â€˜A Redoubling of Lifeâ€™: Allan Massie and Crisis
ITexts, violence and the Shirra
In 2002 I alienated influential people by attacking the Edinburgh Book Festival, the first and now biggest of several such hoolies which descend on Scots towns â€“ Melrose, Wigtown, etc. For such lese-majestÃ© â€“ pointing out the Bookfestâ€™s neglect of Scottish writing â€“ I was shown the door by a clutch of Scottish cultural bureaucrats who had collectively produced a book and a half. I intend to alienate even more by pointing out the absence, on the list of 161 texts one of which Scots schoolchildren must master, published in the Scotsman website on 11 June, the name of my defender on that occasion: my friend and standing opponent Dr Alan Massie, honoured by Strathclyde University, something long overdue.
Commending Massie may not favour his cause, but it must be done. We were as a duo a bijou version of German TVâ€™s â€˜Literarisches Quartettâ€™ (a four-wheel drive for the ego of Marcel Reich-Ranicki) or the Waldorf and Statler of Scottish politics: â€˜Wry wit, anyone?â€™ on the state of the nation â€˜or some such discourse that we all understandâ€™. Itâ€™s time for the Scottish ploy, politically successful so far, but economically and culturally torpid, to recognise its Banquo.
Think. Edinburgh, celebrated for forensic literature, from Lord Cockburn to R L Stevenson, Conan Doyle and Ian Rankin, gets ransacked by its supposed financial elite, unpunished and all but unreported by that literati. Scotlandâ€™s â€˜pinstripe Darienâ€™ has made the Holyrood Parliament, faut de mieux, the centre of national consciousness. The Edimbourgeoisie was pleasured in Charlotte Square, but the bill was huge and the notes were dud.
Was this foreseen in the brave days of the Constitutional Convention? No. But Massie came in from the Unionist cold in a wary accommodation with the new order, and seems to be growing into Walter Scott redux : a writer adept at manoeuvring a mighty output â€“ as fictionalist, teacher, critic, polemicist, rugby commentator (weâ€™ll come to that â€¦) â€“â€˜to bring good things onâ€™ but in a way that contests as well as composes; albeit within an ambiguous literary culture. â€˜Crisis is a redoubling of lifeâ€™ â€“ someone cites Chateaubriand in the first novel of Massieâ€™s Bordeaux Trilogy. Few others seem so well-fitted for the challenge.
To regain Scott, the word-child, for the 200th birthday of Waverley, involves a rencontre with Massieâ€™s contemporary, parallel, sprawling but never purposeless Abbotsford: of fiction, romance, commentary and politics, shrewdly speculative, seldom routine, and there: â€˜inoppugnableâ€™ as Hugh MacDiarmid would have said. For anyone of the Kindle generation, lured into reading the Shirra by the mercy of large type, Massieâ€™s own â€˜Waverley novelâ€™, The Ragged Lion, purporting to be Scottâ€™s vanished autobiography, seems the best way in â€“ not only to Scott but to his sceptical, frustrating yet tolerant and life-enhancing, successor.
Anglo-Scot, public school and Cambridge college, tweeds and dogs, untipped Gitanes, problematic teeth. There is about Massie an understated, world-tolerating charm that recalls not just the obvious John Buchan but other productive, risk-taking, further left doppelgaengers â€“ from Cambridge alone Angus Calder, Hamish Henderson, Karl Miller, Neal Ascherson: other pubs, other groupings. â€˜Jâ€™ai vecuâ€™, AbbÃ© Sieyesâ€™ self-assessment, is, coldly, a craft-claim of the Nationalist veteran. â€˜I have survived fucking-awful years of pubs and committees and tiny, pointless meetings, seeing my friends going to the wall or falling over. I am still here.â€™ Massie was similarly placed on the Conservative side: trying to justify an incompetent ruling elite, what John Stuart Mill (unlikely to be a confrere) called a â€˜Kakistocracyâ€™ â€“ a suitably cloacal description for the inhabitants of the New Club in Edinburgh.
