a worried establishment, although it took many years to turn the situation, and the Gorbals, around. Although the book is specifically about the Gorbals, gang culture was a feature of the slums of most of the big urban centres of Britain at the time, making this Glaswegian a little annoyed that one book should have given Glasgow a reputation so much worse than other cities with just as serious problems.

A 1932 Weekly News article by Billy Fullerton,
head of the notorious Billy Boys gang

As a novel, it’s somewhat better than I was expecting. Again it has the reputation of not being very well written but, while it’s certainly no literary masterpiece, I found the writing quite acceptable and the dialect feels authentic throughout. It’s considerably before my time, of course, but I still recognised most of the language although there were some expressions that had disappeared by my childhood. Where the authors felt that pieces of dialect might not be comprehensible to a wider readership, they include an English translation in brackets, so despite all of the speech being in dialect it should still be accessible to most readers, I think. Overall it gave me the impression, in fact, of having been written for an outside audience rather than for Glaswegians – there is a feeling throughout of it being anthropological in style, and I couldn’t help feeling the characters were being displayed like animals in a zoo, a lower species than the likely readership, intended to amaze and terrify “decent” people.

Book 88 of 90

Johnnie’s story is one of violence throughout, but he is shown as merely being the most violent among a community where violence was the norm. Male unemployment was at record figures, and the men are shown as living off the meagre wages of their wives, drinking, whoring and fighting, while the women struggled to feed their children. There is an astonishing amount of violence towards women, and this is shown again as an accepted feature of life, with the women often admiring the violence of their men even when directed at them. Was this true? Possibly, though I felt it was (not surprisingly) a rather male view of how women viewed male violence towards them, if that makes sense. I wondered if the women were really quite so admiring, when the men weren’t around to hear them. Perhaps. (I was reminded of Their Eyes Were Watching God, about another poor and marginalised community far away, where Zora Neale Hurston also shows male violence towards women as something the women admired and even envied.) Certainly domestic violence continues to be at unacceptably high levels today in Glasgow, though to nothing like the same degree, and without the social acceptance of it shown here.

The general violence and gang-fighting I could readily believe in – I grew up just three miles from the Gorbals, though decades later than this, but the area still had a bad reputation in my time and was a place for “respectable” people to avoid. I had more of an issue with the portrayal of routine sexual promiscuity within marriages, which again is shown to be largely socially acceptable, even having its own set of rules. Call me sexist, but I easily believed in the promiscuity of the men, but had more difficulty in believing that married women openly had affairs and even children to men other than their husbands. Not because I feel the women would necessarily have been more “moral”, but because I would have expected their husbands to kill them, literally, if they’d been openly promiscuous. But again, it was before my time, and (without wishing to sound snobbish) considerably lower down the social scale than my own upbringing. However, I still have my doubts.

And now those of you of a certain age know where the inspiration
for the title song of
Taggart came from…

So the question is, would I recommend it? Hmm, not as a novel, really. But it’s certainly of interest to anyone who’d like to learn something about the slums and gangs of the era, or who would like to see the genesis of the reputation that has produced so much gang-obsessed Glaswegian fiction over the intervening decades. As a Glaswegian, it both interested me and irritated me – I don’t like people being displayed like animals in a zoo, and I don’t like how the book still adversely affects the reputation of my city, which in reality is neither significantly worse nor better than most other major urban centres. But the book is socially important in the history of Glasgow and as a record of the slums, and has influenced generations of writers for good or ill, so for those reasons I’m glad to have read it.

Amazon UK Link

Rose Nicolson by Andrew Greig

A tale I have for you…
~ William Fowler

😀 😀 😀 😀 😀

The time is the 1570s. Mary Queen of Scots has fallen from power and fled to France, and the boy King, Jamie Saxt, is in Stirling Castle – for his protection or as prisoner is a matter of interpretation – while Scotland is being governed by Regent Morton. John Knox is dead but his Reformation is thriving. The power struggle between Reformists and Roman Catholics is ongoing, with control of the young King at the heart of it. Two previous Regents have died, probably murdered, and both factions have taken turns at burning “martyrs”. Our narrator is Will Fowler, little more than a boy when the story begins, off to study at St Andrews, even then one of the ancient centres of learning – and politics, and plots, and skulduggery. And when Will and his new friend Tom Nicolson accidentally become embroiled in an incident in a pub, they find they have unwittingly foiled a plot and, in so doing, have aligned themselves with the Reformists, making enemies of the powerful Catholic family, the Hamiltons, and becoming friends with the adventurous and dangerous young Walter Scott of Branxholme and Buccleuch, the “Bold Buccleuch”, and his kin. These friendships and enmities will shape young Will’s future, as will his love for Tom’s lovely and wilful sister, Rose Nicolson…

Do you ever get that lovely feeling that an author has written a book specially for you? That’s how I feel about this one. It has everything I want in a Scottish novel: an interesting period of history that has nothing to do with Jacobites, nor Mary Queen of Scots, nor Glasgow gangs, nor dreary twentieth century alcoholics; a wonderful use of old Scots vocabulary, but avoiding too much hard to read dialect; exciting adventures, happening to likeable and entertaining characters; real insight into how people lived, thought and acted in the time; knowledgable and affectionate insight, too, into the Scottish literary tradition; a touch of romance, but avoiding all soppiness; and some beautifully presented and well-timed humour, often at the expense of the religious divides that continue to plague Scotland into the present. I’ve loved Andrew Greig’s writing over several books, but often haven’t particularly enjoyed the subjects he’s chosen, so it’s a real delight for me to finally have the joy of that great writing in a story that seems custom-made to suit my preferences!

William Fowler of Embra (Edinburgh) was a real person – a makar (poet), writer, translator and courtier, who got involved in the various political shenanigans going on in Scotland at this muddled and perilous time. Here, Greig gives us just the early years of Fowler’s life, (and I sincerely hope he’s working hard on a follow-up, since the latter part of his career sounds just as interesting).

James VI of Scotland and I of England as a boy
“Jamie Saxt”

In theory I know about this period, having studied it somewhat superficially long ago, and as far as I can tell it’s historically accurate – it’s certainly entirely convincing, and delightfully free of anachronistic attitudes forced onto the historical characters. Almost every character in it is a real person – I think only the Nicolsons and occasional peripheral characters are an outright creation of the author, though I stand to be corrected if I’m wrong on that. Given that I struggled from time to time to place people in their correct factions, I did wonder whether this would be a difficult one for people with no knowledge of the history, but I found as I read on that gradually it all became clear, so I feel it would work even for newcomers to the period and is a painless and enjoyable way to learn a little about this interesting time. I felt that a character list showing titles and religious and political affiliations would have been helpful, especially in the early stages – I was reading a NetGalley copy, so don’t know whether that is perhaps included in the published version. There is a guide to archaic Scots vocabulary, in my copy at the end of the book, although happily (being an archaic Scot) I didn’t find much need to refer to it. Greig is great at putting possibly unfamiliar words into context so that their meaning is obvious.

Greig is himself a poet, and his love of being part of the long and ancient tradition of Scottish poetry shows through often in his work. Here he gives a lovely picture of the young Will’s development as a poet, at first derivative of the poets he himself revered before gradually finding his own style. Unfortunately I couldn’t find much of Fowler’s poetry online, but I felt Greig gave a great flavour, not just of him but of some of the earlier poets he shows Fowler as admiring. (It (almost) made me want to revisit some of those early incomprehensible Scottish poets forced on me long ago in school!)

Andrew Greig

Goodness, 800 words* and I’ve barely mentioned Rose! Rose is a great character too, an intelligent and opinionated young woman restricted by both gender and class. Educated beyond her social level by her brother Tom, she struggles to conform to society’s expectations and, as happened frequently in those days to women who couldn’t conform, falls foul of the church. Will’s passion for her is beautifully done – a boyish infatuation that slowly matures into true friendship and love. Although Rose’s story gives a structure to the book, the real star is Will and the meat of it, for me at least, lies in the political machinations of the Reformation. Oh dear, I haven’t talked enough about the King, either, or Walter Scott and the border reiving, or the Earl of Bothwell, or Will’s adventures in Paris! There’s nothing else for it – you’ll just have to read it for yourself! My highest recommendation for this wonderful book!

*I seem to have confused everyone with this. I’m commenting on the excessive length of my review, not the book. The paperback is 464 pages and every word a delight.

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

Amazon UK Link

The Silver Darlings by Neil M Gunn

Casting their nets…

😀 😀 😀 😀

The Silver DarlingsWhen the landlords throw the tenants off their crofts to make way for sheep, the crofters of the north-east of Scotland turn to the sea to make their living in the new industry of herring fishing that is springing up, aided to some degree by those same landlords (guilt money) and by government subsidies. This book tells the story of Catrine, a young wife whose husband has been taken by the press gangs, and her son Finn as he grows from childhood into manhood, and becomes a fisherman in his turn. And through them, it shows the way of life of these people, as they slowly become masters of their new trade, learning through hard experience and sometimes tragedy.