Perhaps, in his alcohol days, Massie might have navigated those heavy sessions in Edinburgh pubs â€“ the all-but forgotten Dean Ramsayâ€™s Reminiscences of National Life and Character (1857) explores exhaustively a horror that in Henry Cockburn comes over as a continuous joke narrated by beetroot Raeburn faces. Fortunately, he couldnâ€™t manage the liquor at all. The recent Surviving (2009), a krimi set in Rome but primed in Scotland, sets the scene as memorably as The Master of Ballantraeâ€™s creepy tale of guilt-free murder on the Campagna. Massie dried out and woke up (like Thomas the Rhymer or Scottâ€™s American fan Washington Irvingâ€™s Rip van Winkle) to find all changed, and addiction snappily monetised as the â€˜novel of contemporary Scotlandâ€™ which â€“ he must wryly acknowledge â€“ he had in part created.
In a ghostly parallel to the Ossian-to-Waverley years 1760-1814, the literary market and â€˜such intellect as comes to handâ€™ have combined to make Scottish fiction a self-assessing economy. Edinburghâ€™s best-selling â€˜big fourâ€™â€“ Irvine Welsh, Ian Rankin, J K Rowling and Alexander McCall Smith â€“ are there as phenomenae of the Northern Wizard sort. Meeting the product-description they seem trapped in it, partly because of the mechanisation of publishing. What of them will survive in a decade? If the answerâ€™s â€˜nothingâ€™, will anything have been lost? Only Rankin, of the four, offers serious social inquiry, vitiated by inferior TV adaptations (in which he has taken no interest) and â€“ as a contribution to a quasi-historical type â€“ what may be a central flaw. He has acknowledged the importance of Massieâ€™s advice during one creative crisis to persevere with genre fiction, yet he also insists his Edinburgh gangland is imported from Glasgow, warping inference from entourage and milieu. This mismatch wonâ€™t be repeated in Massieâ€™s present absorbing project, set in Vichy France and brooded-over by Richard Cobb as well as Georges Simenon.
Megafraud, only occasionally violent, spirited Edinburgh finance away. Never off the tabloid headlines yet spared the attentions of investigative reporters, the Glasgow hoods and their political, economic and legal satraps have used an advocate establishment, fed on legal aid, to preserve â€˜landlordsâ€™, â€˜godfathersâ€™, â€˜enforcersâ€™ in the badlands of the West. A culture of illegalism really does bind the two cities, but Rankin â€“ who once suggestively described John Rebusâ€™s milieu as â€˜post-imperialâ€™ â€“ has never broken from the genre to follow this up.
There is no primal political crime but â€“ just as you canâ€™t read Simenon without being aware of Vichy â€“ there ought to have been one. This was tantalisingly anticipated in Massieâ€™s favoured contemporary William McIlvanneyâ€™s Strange Loyalties (1991) in which the future of a group of talented, ambitious graduates is blighted by a crime concealed and denied. Perhaps Rankin needs to â€˜fixâ€™ his central hood, Gerry Cafferty, and make vivid his descent from Conan Doyle via T S Eliot through working with a film director on the level of Huston, Chabrol or Szabo or Scotlandâ€™s sadly underemployed Bill Forsyth? But Massie has already gone through that Joseph Roth-like â€˜wake of Empireâ€™ stage and amazingly, fricatively, survived.
â€˜To read this book is to realise how many ways there are of being alive.â€™ This presents in a way the counter-argument: the Sicilian shadow that a single work, Giuseppi Tomasi di Lampedusaâ€™s The Leopard (1957) has cast over Scotland. The encomium comes from E M Forster, a novelist Massie does not love, but it echoes Stendhal and shows a concentration of vision â€“ an antipode to the synoptic attempt that Scott launched and Massie inherited. And Scott never wrote sequences of novels, about Judea, Imperial Rome, early and late medieval Europe, near-contemporary Scottish domestica and European politics â€“ on such a scale and with such generosity of understanding.
For 23 years, Massie has also been the lead book reviewer of the Scotsman, showing a disregard for Bookfest footfall in the breadth of his interest in international literature. Scottâ€™s much-cited reflection on Waverley â€“ â€˜like those who drift down the stream of a deep and smooth river, we are not aware of the progress we have made until we fix our eye on the now distant point from which we have been driftedâ€™ â€“ requires a literal vision of what the tributaries contain, how water moves. The continent and its demons re-told by someone with the same scale of imagination as â€˜Shakespearian Scottâ€™ â€“ V S Pritchettâ€™s line, not mine â€“ himself.
This image tumbled out of the process of writing but seems to have form, visual as well as literary. The Temple of Diana at Nemi â€“ whose priest kills to serve in it, till he too is killed â€“ recurs in Massieâ€™s Roman novels, casting the shadow of its dour custodian, Professor Sir James George Frazer, danced around by Buchan, Yeats, Eliot, Auden. In Luchino Viscontiâ€™s film of The Leopard (1962) and Bill Forsythâ€™s pawky, but ultimately dark, Local Hero (1983) the hoi polloi want the golden calf, whatever the cost. In both films Burt Lancaster the bull-sire plays a big swinging grandee who wants to be an astronomer; cameras dwell longingly on great telescopes. This is â€˜Milnes Bar to the Absoluteâ€™ in Tom Nairnâ€™s image of overreach: familiar to quite different Scots such as Bishop Gavin Douglas, Sir Thomas Urquhart, Hugh MacDiarmid: translators of Vergil, Rabelais, Rilke, redoublers of language. In our own day, only Massie and Alasdair Gray are in that trade.
The kick to this piece came a decade ago from research I encouraged from a German scholar, Karla Benske, on the theme of loyalty in three Scots â€˜realistâ€™ authors, James Kennaway, Stuart Hood and Massie. Ms Benske persevered against odds and got her Glasgow doctorate in 2008, but, diverted by politics, I only got back when retired from Parliament, to reading the submitted version. The focus â€“ the telescope she brought to bear â€“ clicked into operation. The thoughts that follow started personal â€“ Waldorf and Statler have enjoyed each otherâ€™s company as Border neighbours â€“ but ended historical, as with MacDiarmidâ€™s cold Rilkeian vision of his country as the â€˜Eemis Staneâ€™, hermetic history that defies writing but canâ€™t exist without it:
In the how-dumb-deid oâ€™ a cauld hairst nicht
The warlâ€™ like an eemis-stane
Wags iâ€™ the lift;
Anâ€™ my eerie memories faâ€™
Like a youdendrift.
Like a youdendrift, soâ€™s I couldna read
The words cut oot in the stane,
Had historyâ€™s hazleraw,
An the fug oâ€™ fame,
No yirdit them.
Inscription, memory, history: the totality of Massieâ€™s oeuvre â€“ ostensibly so disparate â€“ invites obvious comparison with the insights of â€˜A Drunk Man looks at the Thistleâ€™ in the aftermath of 1914-18. Both are penetrated by over-reach, of industry and empire; world-literature thrown, usually disastrously, against family and locality. â€˜Under the cakeâ€™, wrote Kennaway, â€˜lies Bony Dundee.â€™
Massieâ€™s early output shares some of John Buchanâ€™s milieu: minus the shorthand â€“ â€˜greatest living authorityâ€™, â€˜indefatigable travellerâ€™, etc. â€“ that Buchan said he borrowed from E Phillips Oppenheim, but really from Disraeli. Unease with privilege marked Massieâ€™s social novels from Change and Decay in All Around I See (1978) to the â€˜World War IIâ€™ trilogy (1989-97). The first shared the London of early Anthony Powell or Evelyn Waugh, screwed up by Patrick Hamilton and James Kelman: would-be literary loucherie (subtract the failure to be marked by war or the services, like Kennaway, Simon Raven, Kingsley Amis) Massie knew the entourage, but didnâ€™t fit. Domicile in Scotland didnâ€™t help, nor did drink, though critics found the cold clarity of the hangover in a rather flawed political novel A Night in Winter (1983) as vivid as Jack Londonâ€™s â€˜Alcoholic Memoirsâ€™ John Barleycorn (1913).