It’s very well written and along the way Gunn gives enough information so that readers with no familiarity with the story of the Highland Clearances will pick up enough to be able to understand the huge upheaval it meant for the crofters, economically and socially. Gunn shows it as not all bad (which is quite rare in Scotland, where bitterness over the Clearances tends to make us portray everything that came out of them as disastrous). He shows that the fishermen found that they could earn far more from fishing than they ever had from crofting, and many of the men took to a more adventurous life with enthusiasm. However, he also shows how it impacted their way of life as people became more village-based and old traditions, like oral storytelling, had to be nurtured in order to survive. Women had to come to terms with their husbands and sons being away at sea for lengthy periods, leaving them to maintain any land and smallholdings they had managed to hold on to. And ever present is the fear of death from sudden storms or accidents or, as Catrine experienced, the loss of menfolk who were “pressed” into serving in the Navy.

Personally I’m a plot-driven person, and that’s the one thing the book really lacks. It’s a slow look at society through Finn’s life in it, as boy and then man, and if there’s an overarching story at all, it is simply the one of who Finn will eventually marry. This lack of a driving storyline made it a slow read for me – I found it interesting in the way non-fiction is, rather than compelling as a suspenseful novel would normally be. There were several parts that I felt dragged, but there are also several parts where it picks up pace and emotion and becomes quite thrilling, such as the first time the men take their boat round the notorious Cape Wrath and finally make it to Stornoway, such a hard journey at that time that Stornoway feels like a foreign country. Or when the cholera epidemic hits the village, again shown very realistically with older, weaker people succumbing while the younger, stronger ones tended to survive. Gunn shows the primitive, almost non-existent healthcare in these poorer, remote communities, and how the people still relied on superstition and traditional remedies to get them through.

classics club logo 2Book 78 of 90

Gunn largely leaves out the politics of the Clearances – his mission is to show the birth of the herring industry rather than the end of crofting. He does this very well, and I felt I learned a lot about how the industry grew up from a small start, with a few wealthier men setting up as exporters and building trade routes to Europe, and gradually directing the fishermen almost like employees or contractors. We see the first signs of what has subsequently become a major on-going issue – the overfishing of certain areas and types of fish, and we see the men gradually spread out into new, more dangerous seas and begin to fish for other types of fish than herring, the silver darlings of the title. It all feels remarkably relevant now that fishing, like crofting before it, has become a declining industry, hanging on grimly in the face of all the economic and political odds that are stacked against it. We think now of the Scottish fishing industry as one of our national traditions under threat, just as the crofters were once driven from their land. This was an excellent reminder that in fact fishing has only been a major industry in Scotland for a relatively short time, historically speaking, and also a reminder that all industries pass in time, to be replaced by newer and, if we’re lucky, perhaps even better ones.

….This was the way in which he had seen Roddie, once when he was at the tiller, upright as if carven, during the storm in the Western Ocean, and again in the moment of the cliff-head, when eternity had put its circle about them, and he had known the ultimate companionship of men, had seen the gentleness, profounder than any crying of the heart, at the core of male strength.
….Finn experienced this far more surely than could ever be thought out or expressed in words. Perhaps here was the education that came from no schooling, came from the old stories by men like Hector and Black John and Finn-son-of-Angus, none of whom could either read or write. And the girl, not teaching, but singing the experience of the race of women in tradition’s own voice.

Neil M Gunn
Neil M Gunn

Although the characters would have been Gaelic or Scots speakers, Gunn has happily chosen to write in standard English throughout, making it easily accessible to non-Scots and non-Gaelic speakers. His portrayal of the sea as a heartless mistress, dealing out wealth and death arbitrarily, is wonderful, and the sailing scenes are some of the best parts of the book. But equally he is great at showing the wild highland landscape, and the remoteness of the villages even from each other.

Overall, then, for the most part I found the book slow-going and longed for a plot to carry me forward. However, I found the look at this way of life interesting, interspersed with occasional dramatic episodes that for brief periods brought it thrillingly to life.

I read this as part of a Review-Along with blog buddies, Christine, Alyson, Rose and Sandra. I’ll add a link to Rose’s review when it appears (see below), and Sandra’s, if she decides to review it (also now below), and please check in the comments below to see what the others though of it. I’m hoping they all enjoyed it as much or even more than I did!

Rose’s review

Sandra’s review

Amazon UK Link
Amazon US Link

Gillespie and I by Jane Harris

A masterclass in ambiguity…

😀 😀 😀 😀

Gillespie and IElderly Harriet Baxter sits in her London home, thinking back to when she was a young woman, visiting Glasgow for the International Exhibition of 1888. There, she fell in with the Gillespie family, and became involved in an incident that was to impact both her and them for the rest of their lives. She slowly tells the reader the tale…

Slowly being the operative word. If this book had been half its length it would have been wonderful. Instead, it crawls along at a toe-curlingly slow pace, with every moment of every day described in excessive detail. I was listening to the audiobook, which had the unfortunate effect that I couldn’t skim read as I think I tend to do when reading over-detailed print books. With audio, each word is given equal weight and this, for me, really highlights when an author has fallen self-indulgently in love with her own creation and has forgotten that the poor reader might prefer the story to move along at a speed slightly above the glacial. There! That’s my complaint over, so now on to the good points, of which there are many.

Harriet is a wonderful narrator, unreliable in the extreme, not terribly likeable, but compellingly ambiguous. Although it takes a long time to get there, we learn from foreshadowing that at some point there will be a trial in the story, although we don’t know who will be tried or for what, or whether whoever it is will be found guilty. But we do know that the outcome of the trial left Harriet notorious, and that she is now telling her version of events as a counter to a book which has come out making her out to be some kind of villainous monster.

Ned is a young painter, scraping a living out of his art but yet to really make his name. Harris has set her book at the time of the “Glasgow School” – a period when Glasgow was for a few decades a major artistic hub in the fields of painting and architecture particularly. Ned and his fellow artists are not in the first rank of this movement – rather they are shown as a kind of wider, secondary grouping inspired by the artistic buzz around the city. Harris doesn’t go into the art of the period in any detail, but uses it to provide a very authentic background to her group of artists and hangers-on, and Ned’s work is clearly influenced by the realism that was a feature of the real painters of the movement.

Taking tea at The Glasgow Exhibition, 1888 by Sir John Lavery, a painter of the Glasgow School

Harriet, although she would never admit it, is clearly obsessed by Ned, and jealous of Annie and their children for taking up so much of his time and attention. Harriet would claim that it’s Ned’s work that interests her – her belief that he has the talent to become one of the major artists of his day, with a little help from an altruistic friend. The reader suspects her feelings towards him might be little less lofty – a little more earthy, in fact. She soon becomes an intimate friend of the family, though one suspects that the family may be less thrilled by this than Harriet is.

Harriet’s voice is excellent, and Anna Bentinck’s first-rate performance does the character full justice (along with all the other characters, to whom she gives a myriad of authentic-sounding Scottish accents). As a single lady past the first flush of youth in the Victorian era, Harriet is of course outwardly prim and proper, but her inward thoughts allow us to know her mind is not quite as pure as a young lady’s should be! She is often very funny, usually unintentionally, and Harris is fabulous at letting the reader read between the lines of the picture of innocent kindliness Harriet is trying to paint of herself. The other characters are all presented through Harriet’s biased eyes, so that we can’t be sure if poor Annie is as ineffective a mother as we see, or if Sybil, the eldest child, is really as monstrously badly behaved as she seems. We can’t even be sure if Ned has any real talent. What we do know for certain is that Harriet is lonely and alone, and desperately seeking some kind of human relationship that will allow her to feel she has a place in the world. This means that even when she’s at her most manipulative, we can’t help having some level of sympathy for her circumstances. It’s all a masterclass in ambiguity, and even by the end I couldn’t decide if I loved Harriet or hated her, wanted to give her a comforting hug or throw stones at her. I’m very, very glad she’s not my (mythical) husband’s friend though…

Jane Harris
Jane Harris

When the story proper finally begins, well into the book, it becomes quite dark. Up to that point, Harriet has been at worst a little pitiable – a woman repressed by her society who is desperately seeking some way to validate her existence, even if only to herself. From there on (and I’m deliberately being vague to avoid spoilers) the reader has to decide if she is a monster or a victim. The beauty of the way Harris plays it is that it’s quite possible to believe she is both. Older Harriet, whose story we learn in short segments throughout the book, is a rather heart-breaking picture of the loneliness of a spinster, somewhat shunned by the world partly because of her notoriety but also simply because of her age.

So a wonderful portrait of an ambiguous character set against an authentic background of the Glasgow art movement – had it not been for the truly excessive, even though well written, padding, this would undoubtedly have been a five star read. As it is, four stars, and a plea for editors to take a stronger line with authors who fall too much in love with their own wordsmithery.

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Whisky Galore by Compton Mackenzie

Slàinte mhath!

🙂 🙂 🙂

Whisky GaloreDespite their remote location, the Hebridean islands of Great Todday and Little Todday are not untouched by the ongoing Second World War. Some of the islands’ sons are far away serving in the forces, while various servicemen are stationed around the various islands. Rationing is in force, although the islanders always have their livestock and fishing to fall back on. But when there’s a prolonged shortage of whisky, things begin to get serious! When, after a few weeks of drought, a cargo ship full of whisky is shipwrecked just off one the islands, the temptation to steal the whisky before the authorities get there is overwhelming.