Massieâ€™s linkish, in-and-outsider element needs emphasis: not just in Scots nationality but in the Borders where he settled in the 1980s and acclimatised. Nor can the sports journalist be ignored: walks through Selkirk are subject to serious digressions by the Neville Cardus of Rugby, an oracle to folk who are quite oblivious of his novels. He treats it with a seriousness which recalls Scott (who with James Hogg arguably invented the game) on his classâ€™s worship of the law. Sport is a closed book to this writer, but rugby, more than the shabby fields of sectball, has become the national game: it is the moral centre of Massie the Borderer. Which he â€“ and this is important â€“ is not.
Massieâ€™ descent is from the Aberdeenshire MacCombies. A name suggesting the selfless Evan Dhu MacCombich, tacksman of Fergus MacIvor in Waverley, but meaning the author of the Aberdeen-Angus/Black Poll breed, a North-East Liberal MP in Gladstoneâ€™s time. If Massie has liminal politics they are those of agri-capitalism on the Highland line, and the ferocious â€˜applied Eng litâ€™ of local literary-entrepreneurs: from the Rev.Thomas Reid, founder of the Common Sense philosophy to the Rev. Sir William Robertson Nicoll, literary mage of David Lloyd George and the Rev. Patrick Murdoch and his grandson Rupert. Throw in Gordon Bennett, Bertie Forbes, the forebears of both Gordon Brown and David Cameron. All were from where Buchan Ness and the Mounth, Gehenna and the Throne, intersect: fierce and fascinating.
The Buchan loon element is politically and historically potent. It was from this hard-bitten but fecund territory that much more than Scots literature â€“ as an economic genre â€“ originated: Robertson Smith, grand authority on the Arab world, editor of the Britannica, James Legge of Huntly whose translation of Confucius opened China to the west on far more equal terms than anyone in London, Oxford or Wall Street realised. In the midst of it, at Strichen near where, in Massieâ€™s memory, you could change trains for Peterhead and via wooden herring-fishing boats, the far Baltic and the shtetls of Galicia (and these days take a helicopter to the Gulf and the Texas deeps) there lives Alex Salmond who, with folksy grin and girth, may well deliver the UKâ€™s coup de grace. Fortune hasnâ€™t brought Massie geld, but abundant interesting times.
â€˜Controversial divinityâ€™ started the flow â€“ the great realist-dialect novel of a kinsman William Alexanderâ€™s Johnie Gibb of Gushetneuk (1875) was set in a neighbouring parish â€“ but the dividend was secular, market-forces, literature. Robertson Nicoll hailed from Lumsden (his fatherâ€™s tiny manse held 13,000 volumes). The fathers of Robert Burns and Lewis Grassic Gibbon were local, as were the Mills, and the Stephens and Grants of Bloomsbury.
Politics to Massie has an element of the familial. A Border reinforcement of North East economic liberalism? Absent is the searing demand for faith, much more the province of migrants to the Southern towns. Massie has aye been a Humeian sceptic, of progress or reason, and not an idealistic soul of Carlyleian coinage, bag of human soul knotted at the end of a stick. Near him at Melrose was Hugh Trevor-Roper (Welsh-Northumbrian) but he has little of Dacreâ€™s tricksiness, the fun of letting the sluice-gates go, watching the wheel whirl round, that Walter Scott thought ended with Union and the common law. Still, he could appreciate the force of the religious impulse and its ability, because collective, to comprehend change and to adapt to other environments which recognised the continuity of old tabernacle and new print-shop â€¦
Vâ€˜Because We Are Godsâ€™
â€¦ and newer cinema. One senses in Massie that film directors are in on the act, through the sexual politics of Renoirâ€™s La Regle du Jeu or Truffautâ€™s Jules et Jim. Viscontiâ€™s Leopard, with its balletic movement and Nino Rotaâ€™s rich score, presents that operatic tradition (Visconti liked it, Lampedusa didnâ€™t) inspired by adaptations of Scott. Not least the self-confidence of a pre-industrial order that survived to menace: the Scottish-Sicilian Westworld of bars and lusso clubs, exploited women, physical facility made into arrogant unchallengeability, devious survival at the court of whatever Tsar or Mister Big. Salina in Palermo lectures the young British officers off their ironclad about his race and the alien Garibaldini: â€˜They are coming to teach us good manners. But they wonâ€™t succeed, because we are Gods.â€™
That phrase, horribly misplaced in an economically crippled, technically broken society, would be easy to agree with. Massieâ€™s strength lies in his failure to sign up. His position might seem to mirror W B Yeatsâ€™s pride in the landed folk who â€˜came from their burned-out houses to counsel the new stateâ€™ in the Irish Senate, 1922-28, but Massie had lost faith in that class long before the banking implosion. His trilogie a these about war and betrayal â€“ A Question of Loyalties, The Sins of the Father, Shadows of Empire â€“ showed solid technical MacCombie-like professionals caught by the complex of trauma and contagion from the events of 1933-1945: not only had luxury and corruption done their work; they had provoked the further distortion of revenge: Audenâ€™s â€˜Those to whom evil is done, do evil in return.â€™ The survivor of Shadows of Empire, fascism and war played out in a Buchanesque Scottish literary family, was the medical man who could still stand up: Alec Allanâ€™s friend Toby MacRae in his Gorgie surgery, trying to fashion the new Health Service. Doctor Massieâ€™s casebook? More like the shrewd, damaged Benassis of Balzacâ€™s The Country Doctor (1833), leaving the Human Comedy far behind and under the Orleanists saving his alpine Departement from literal idiocy.
Massie has seen the big bow-wow coming his way and run for cover â€“ wisely: even fewer read Scottâ€™s Napoleon than would read Carlyleâ€™s Frederick the Great. But his novels, critiques, causeries bring out the casual nearness of both writers to the folk round Johnson at the Cheshire Cheese, Boswell in the parks of Auchinleck. Afternoon men and their girls or boys, the comforts of drink or sex â€“ who still have shared a bar-table with someone laconic and huge, a Rousseau, Bonaparte, or Burns.
Who else is painting on so wide a canvas, and so convincingly?
Selkirk is far from the pabulum of a London literary factory largely producing for the Airport-American market. A young Posy Simmonds did the cover of Change and Decay in 1978. â€˜Can I have one of those?â€™: glossy blonde cadges fag from specky litterateur. Her Literary Life of 2003 is a comic catalogue of cultural decay: understood in Massieâ€™s preoccupying thematic: â€˜How we accustom ourselves, being defeated, to making terms.â€™ Loyalty, indeed, is important here â€“ the Scots word for it is â€˜lealâ€™: a single syllable, almost a conjunction, but also plastic, registering the constant necessary compromises, between lovers in each othersâ€™ arms, families, businesses, state systems, ideologies. For Eric Linklater, from the other end of the country, similarly fecund, luckier with sex â€“ even getting himself into John Buchanâ€™s most accomplished novel, the Peacockian Castle Gay â€“ this didnâ€™t matter, compared with survival on the battlefront. This differs from Massieâ€™s escape from that successive narrowing of horizons common to alcohol and ideological imprisonment: â€˜the last way out, that leads not out but inâ€™.
A recent novella, Klaus, is set in the last days of Thomas Mannâ€™s gifted, homosexual, depressive son, before his suicide in 1949. Klaus Mann had crafted the work on which Szabo created Mephisto: the nemesis of the actor Gustav Grundgens, enveloped into Nazism by his patron Joseph Goebbels, then stuck in that web. Massie had been, in the 1970s, one of the few Scots writers with a good word to say of Thatcher and despite a certain acceptance of the Salmond regime, isnâ€™t considered a convert. Tories would, however, regard his European enthusiasm as traitorous. Massie is a type of nineteenth-century Whig, and the source of his disaffection is closer to home: that blend of affection for and pessimism about â€˜the people of the Bookâ€™ encountered in Edwin Muirâ€™s â€˜Scotland 1941â€™:
Courage beyond the point and obdurate pride
Made us a nation, robbed us of a nation.