Humour is one of those things that is entirely subjective. Many people, according to the Goodreads reviews, found this hilarious. I’m afraid I found it occasionally mildly amusing, but mostly repetitive and rather dull. It takes about half the book before the shipwreck happens, and for most of that time we are introduced to a variety of quirky caricatures – an English writer’s affectionate idea of what Hebridean islanders should be like – and listen while they tell each other how awful life is because they have no whisky. I grant you that alcohol plays a large role in Scottish social life, and even more in our anti-social life, but not to the extent of it being the sole subject of conversation. I tired of it long before the ship hove into view.

There are a couple of other strands, both regarding romances. One is of an English soldier who has returned to the islands to claim the girl he proposed to a few years earlier, before he was posted abroad. But before they get married, they must have the ritual rèiteach – a kind of pre-wedding party. This leads to the running joke that I swear must have been repeated at least fifty times – that the Englishman can’t pronounce the Gaelic word rèiteach. He’s not alone – nor can I, but nonetheless the humour wore thin after the first dozen times he attempted it and failed. The islanders can’t imagine a rèiteach without whisky though, and so the couple can’t wed till the drought is over.

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The other couple are both islanders, and the joke here is that the man is completely under his mother’s thumb, so much so that he’s afraid to tell her that he’s got himself engaged. He needs whisky to give him courage. (Mild spoiler: personally I felt the girl should be warned that the meek and mild model of sobriety she thinks she’s marrying turns into a bullying monster when he has a drink in him, but I think Mackenzie thought his drunken behaviour towards his admittedly irritating mother was admirable. Maybe that’s how men saw things back in those days…)

Mackenzie paints a picture of the lives of the islanders in which his characters seem to have endless amounts of free time and to do very little work, and, while he touches on the religious divides that have plagued Scotland for centuries, he does so in a way that makes them seem playful – I wish! However, despite its lack of realism it’s all in keeping with the cosy tone of the book.

Compton Mackenzie
Compton Mackenzie

I listened to the audiobook narrated by David Rintoul, who does an excellent job with the accents, and I assume also with the Gaelic pronunciations – I fear my ignorance of Gaelic means I wouldn’t know. There’s a fair amount of Gaelic sprinkled through it, which I would probably have found less annoying in a paper book with a glossary. But in an audiobook, not only did I not understand the words, I couldn’t work out how they would be spelled so that I could google them – it took me ages even to find the word rèiteach, despite it having been repeated umpteen times. Like a lot of Gaelic it is not pronounced how it looks! (My post title Slàinte mhath!, for example, is pronounced roughly slan-ja-va and means Cheers!)

Overall, then, a reasonably entertaining read, mildly amusing but, for me, not funny enough to make up for the lack of substance underneath. It could have made a great novella, but at full novel length there feels like far too much repetitive padding. Maybe I should have read it after a few drams of Glenfiddich…

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The Less Dead by Denise Mina

A tale of two cities…

😀 😀 😀 😀 🙂

Two things conspire to make Margo Dunlop decide to seek out her birth mother: the recent death of her adoptive mother, and her own pregnancy which, as a doctor, has led her to worry about the possibility of unknown genetic issues. She’s too late, however – her mother, Susan, died shortly after giving Margo up for adoption. But the counselling service puts her in touch with her mother’s sister, Nikki, and they arrange to meet. Nikki has a strange story to tell, and a request to make. Like Nikki herself, Susan was a street prostitute on the Drag – Glasgow’s red light zone – back in the late1980s, when sex workers were still mostly local women (as opposed to trafficked girls from abroad), driven to the trade by a combination of poverty, lack of opportunity and, often, addiction to drink or drugs. Susan was brutally murdered and left lying naked in the street – one of a spate of murders of prostitutes over the course of a few years. Nikki is convinced the murders were carried out by one man, although the police disagree. The man in question had an alibi for the time of Susan’s murder, but Nikki hopes that Margo will be able to use her privileged position as a doctor to help break the alibi. At first, Margo thinks Nikki is some kind of fantasist, but events soon convince her that there may be some truth in her story…

I’ll start by saying the murder plot and its solution are by far the weakest part of the book. They feel like little more than a vehicle to allow Mina to discuss what clearly interested her far more – the lives of those involved in the sex trade at that time, and how they were treated by a society that preferred to ignore their existence, and by a police force who saw them as third-class citizens. Hence the title – murdered prostitutes were considered “the less dead”, and the investigations into their deaths were perfunctory and under-resourced. The general feeling was that they “asked for it”.

Fortunately, I was also far more interested in that aspect, so the weakness of the murder plot didn’t spoil the book for me. Mina’s knowledge of Glasgow appears to be encyclopaedic and, although she is dealing mostly with a section of society that I knew and still know very little about, the city she describes feels entirely authentic. This was a time of huge change for Glasgow, dragging itself out of the poverty and gang violence of the post-war era and recreating itself as a modern, vibrant cultural centre. (In 1990, just a year after Susan’s murder, Glasgow would become the first British city to be named European City of Culture, and the impact this had on how Glasgow changed, physically, socially and psychologically, cannot be overstated.) Mina’s story straddles this transformation, Susan a product of the old times and Margo of a new, more affluent and perhaps more hopeful future, but still saddled metaphorically as well as literally by the city’s past. Of course there are still major problems of poverty and inequality as in all large cities, and Mina is as clear-sighted about the present as the past. Street prostitution may not be as commonplace, but only because it’s now carried on indoors – still largely driven by addiction, still as prevalent, still as sordid, but better hidden from disapproving eyes.

Denise Mina

Nikki is a wonderful creation – too strong to be pitied or demeaned, but with no attempt to glorify her or the trade she worked in either. The book isn’t done as a dual timeline, so that we learn about the past wholly through the eyes of those in the present who were there at the time. Nikki is around fifty now, a survivor who made it through mostly by her own efforts but helped a little by the general improvement in standards of life over the recent decades. There are enough touches of Glaswegian dialect in her speech to make it authentically distinctive, while causing no problems for a non-Glaswegian reader. Margo’s middle-class upbringing provides a reason for Nikki to explain things about her very different life naturally, as one would to anyone who hadn’t shared one’s life experiences, and this of course means that she explains it to the reader too.

I found Margo and her middle-class friends slightly less well portrayed, but only in comparison. As she tries to work out what happened to the mother she never knew, Margo’s drives around the city and visits to various houses in different parts of it give the reader a real sense of a place of contrasts – wealthy and poor, old and new, respectable and seedy. I wondered, though, if my fascination for this deep gaze at my own city would be shared by people who don’t know it, or if they might find themselves wishing that the drives didn’t last as long and fewer street names and street histories were given. However, this is a far more accurate depiction of Glasgow than in the vast majority of contemporary crime fiction, written, I feel, with unromanticized affection, and the strength of the story of these despised and disregarded women well outweighs the weaknesses in the mystery plot.

NB This book was provided for review by the publisher, Random House Vintage.

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The Bull Calves by Naomi Mitchison

Fictionalised history…

😐 😐

Kirstie Haldane has returned to her childhood home at Gleneagles to visit her family, bringing with her her new husband, Black William Macintosh of Borlum. Although Black William didn’t come “out” for the Young Pretender two years earlier in the uprising of 1745, his Jacobite sympathies are well documented – indeed, he spent several years exiled in America following the failed uprising of 1715. Most of the Haldanes are Whigs, so there is bound to be some political tension among the company, although all sides have now finally accepted that the Jacobite cause is lost, and all are agreed it’s time to begin healing the wounds. However, the government is still hunting rebels from the ’45, and when one such rebel turns up at the house seeking refuge, Kirstie’s young cousins hide him in the attic.

Oh, dear, I wish I was going to be saying how wonderful this book is, but I fear I’m not. I gave up just over halfway through because it was becoming a struggle to pick it up and read even a few pages each day. It has its good points, but it fails in the major criterion of what makes a good novel – it has no plot to speak of, certainly not one that builds any suspense or tension, or makes the reader care about the outcome. At the point I abandoned it, the only questions to be resolved were, firstly, will the young Jacobite be caught? I don’t care because he has been given no personality or involvement in the story. He has merely been stuck in the attic and left there. Secondly, will Kirstie discover that William once went through a form of marriage with a Native American woman during his exile? I don’t care, because I know enough about Kirstie to know she’ll easily forgive him, so what does it matter whether she finds out or not? And lastly, will young cousin Catherine and young cousin James, casting lingering glances at each other over the dinner table, get it together in the end? I expect so.

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However, as I said, it has strong points in its favour too, which is why I stuck with it for as long as I did. Mitchison is a descendent of the Haldanes of Gleneagles, and really this is more a fictionalised history of her family than a novel, hence, presumably, the lack of a strong plot. Many of the characters are real people, and the family is prominent enough that there would be documentary evidence of much of their lives, so I presume most of the background facts are true, such as allegiances during the rebellions, and the work that Mungo, the current head of the family, was doing to improve the estate. Kirstie and Black William are apparently inventions, however, although they have been given the names of people who appear on the real family tree, but about whom nothing much is known. Talking of the family tree, it covers four full pages and I never truly got to grips with how the innumerable cousins who appear were connected to each other.

Mitchison has clearly researched the period thoroughly and well, and gives a very credible account of the lives of the minor Scottish aristocracy of the time. She has her characters discuss all kinds of political and cultural changes that were taking place at this time – the land improvements that would soon become the basis of the Highland Clearances, the ongoing debate over the benefits or otherwise of the still new political Union with England, the repression of the Highland clans following the failed uprisings, the appalling conditions of the new class of industrial workers, the ongoing blight of serfdom in the mining industries, the still lingering superstitions around witchcraft, the impact of Enlightenment thinking on life in Edinburgh, and so on. She also gives very detailed descriptions of the everyday things of life – the food people ate, how they dressed, the kind of religious practices that would have been observed in Haldane’s Whig household and how they would differ from those held in Black William’s episcopalian home.

Naomi Mitchison

At first, I found this all quite interesting, although I did wonder how much of it would be comprehensible to anyone without a reasonable understanding of this period already – for instance, when she has her characters bicker over the relative merits of short leases and long leases in farming. But it soon palled, as Mitchison repeats and repeats – I lost count of how often she had her characters discuss the benefits of tree-planting, for example.

So I have mixed feelings about it. I rather wish she had simply done what she clearly wanted to do: that is, tell a straight history of her family at this period of time – the post-Jacobite era. In that way, she could have structured the discussions better and avoided the rambling and repetitive nature of them. I felt she did create a great picture of how they would have all lived, but the plot, such as it was, added nothing. Her use of language is great, though – standard English, as would indeed mostly have been spoken by this class at that time, but with plenty of Scottish flavour and rhythm to give it an authentic feel. But in the end, it’s too unstructured and messy to be a history, and yet doesn’t have a strong enough story to stand up to the weight of historical detail.

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The White Bird Passes by Jessie Kesson

Life in the Lane…

😀 😀 😀 😀 😀

Little Janie McVean has grown up on Lady’s Lane, a place ruled over by the women for most of the time, till the men come home from work and make it theirs for a while. No man comes home to Janie’s house though – or perhaps too many. For although Janie is too young to understand, the reader soon discerns that her mother, Liza, is a prostitute, along with some of the other women who live in the Lane. Janie doesn’t care – to her this is the only possible life, and though she has only one dress and often goes hungry and dirty and has nits in her hair, she’s happy. She has friends who are just like her and an interest in people of all sorts, and she loves to watch and listen to the women of the Lane. So when the Cruelty Man comes calling, to Janie the real cruelty is the threat of being taken away from the mother she adores, however bad a parent she may be.

Largely autobiographical, the book is set in the town of Elgin in the north of Scotland in the 1920s. Because it’s so well known to be based on Kesson’s own early life, there’s a feeling of reassurance for the reader – however painful it is to watch the neglect of this child, we know she survives and pulls herself out of the poverty of her beginnings. This makes it an easier, less tense read than it might otherwise have been, allowing the reader to find amusement, along with Janie herself, in the scrabbling existence of the women of the Lane and the hardships of Janie’s life. And Janie’s uncomplicated love for her neglectful, inadequate mother makes the reader see her with sympathetic eyes too, for, whatever Liza’s flaws may be, she loves her daughter.

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“About that doll you’re to get, I’ve got an idea it might be lying under some bits of things that’s come from America. Some bits belonging to my cousin’s bairn; just your size she is. And my word there’s some bonnie bits that will fit you. There’s a blue velvet frock for one thing. And a ribbon to go with it. I’m having a sort out just now. And when I’ve sorted out, you’re the queanie that’s going to get the fine surprise, or my name’s not Annie Frigg!”

Janie emerged as always, empty handed but full-visioned after an encounter with Annie, and with but one small doubt, how to share the delight of this new promise with Gertie, who could never see that something to look forward to, and something to dream about, were such glad things, even when you knew within yourself that they might never come true.

The writing is wonderful, managing to give a real flavour of the local speech without ever becoming hard for standard English speakers to understand. It’s told in the third person, in the language of adults, but the perspective comes almost entirely through the lens of eight-year-old Janie’s observant but sometimes uncomprehending eyes. So it’s up to the reader to fill in the blanks, and sometimes it’s in these spaces that the true pathos of Janie’s life is shown – a pathos Janie doesn’t feel at this young age. Her mother comes from a respectable and rather well-off family, and sometimes they visit Janie’s grandmother – another warm and loving, if occasional, presence in Janie’s life. But her grandfather’s reaction to Liza and Janie lets the reader know how badly the family feels Liza has disgraced them, and gives us pointers as to how she fell from here all the way down to the Lane. It’s a hard story, told with warmth and empathy and no bitterly pointed finger of blame from the adult Kesson.

Jessie Kesson

As well as her clear-sighted but sympathetic portrayal of the Lane and its inhabitants, Kesson also has an excellent eye for the landscape and nature of the area, and the ability to weave her fine descriptive prose seamlessly so that it becomes part of the story. Their mutual love of the countryside is part of the bond between mother and daughter.

The wind had begun to threaten the air. Passionately she had longed for the wind to come. To blow herself and the landscape sky high into movement and coherence again. Almost she had been aware of the wind’s near fierceness. Ready to plunge the furious hillside burns down into the Cladda river. To hurl the straws all over the dykes. To toss the chaff into the eyes of the protesting people, bending before it, flapping in their clothes like scarecrows. To sting the trees in Carron wood into hissing rebellion. To give the land some loud, loud cry, other than that of pain.

When the Cruelty Man takes Janie off to the orphanage, the story suddenly contracts, with years covered in just a few pages. This feels a bit disconcerting, but actually I think it probably works better than it would have if Kesson had devoted more time to that section. One gathers that her time there was neither wonderful nor terrible – she was just stuck in a kind of limbo until her life could resume. The real story is of the Lane, and of the love between child and mother that transcends the things that society determines to be good parenting. The ending is bittersweet – the tragedies of Janie’s young life tempered always by the knowledge that she will survive and rise. A beautiful book that challenges the reader to be slow to judge – to accept that love and even joyousness can sometimes be found in the darkest circumstances. Highly recommended.

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Flemington by Violet Jacob

Clash of loyalties….

😀 😀 😀 😀 🙂

Archie Flemington was brought up at Ardguys in Fife by his grandmother, Christian. She has made him into a Whig, violently opposed to the deposed Stuarts whom she once served but now hates. Under cover of his real talent as a painter, Archie is a government spy. Now Bonnie Prince Charlie is in Scotland once again, leading the Jacobites in rebellion against the Hanoverian king (or usurper, depending which side you were on). Archie inveigles his way into the household of Lord Balnillo, a retired judge who is known to have Jacobite leanings, although he hasn’t come “out” for the rebels. It’s actually Lord Balnillo’s brother, James Logie, who is Archie’s real target, though – a man suspected of actively aiding the rebellion. It’s for Archie to find out what Logie is up to, and to get proof of his treason if he can. But Archie finds in Logie a decent, honourable man, the type of man he would be proud to call friend, and suddenly he is torn between duty and this unexpected liking for his enemy…

This is a fairly straightforward adventure story, but with enough depth to make it rather more than a simple romance. The Jacobite rebellions were such a major event in Scottish history that they have been used over and over by authors, and are often reinterpreted according to the contemporary view of Scotland’s relationship with England. Jacob sits somewhere in the middle – writing in 1911, some 160 years after the events, she isn’t obliged to look nervously over her shoulder at a Hanoverian government still wary of a Stuart comeback, but she also avoids the over-romanticisation of the Jacobites in which many authors have indulged over the years. Although I felt she was rather on the side of the Hanoverians overall, she shows that there was honour, and dishonour, on both sides.

Christian Flemington is a great character, cold and autocratic – a Lady Macbeth using her grandson as a weapon to get revenge for old grievances. She loves Archie but expects total obedience to her will and sees any opposition as personal disloyalty. So when Archie begins to sympathise with Logie, she has no hesitation in giving him a choice – do as she bids or be cut off from her and from his home forever. Archie also loves his grandmother, making his choice doubly hard.

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Archie himself is a likeable character and brings some humour and lightness to what is essentially a dark story of civil war and betrayal. He and Christian together give an idea of the differences between the generations – the old guard still strongly divided over the deposition of the Stuarts; the younger ones, despite this being the time of the last desperate throw of the Stuart dice, perhaps looking more to a future where those divisions can be forgotten and the country united.

The story is well told, with Archie’s dilemma giving it a good deal of moral ambiguity. The writing is excellent, in standard English with only a tiny amount of Scots appearing occasionally in dialogue. Jacob is a little weaker in the action sequences, failing on the whole to create an atmosphere of drama, but this is a small part of the book so it didn’t drag it down overall. The main strength is the characterisation, not only of the lead characters, but of the several secondary characters who play a part in the plot. Jacob takes us from high society to low, into the drawing-rooms of Edinburgh in the company of the self-important Lord Balnillo and his friends, and into the world of intrigue carried out in inns and back streets under cover of night, with Logie and the marvellous Skirlin’ Wattie, the bagpiping beggar who has his own secret – a character almost Dickensian in his eccentricity, and a wonderful mix of comic and tragic.

The occupant of the cart was an elderly man, whom accident had deprived of the lower part of his legs, both of which had been amputated just below the knee. He had the head of Falstaff, the shoulders of Hercules, and lack of exercise had made his thighs and back bulge out over the sides of his carriage, even as the bag of his pipes bulged under his elbow. He was dressed in tartan breeches and doublet, and he wore a huge Kilmarnock bonnet with a red knob on the top. The lower half of his face was distended by his occupation, and at the appearance of Flemington by the gate, he turned on him, above the billows of crimson cheek and grizzled whisker, the boldest pair of eyes that the young man had ever met. He was a masterly piper, and as the tune stopped a murmur of applause went through the audience.

Violet Jacob
(c) Angus Council; Supplied by The Public Catalogue Foundation

It reminded me throughout of The Flight of the Heron, a trilogy I loved in my teens. However this one came first, so it’s possible that DK Broster, writing in the 1920s, may have been influenced by this. Each book is basically about the friendship between two men on opposite sides of the rebellion, but this is darker and less romanticised. In truth, I enjoyed The Flight of the Heron more, but I think this one is probably truer in terms of characterisation and culture, and the writing probably has more literary weight, though it’s a long time since I read The Flight of the Heron so I may be doing it an injustice. Both books have what seem to modern eyes like unmistakeable gay subtexts, but truly I think it used to be possible to actually love people of the same gender without sex coming into it. Who knows what the authors intended? And, frankly, who cares? Both are great stories whichever way you choose to read them. I enjoyed Flemington very much and recommend it, but if you only intend to read one book about the Jacobites in your life, then make it the Broster trilogy – OK, that’s three books, but you know what I mean…

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The House with the Green Shutters by George Douglas Brown

Man is born to misery…

🙂 🙂 🙂

In the small town of Barbie in the east of Scotland, John Gourlay is a big man. His business has the monopoly on carrying goods in and out of the town and he uses the power this gives him over his neighbours to bully and lord it over them. The money he makes he ploughs into the house of the title, determined to show himself off as the town’s leading resident. But he’s not an intelligent man, and when changes begin to arrive in the shape of first a wily competitor and then the new railroad, he hasn’t the capacity to adapt. The townspeople, long tired of his bullying ways, look on like a gleeful Greek chorus as his business begins to fail. His one hope rests in his son, also John, a lazy, feckless boy who has always assumed that one day he will take over the business and become in his turn the big man of the town. Now Gourlay insists that young John go to the University in Edinburgh, to learn to be a minister. But there, young John will soon get into bad company and discover the delights of the demon drink…

Well, I’m willing to bet Brown would have got on well with my old friend John Steinbeck. They could have had misanthropy competitions to see who could be the most miserable. I’m tempted to suggest that Brown might have won. There is not a single glimmer of light in this utterly depressing monotone picture of how horrible humanity is. There is some humour, but all in the sense of us laughing at them, never with them. But mostly it’s a portrayal of people being small-minded, petty, cruel, bullying and vindictive. I searched the pages in the hopes of finding a character with any positive qualities at all, but I searched in vain. And starting miserable, it goes downhill from there, descending finally into a kind of orgy of alcoholism, madness and tragedy. Although the tragedy aspect didn’t really work, because by that stage I couldn’t have cared less what happened to any of these hideous people.

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Looking hard for the positives, the language, a mix of standard English with a liberal dose of Scots mixed in, is very well done. As an antiquated Scot I didn’t have much difficulty with it, but it might be a tougher read for people without a familiarity with the older Scots dialects. There are some wonderful descriptive passages of the town and country, and the characters are very well drawn and unfortunately quite believable, though there is a sneering quality to the writing of them that left me feeling that Brown probably had an over-healthy sense of his own superiority. The humour is mainly aimed at the mean-mindedness of the characters, and is therefore both amusing and off-putting at the same time. The darker aspects have a great sense of inevitability about them – a fatalism brought about by the heavily patriarchal culture, where the man may rule with as heavy a hand as he chooses. Alcohol is shown as the deeply destructive force it indeed has long been in Scottish culture, and still is, though I think to a somewhat lesser degree these days.

George Douglas Brown

But what is missing is any contrast or warmth. Even in hard-drinking Scotland, not all men were horrible to their wives and children, nor to each other. I understand that Brown was writing this, in 1901, as a realist reaction to the excessive sentimentality of the portrayal of Scottish village life in the earlier Scottish literary movement known as the Kailyard school, but I feel he’s gone way too far in the other direction. While I do recognise the character traits, cruelty and mean-spiritedness he shows as being an accurate depiction of the worst of Scottish culture, it is not the whole of it, and by giving nothing to contrast with it, Brown ultimately fails to make his town any more convincing than the twee villages of the writers he’s reacting against.

While critics hail this as one of the greatest Scottish classics, the reaction of those readers who have rated it on Goodreads seems to suggest that the majority don’t agree, and I’m with the majority on this one. I admire the skill of it, and the use of language, but it’s not an enjoyable read. And, while it is undoubtedly insightful about one aspect of Scottish culture, it certainly doesn’t give a full or rounded picture. However, if you’re ever feeling too happy and feel the need to be reminded that man is born to misery and that life is a vale of tears, I recommend it.

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The New Road by Neil Munro

Highland adventure…

😀 😀 😀 😀 😀

Æneas Macmaster is the son of a man who turned out for the Jacobites in 1715 and was killed. Now in 1733, Æneas is tutor to the nephew of the powerful Campbell of Argyll and to Margaret, the daughter of Alexander Duncanson, who is now laird of Æneas’ father’s estate of Drimdorran. When Æneas covers up for an escapade of Margaret’s he is dismissed by the furious Drimdorran, and his uncle, a merchant, sends him north on General Wade’s New Road to forge trade links with the Highland clans. Ninian Campbell, the agent of Campbell of Argyll, is also heading north, so the two men decide to travel together. Gradually they will discover that there is a mystery surrounding the circumstances of the death of Æneas’ father, and they will have many adventures as they set about finding the truth…

This was an odd one for me, in that I started out really struggling with it and gradually grew to love it. I found the first section quite confusing, despite having a reasonable familiarity with this period of Scottish history. The language, especially the dialogue, has a healthy sprinkling of archaic Scots plus occasional Gaelic words. It takes a while for the story to emerge – at first there’s a lot of Ninian and Æneas rambling around the countryside, seemingly aimlessly. There’s also the issue of all the characters having several different names – for instance, Campbell of Argyll is also called Inveraray, Duncanson is interchangeably known by the name of his estate, Drimdorran, and Ninian is a Macgregor of the clan Campbell, and so on. But once my “ear” got tuned into the language and I worked out who all the characters were and how they were connected, it became a much easier and therefore more enjoyable read. In fact, I admired and loved the language more and more as it went on – it’s wonderfully done with beautiful rhythm, and feels completely authentic to both time and place.

Not life, nor living dangers in these glooms compelled him to stand still a moment, half-inclined to turn, but something very old and rediscovered in himself; forgotten dreads of boyhood in wild winter wastes of midnight, and his people breaking from some thicket under moon to see before them spread unfriendly straths and hear the wind in perished heather. The mist it was they cherished – not the moon who made their progress visible; too often had she brought calamity to old Clan Alpine trailing through the snow, a broken and a hunted band, with children whimpering.

First published in 1914, Munro is clearly setting out to drag some realism back into the narrative of the Jacobite era, in contrast to the gradual romanticisation that took place during the 19th century both of the risings and of Highland society in general. The whole Jacobite thing has tended to be co-opted by all of Scotland now as a heroic part of our long struggle against England, but this was never the case. In fact, most lowland Scots and even some of the Highland clans were on the other side, against the deposed Stuarts. The Campbells have become the legendary villains as the clan that took the lead against the Jacobites, and later in playing a major role in “pacifying” the Highlands on behalf of the government. But Munro shows the other side, with the Campbells as the bringers of civilisation and the Jacobite Highland chiefs as little more than lawless bandits. The New Road, built by the military under General Wade, was one of the main tools of pacification, allowing faster military response to possible future rebellions, but also opening the Highlands up to the more peaceful world of trade and commerce that had become the norm in the rest of the country. So a hated symbol of oppression if you were pro-Jacobite, or a welcome modernisation if you weren’t.

John Campbell, 2nd Duke of Argyll and Greenwich
by William Aikman

….He drew Grey Colin with a flourish from the scabbard, and the clotted blood of him that he had struck was on it: with a Gaelic utterance he laid it lightly on the young man’s head. The flesh of Æneas grewed; he retched at such an accolade.
….“What, man! are ye sick?” asked Ninian.
….“Yes!” said he, “I’m sick!” and broke into a furious condemnation of this wretched country.
….“What in Heaven’s name did ye expect?” asked Ninian. “Dancing?”
….“Everything’s destroyed for me!” cried out the lad. “The stories have been lies, and we have aye been beasts, and cloak it up in poetry.”
….“We are what God has made us!” said his friend. “And we must make the best of it.”

In fact, Æneas and Ninian spend very little time on the New Road, choosing to travel across country instead on their journey to Inverness. This allows Munro to give some great descriptions of the landscapes and of the way of life of the inhabitants at this moment just before great social change arrived. Once away from the relatively law-abiding environs of Campbell country the two men have a series of increasingly dangerous and exciting adventures, and these are great fun. It’s all a bit reminiscent of Kidnapped, I suspect intentionally, but while Stevenson’s clansmen are dirt-poor and scrabbling for existence, Munro’s are wild and lawless – I have no idea which is the more accurate depiction but I enjoyed Munro’s considerably more. There’s a lot of humour in it as well as drama and thrills and, while Æneas is the romantic lead, Ninian emerges as the real hero – crafty and practical, with a deep knowledge of the land and its people and politics. His investigation technique is entertaining as he uses a kind of sly, cunning guile to divine the truth behind local legends and tales.

….They were among a concourse of the hills, whose scarps were glistening in a sun that gave the air at noon a blandness, though some snow was on the bens. The river linked through crags and roared at linns; all rusty-red and gold the breckans burned about them; still came like incense from the gale-sprig perfume. They sat, those two young people, by the fire, demure and blate at first, to find themselves alone. From where they sat they could perceive down to the south the wrecks of Comyn fortresses; the Road still red and new was like a raw wound on the heather, ugly to the gaze, although it took them home. Apart from it, and higher on the slope, a drove-track ran, bright green, with here and there on it bleached stones worn by the feet of by-past generations. They saw them both – the Old Road and the New – twine far down through the valley into Badenoch, and melt into the vapours of the noon. And something in the prospect brought the tears to Janet’s eyes.
….“For why should I be sad?” she asked him suddenly, “to see that old track of the people and the herd, and this new highway boasting—boasting——?”

Book 57 of 90

I’m not going to pretend this one’s for everyone. A basic understanding of the historical setting (at least as much as I’ve given above) is essential, I think, and, although the main body of the text is standard English overlaid with Scots rhythms and is wonderfully done, I found some of the language quite demanding despite being an archaic Scot myself. But if it takes your fancy, then I highly recommend it. It’s a great combination of being half-nostalgic for the loss of those wild days but also clear-sighted about the culture of greed and lawlessness that lay beneath the later romanticisation of the Highland clan chiefs. And after a slow and rather tricky start, it becomes a fast-paced and exciting adventure story, complete with deadly peril and a touch of romance. Truly deserving of its reputation as a great Scottish classic!

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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.

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Cloud Howe by Lewis Grassic Gibbon

The after-shocks of war…

🙂 🙂 🙂

(NB Since this is a review of the second part of a trilogy, it will contain some mild spoilers for the first part, Sunset Song.)

The Great War is over, and with it so is the first phase of Chris Guthrie’s life. Now married to Robert Colquohoun, she goes with him to make a home in the small town of Segget, where he is to take up the position of minister in the Presbyterian church. The book takes us from the end of the war through to the ‘30s, a time frame that includes the Depression, the General Strike and the rise of the two warring philosophies that would rip the European twentieth century apart – fascism and socialism. In Scotland as elsewhere, the horrors of the war have left scars – not just on those people who have lost sons and husbands, but on those who served and came home, some left physically maimed and others injured more insidiously, with what we would now term PTSD but which then was called shell-shock, if it was recognised at all, or was ignored completely. The other casualty of war, Gibbon suggests, was faith. Church attendances are down, even believers are baffled by how a good God could have allowed such atrocities to happen, and people are now willing to defy the Church completely and openly call themselves atheist. It is in this atmosphere that the rather visionary Robert will try to inspire his new flock and Chris will dutifully observe the Church’s practices while making little effort to pretend that she believes in Robert’s God.

This second volume of A Scots Quair is written with considerably more dialect than the first, and so will be a tougher read for non-Scots or younger Scots, though it’s done very well. I might as well start by saying I don’t think it’s anywhere near to Sunset Song in terms of the writing, structure or in what it has to say about society, though it tries. I found most of it a drag – a series of anecdotes about the occupants of this small town, who drift in and out in order to help Gibbon make points, rather than his points arising seemingly naturally from their stories. These anecdotes are designed to show their lives, hardships and the state of politics. Some are interesting, some mildly humorous, many are quite crude, and for me they didn’t quite come together to form a quilt – they are more like scraps of material waiting for someone to stitch them together. Almost no-one is good – I don’t mean that they don’t conform to society’s moral codes, although they don’t, but that they don’t seem to love and support each other. We see children who hate and abuse their parents and vice-versa, men who abuse and sometimes rape women, women who are spiteful and vindictive. There’s a lot of drunkenness which would certainly have been true of Scottish society, but a lack of warmth and generosity of spirit, which doesn’t ring true to me and seems in direct contrast to the feeling of community in Sunset Song.

Book 54 of 90

Chris herself is almost entirely passive and is an example of what I mean about Gibbon using his characters. In Sunset Song, Chris had a profound connection to the land she farmed and this was a major part of her personality. Between the books, she has apparently simply given up farming and has willingly gone off to live in a town and become a housewife. Since clearly this is because Gibbon wanted to write about a town this time, it would have been less jarring if he’d left Chris in Kinraddie and given Robert a different wife. A recurring character who changes so completely between books gives a sense of dislocation rather than of continuity. He tries to show that Chris still feels connected to the land by having her going for long solitary walks, but this is no substitute. She also seems to have moved up a class, not just outwardly as one would by marrying a minister at that time, but inwardly, having developed a rather snobbish ability to look down on the townspeople.

Lewis Grassic Gibbon

Robert is a much more successful character and for me is the heart of the book. Outwardly he seems fine after his war experiences, although he has been left with weakened lungs from exposure to gas attacks. But inwardly, his experiences haunt him increasingly, making his relationship with his God fraught – wavering between loss of faith and visionary ecstasy. He is also torn when he sees the poverty and inequality of society growing ever worse. Politically he is drawn towards the ideas of the socialists, but they espouse atheism as part of their creed, leaving Robert in an uneasy no-man’s-land. I wondered why this man, to whom religion was far more than a tradition or a job, would have married a woman who not only didn’t believe but made it clear from the beginning that she had no intention of fulfilling the customary role of a minister’s wife by becoming a central figure in the community. They seem entirely mismatched and again Gibbon doesn’t show us their courtship, which happened off-page between books.

Chris’ son, Ewan, grows up during the course of the book and it seems to set him up to be the main character in the third volume. Through him, we see the increasing Englishing of the language and culture – a theme also central to Sunset Song.

Overall, I found this disappointing and not nearly as memorable as the excellent and highly recommended Sunset Song. I will go on to read the third book, Grey Granite, but more out of a sense of duty than eager anticipation.

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Walking Wounded by William McIlvanney

Our national mirror…

😀 😀 😀 😀 😀

McIlvanney takes to the short story form to create a collection of character studies of the inhabitants of his recurring setting of Graithnock, which is a lightly fictionalised version of Kilmarnock, an industrial town in Ayrshire in the West of Scotland. The stories take place just as the ‘70s were giving way to the ‘80s – a time when hope seemed to be turning to despair in light of the Thatcherite policies that would rip the industrial heart out of Scotland over the next decade. McIlvanney rarely addresses politics directly in his work but it infuses everything he writes and, as a result, his books catch the national psyche at a given moment in time. His characters’ stories grow out of their social and cultural circumstances.

The stories here often overlap and share commonalities – many of the characters know each other, drink in the same pub, share the same histories. So they gradually build together to give a full picture of the town and to show how, in any society, the actions of the individual arise from and add to the prevailing culture. With his usual wonderfully insightful prose, McIlvanney makes us care about these people – we laugh with them and cry with them, celebrate their victories, sorrow over their disappointments and mourn their griefs. And we (certainly the Scots among us) recognise ourselves in at least some of them, as we recognise our friends and neighbours in the others.

Margaret and John Hislop had one of those marriages where there wasn’t room to swing an ego. All was mutual justice and consideration and fairness. He only golfed between the hours of two and six on a Sunday because that was when she visited her mother. Her night-class was always on a Tuesday, regardless of what was available then, for that was when he worked late. Both watched television programmes which were neither’s favourite. They didn’t have arguments, they had discussions. It was a marriage made by committee and each day passed like a stifled yawn. It was as if the family crypt had been ordered early and they were living in it.

I love McIlvanney. Having come late to his work as his long career drew to a close, I am reading his books with a retrospective eye and a feeling of profound familiarity – the twentieth century Scottish world he recorded is the one that I too lived. His culture and language and humour are mine too, his people are people I knew, his view of Scotland and the world aligns largely with my own. My only hesitation about him, and I wonder if this is the reason that despite his huge talent he’s still not as widely known as he should be, is that perhaps his books are so deeply embedded in our small society that possibly they don’t have the same resonance for people not so familiar with it. The humanity of his characters is undoubtedly universal, but perhaps a Scottish reader’s instinctive understanding of their cultural hinterland is why he’s so much more revered in Scotland than outside it.

Book 7 of 25

The first story in the book is an example of what I mean. It tells of a young lad asking his boss for a large loan and three months off work. The boss not unnaturally wants to know the reason, and the lad tells him he wants to go to Argentina to see Scotland play in the World Cup. The boss first tries to talk him out of this ridiculous dream, then realises that the boy is a younger version of himself – that he once dared to dream big too – and reflects on how his life has narrowed into a staid middle-aged routine. Standard short story fare, as I summarise it, although wonderfully written, but oh! If you’d been young in Scotland in 1978 when we qualified for the World Cup! If you’d experienced the ecstatic excitement, the national pride, the Mohammed Ali-like hubris of the team manager, Ally MacLeod, the half-believed dream that we might, like Jack, kill the giants and bring home the cup! If you’d stood in the national stadium with thousands upon thousands of others in Ally’s Tartan Army to cheer and sing the team on their way! And if, three games later, you’d wept bitter tears of heartbreak when they slunk home – out in the first round – beaten on goal difference – humiliated! Then you’d understand! This isn’t just a story of two men – it’s a story of Scotland’s crushed dreams!

Ally’s Tartan Army send off – that’s me in the crowd!
Life lesson: Never hold your victory parade before the tournament…

Few of the stories are based around such a specific event, but many of them make use of aspects of working class Scottish culture of the time, especially from the male perspective – football, pubs and getting drunk, dog racing, gambling. What they’re about, however, is men and women trying to survive the things life throws at them – love, marriage, divorce, jobs and unemployment, bereavement, petty crime, violence, prison. Makes it sound much gloomier than it is – while some of the stories made me cry, just as many made me laugh, and a couple made me do both at the same time. McIlvanney’s characters are mostly resilient – the walking wounded of the title. Life may knock them down but they crawl back up, often with a pawky quip at fate’s expense, and ready themselves to face tomorrow.

William McIlvanney

McIlvanney hailed from the same area as our national bard, Robert Burns, and I suspect that Benny’s thoughts in the following quote may be McIlvanney’s own…

Benny loved Robert Burns, not just the poetry, which he could quote at great and sometimes pub-emptying length, but the man, the hard life, the democratic stance of him, the sense he gave of effortlessly incarnating Scottishness, the fact that he, like Benny, was an Ayrshireman. Scottishness was very important to Benny. He wasn’t sure what it was but, whatever it was, it bit like lockjaw and the fever of it was in his blood. When he read Burns, he looked in a national mirror that told him who he was and forbade him to be diminished by what other people had. He was enough in himself.

I wish very much that I could have told him that, what Burns meant to Benny, McIlvanney has come to mean to me. Our bard of the twentieth century – our national mirror.

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The Observations by Jane Harris

Victorian sensation from the maid’s perspective…

😀 😀 😀 😀 😀

Bessy Buckley may be young in years but her hard and sordid upbringing means she’s old in experience. Fleeing from her hometown of Glasgow in search of a better life, she finds herself more or less accidentally taking a job as maid at Castel Haivers, the home of Arabella Reid and her husband James, halfway along the road to Edinburgh. Arabella is young, beautiful and kind, and the affection-starved Bessy is soon devoted to her new mistress. But the job has some strange requirements, such as that Bessy must keep a journal of her actions and thoughts every day, and show it to Arabella on demand. Soon Bessy finds she’s not the first maid to whom Arabella has shown peculiar attention; in particular there was a girl named Nora, who died in circumstances that seem to cast a dark shadow over the household…

In some ways, this is a take on the Victorian sensation novel complete with touches of Gothic horror, insanity, shocking deaths and so on. But what makes it feel fresh is the perspective of Bessy, our narrator. She’s both feisty and vulnerable, strong but sometimes unsure of herself, devoted to but clear-sighted about the flaws of her mistress. She’s learned to take care of herself in a world that hasn’t shown her much care and has retained the capacity to love, despite love having been in short supply in her brief life to date.

However, it’s Bessy’s voice that is so special – a real tour-de-force from Harris in recreating an entirely credible dialect and slang for that place and time. Bessy (like the author) is Irish originally, as were so many Glaswegians, and I loved the way Harris managed to give her language an authentic touch of Glasgow-Irish at points. Contrary to popular belief I wasn’t around in 1863 when the book is set, but a lot of the dialect words and speech mannerisms are familiar from my youth, and the pawky, irreverent, occasionally bawdy sense of humour is just about perfect. I’ve seen non-Scots say they found it a bit tricky at first to get used to the language, but for me it was as natural as listening to people who were elderly when I was a child. It’s not overdone – it’s more the rhythms and style that make it work rather than excessive use of specifically Scots vocabulary.

Jane Harris

The story itself unfolds slowly and perhaps stays a bit low-key to really compete with true sensation novels. But I liked this more realistic approach and found the whole thing stayed very well within the range of credibility. It takes us to some dark places, not least in Bessy’s childhood, but Bessy isn’t the type to wallow – she prefers to shut her mind off to the bad memories as much as she can, and her resilience and strength make her an extremely likeable protagonist to spend time with. She’s not always wise in her actions but her intentions are usually good, and she’s hard on herself when she gets things wrong. There are some nicely spooky moments and plenty of drama to keep things ticking along, but the main joy is in the language and characterisation. While we get to know Bessy intimately, Arabella is more enigmatic – perhaps the reader understands her a little better than Bessy does. Again Harris is very skilled at playing into the reader’s expectations of this type of novel while leaving Bessy struggling to understand the psychological forces at play – the intellectual and physical repression of women, the Victorian tropes of hysteria and insanity, the Gothic horror of candlelit gloom and Freudian dream sequences, the hints of unacknowledged lesbian desire, etc.

I might have criticised it, as some have, for being a little too long and drawn-out for its content, but I enjoyed Bessy’s voice so much that I never found it dragging and would happily have stayed in her company for as long as she liked. Loved it, and will be seeking out more of Harris’ work – highly recommended!

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Book 11 of 20

Conviction by Denise Mina

And… action!

😀 😀 😀 😀 🙂

As Anna does all her usual early morning tasks, she’s expecting this to be a routine day. But then her best friend, Estelle, turns up at the door, and her husband, Hamish, comes downstairs with a suitcase and an announcement – he’s leaving Anna and going off with Estelle, taking the kids with him. Left alone and feeling shattered, Anna looks for something to distract her mind, and begins listening to a true-crime podcast. She’s amazed to discover that an old friend of hers, Leon, is at the centre of the story – as victim, or murderer, or perhaps both. With nothing better to do and not wishing to dwell on her broken life, Anna sets off to look up old acquaintances and do a bit of digging. Along the way she acquires a travelling companion – Estelle’s abandoned husband, Fin…

There are some dark elements to the story – rape, murder, suicide, anorexia – but the tone is surprisingly light. In the hands of someone less skilled I might have said too light – the handling of the anorexia in particular veered close to being a bit too jocular at times, even though I thought it was a quite realistic portrayal. But Mina keeps the book rattling along as such a pace that there’s no time to dwell on the bleaker themes – this is very much an action thriller. We soon learn that Anna is a woman with a past, one that has damaged her but made her strong. She’s a survivor, and since she quickly decides she’s not going to wallow in misery over her marriage, the reader is happily saved from wallowing with her.

Like all thrillers, the less you know going in the more you’ll enjoy it, so I won’t go too deeply into the story. Anna’s past soon erupts into the present and, as she and Fin hunt for the truth about Leon’s death, she in turn becomes hunted by the people she has been hiding from for years. It becomes a dangerous race across Europe as they begin to suspect that past and present might be connected in some way. Anna and Fin are an unlikely pairing (as Anna would be the first to point out) and their interactions add a lot to the humour and give the book its warmth. There’s an enjoyable mix of excitement and humour, with some serious moments to keep it grounded, and the tension gradually builds to an excellent (if improbable) and totally unexpected dénouement.

Denise Mina

OK, credibility got thrown overboard fairly early on and, after struggling to the surface a couple of times, finally sank without trace. If you’re looking for deep and meaningful, this isn’t it, despite it touching on some of the themes of the moment. But I found it thoroughly enjoyable, fast-paced and fun, and very well written. This is only the second Mina I’ve read, the other being the darkly realistic The Long Drop, and I find it hard to imagine two books more different in tone and style. I’m looking forward to getting to know her work better and, meantime, happily recommend this one. If Hitchcock were still with us, he could make it into a great film…

NB This book was provided for review by the publisher, Harvill Secker.

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Book 9 of 20

The Kiln by William McIlvanney

A man and a nation…

😀 😀 😀 😀 😀

When we first meet him, Tam Docherty, the first person narrator, is on his way from his home in Grenoble back to Graithnock, the Ayrshire town where he was born and bred. As he travels, he is visited by memories of his childhood and adolescence, his later life and marriage, but mostly of the summer of 1955 when, between leaving school and going to University, he worked in the local brickworks for a few months, and learned a little about life, girls and himself.

Tam is the grandson of the first Tam who was the central character in Docherty, McIlvanney’s earlier book set before and after WW1. In that book, the first Tam was determined that his son, Conn, would not follow him down the mines – that Conn would get an education and raise himself out of the hard-scrabble hand-to-mouth existence of his forebears. Older Tam’s dreams took a little longer to be realised, and it’s with young Tam, Conn’s son, that we see the first generation of the family go to university and move out of the working class, economically at least.

In large part a coming-of-age story, the present of the book, published in 1996, also shows us Tam in middle-age, contrasting the hopes and dreams of his seventeen-year-old self with the reality of how his life has turned out. Tam’s early story, I would guess, is heavily autobiographical – he is a working-class lad from a fictionalised version of McIlvanney’s birth town of Kilmarnock, with an education and aspirations to be a writer. The later years, I suspect, diverge more from actual events in McIlvanney’s life, but read very much as though we are reading his personal reflections, and perhaps glimpsing his own feelings of disappointment that life hadn’t turned out quite as glitteringly as he’d once dared to hope.

However, Tam’s story reflects the lives of so many Scots of his generation that it also tells the story of the nation in the latter half of the twentieth century. Growing up in the ‘50s in a country that had emerged from the second devastating war of the century determined that this time we really would make a better world, Tam had opportunities no previous generation of working class children had, not the least of which was free university education. For many families like Tam’s, this would be the first time when social mobility was a real possibility, with graduates able to lift themselves out of the pits and shipyards and factories into teaching, medicine, law. But McIlvanney shows the disconnect this caused for many between their working class roots and their middle class ambitions. As Tam, the wee lad from Graithnock, becomes Tom, Master of Arts, a teacher and writer, he sits uneasily between the two classes, neither fully one nor the other, and perhaps he never truly believes that he deserves the life he’s now living. As a result, he seems unable to avoid wrecking everything he achieves. And his feelings of personal failure mirror those of the nation, as those dreams of the ‘50s fade into the industrial devastation of the ‘80s and ‘90s, with Scotland too left disillusioned and angry.

The book is a wonderful mix of humour, nostalgia and pathos. Young Tam, with whom we spend by far the most time, is on the cusp of adulthood and in the midst of a desperate and very funny quest to lose his virginity. Although the period is a couple of decades earlier than my own teen years, I found the attitudes and social manners entirely recognisable, and described with real warmth and affection. It’s a man’s world, for sure, but the women are strong and opinionated, and give as good as they get. It’s Tam’s mother who is the driving force for him to go to University – his father, like so many men of that time, is struggling with the idea that his son won’t follow in his footsteps. Again, McIlvanney uses them to show the two opposing forces faced by the youth of that era – the push to leap into the adventure of the unknown, the pull to stay in the safety of the familiar.

William McIlvanney

I found middle-aged Tom just as believable, though less entertaining. His disappointment leads him to be argumentative and confrontational, to the point of driving away those closest to him. However, his journey home reminds him of who he once was and what his hopes were, and gives him time and space to reflect on who he now is and, to a degree, on what Scotland now is. I wondered how the tone might have changed had McIlvanney written the book ten or twenty years later, when his personal stature had grown to the point where almost every Scottish writer points to him as an influence, and when Scotland had achieved its own Parliament and revived its sense of national identity. But that would have been a different book, and not necessarily a better one. Another excellent novel from the pen of the Scottish master – an insightful and enjoyable look at a man and, through his story, at a nation. Highly recommended.

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The Fair Maid of Perth by Sir Walter Scott

St Valentine’s Day villainy…

😀 😀 😀 😀 😀

Catherine Glover, generally known as the Fair Maid of her hometown of Perth, is beloved by the town’s famed armourer, Henry Smith of the Wynd. But she has also caught the eye of the pleasure loving and dissolute Earl of Rothsay*, eldest son and heir to King Robert III. On St Valentine’s Day, these men will both try to win Catherine, one honourably, one dishonourably, setting in motion a chain of events that will involve the citizens of Perth in the high politics and treacheries of the nobility, and the wild feuds of the Highland clans which inhabit the land to the north of the Fair City.

I first read this book as a young teenager back in the Dark Ages and remembered nothing about it except that I loved it. Since then I’ve read a fair amount of Scott, with varying levels of appreciation. Most recently, I read and was rather disappointed by what is probably his most famous work, Waverley, and wondered if I had simply fallen out of love with Scott’s style over the years. Not so! This book, in my opinion, is vastly superior to Waverley, having all of its strengths and none of its weaknesses. It’s a top rank historical novel that deserves to be more widely read, and is undoubtedly the book I would recommend to people coming to Scott for the first time. It’s written almost entirely in standard English (none of the annoying Latin, French and Gaelic which pepper Waverley) so is easily accessible to the modern reader. And it’s as powerful in its way as A Tale of Two Cities, with a deep understanding of the history and politics of the time but also, more importantly, of the workings of the human heart and mind.

Catherine seeks advice from her spiritual adviser

The period is the tail end of the 14th century, when Scotland was in name one nation under one monarch, but where the Highlands clans operated as separate fiefdoms and were a constant threat to the peace of the nation from the north. At the southern border, Scotland and England were in a perpetual state of enmity – sometimes warring, sometimes skirmishing, but never truly at peace. It’s a period about which I know very little, but didn’t need to – Scott gives all the information that the reader needs to understand the plot without bogging the book down in unnecessary historical detail. He actually shortens the timeline, compressing various events that happened at different times to bring them together into his story, but he manages to do this without seriously distorting the underlying significance of them. In Scott’s story, events that in real time took place over a decade or so happen in a period of weeks, starting on St Valentine’s Day and ending on Palm Sunday.

“True — true,” said the monarch, reseating himself; “more violence — more battle. Oh, Scotland! Scotland! if the best blood of thy bravest children could enrich thy barren soil, what land on earth would excel thee in fertility! When is it that a white hair is seen on the beard of a Scottishman, unless he be some wretch like thy sovereign, protected from murder by impotence, to witness the scenes of slaughter to which he cannot put a period? Let them come in, delay them not. They are in haste to kill, and, grudge each other each fresh breath of their Creator’s blessed air. The demon of strife and slaughter hath possessed the whole land!”

Scott tells the story in the third person, taking the reader in turn to the various participants, so that sometimes we are in the presence of the weak King Robert and his nobles, all scheming and jostling for power; sometimes we are with Rothsay and his disreputable followers, taking their pleasure at the expense of the decent burghers of Perth; and mostly we’re with those burghers – Henry, Catherine, her father Simon Glover and various other townspeople, as they try to live honest Christian lives in a time when security was scarce and men had to be willing to fight for their own safety and to protect the women they loved. Later, we spend time with the Highland clans, seeing how they lived (perhaps – Scott has a reputation for creating the modern image of the clans from his imagination, but it rings true enough for this reader).

The monk and the glee maiden

There are lots of great characters in the novel. Henry is a famed fighter, trying to tame his warring nature for the sake of peace-loving Catherine. Through her, we get a glimpse at the state of the Church, with the first hints of the Reformation to come and with the fear of being accused of heresy ever present. Simon is a good and decent man, and a loving father. Conachar, the young Highland boy who is his apprentice, allows us to see the attitudes of the townspeople to their wild Highland neighbours. The Royals are excellent – poor Robert III, who means well but is ineffective as either King or father, his scheming and disloyal brother Albany and the feuding Earls of March and Douglas, each given extraordinary power due to the weakness of the King. Rothsay’s followers include some great baddies – Ramorny, who has a personal reason to want vengeance against Henry; Bonthron, Ramorny’s beast-like assassin; and the marvellous Henbane Dwining, a skilled physician who uses his arts for evil as well as for good and is deliciously sinister and manipulative.

“There is no room for pardon where offence must not be taken,” answered the mediciner. “An insect must thank a giant that he does not tread on him. Yet, noble knight, insects have their power of harming as well as physicians. What would it have cost me, save a moment’s trouble, so to have drugged that balm, as should have made your arm rot to the shoulder joint, and your life blood curdle in your veins to a corrupted jelly? What is there that prevented me to use means yet more subtle, and to taint your room with essences, before which the light of life twinkles more and more dimly, till it expires, like a torch amidst the foul vapours of some subterranean dungeon? You little estimate my power, if you know not that these and yet deeper modes of destruction stand at command of my art. But a physician slays not the patient by whose generosity he lives, and far less will he the breath of whose nostrils is the hope of revenge destroy the vowed ally who is to favour his pursuit of it.”

But it’s the plot that makes the novel. It moves along at a good pace, never losing track of the various strands – Henry and Catherine, the Royal power plays, Rothsay and his scurrilous followers. And it all leads up to one of the most harrowingly dramatic climaxes I’ve read, as the Highland feud is brought to a bloody and horrific halt. I don’t want to say too much about the Highland strand since it develops late in the book and so takes us into spoiler territory, but it’s a brilliant depiction of a blood feud, of the savagery of hand-to-hand battle, of sacrifice and the loyalty of kinship, of the honour given to the physically brave and the shame heaped on the coward. It moved me to tears for more than one reason. And even more horrifyingly, this part of it is based on actual events.

Book 42 of 90

A great book, and a true classic. If you only ever read one Scott novel, make it this one. It gets my highest recommendation!

*Some modern publications show this as Rothesay, the modern spelling of the town from which the title derives. However, my copy gives the old spelling throughout, so I’ve stuck with that, despite my spell-checker’s frantic attempts to change it!

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