Defiance absolute and myriad-eyed
That could not pluck the palm plucked our damnation.
We with such courage and the bitter wit
To fell the ancient oak of loyalty,
And strip the peopled hill and altar bare,
And crush the poet with an iron text,
How could we read our souls and learn to be?
VI Border Warfare
Consider the landscape, and settled in it, the imperial residues. At the end of 1969 the last sleeping-car express pulled out of Hawick Station, a 100-mile Victorian masterpiece was sold for scrap, and the Borders were cut off from the rest of the country. The Waverley Line idea dated back to Walter Scott; it opened as a through route to London between 1849 and 1862. In1879 Gladstone swept into power at Westminster, orating Lincoln-style off the back of its Pullman cars. The Wilson Government wanted to close it, the radical Richard Crossman most of all, just as Harold Macmillan had actually exerted himself to fell the Euston Arch.
The local economy, once at the high-value-added end of British industry â€“ Massie claimed Hawick workers were the best-dressed in Scotland because clad in tweed and knitwear seconds from the mills â€“ continued for a bit, even attracted some high-tech, then the tyranny of distance kicked in. Branch plants closed, the kids that didnâ€™t move out, hung about; supermarkets evicted local retail. In 1999 Massie wrote, in support of reopening the line:
â€˜The next time American film producers want to make a Brigadoon, a land that time forgot, they wonâ€™t have to make it in a studioâ€¦ They can come to the Borders and make it here: Brigadoon on Tweed.â€™
New wealth moved in, coming over the Moorfoots in four-by-fours from the Edinburgh investment banks in the grand years of financial services. Turreted houses, more Barrett than Baronial, â€˜ their walls the colour of dead skinâ€™ outcropped at the field-ends, empty for weeks waiting for their ownersâ€™ return from scuba in the Caribbean or golf in the Algarve. The second home vote elected two Borders Party councillors, discreetly backed by figures from the UKIP right, opposing any restoration of the rail link in the language of rural preservation â€“ but coming from estates often valued in seven-figure sums, trades in property and â€˜investment managementâ€™.
Something of this Massie had shadowed forth in These Enchanted Woods (1993) itself a line from the most progressive, most unread of the Victorians, George Meredith. In it was the stasis of the old order, the money-mania of the new, bad behaviour gone pathological: â€˜Fascism wonâ€™t be represented by noblemen with Van Dyck faces, but by anonymous millionaires, shiny-bottomed bureaucrats and murderous gangstersâ€™, Orwell wrote in his critique of Yeats. There are quiet areas of Scotland where such a morale, and its cast, obtains.
In all this turbulence Alex Salmond still seems oddly appealing, a relict of John Galtâ€™s Provost Pawkie or Scottâ€™s Bailie Nicol Jarvie â€“ maybe even of Lampedusaâ€™s Calogera Sedara? â€“ a man to whom the trumpets are distant, and douce credit â€˜who sits at hame, anâ€™ makes the pat playâ€™ far preferable to bloodspilling honour. Yet observe the doomed aircraft carriers still building at Rosyth, the perpetuation of post-imperial grandeur, the wounded veterans, the sectarian rituals of the west, the â€˜best-seller writersâ€™ with their narrow ritual, the dwindling of literary and media creativity â€“ along with industry and craftsmanship â€“ under a bureaucratic pall.
Empire is a recurrent Massie theme, but not straightforward. The Roman novels comment on â€“ to take Benskeâ€™s typology â€“ what happens when loyalty to republican virtu is trumped by family, glory, the seduction of the young and obtainable and those hardened on the frontier, say in nearby Trimontium, by the precarious legatees of power and principle. In The Evening of the World (2001) Michael Scot â€“ the writer as wizard â€“ adjures the â€˜Stupor Mundiâ€™ Friedrich IIâ€™s court in Palermo, a far cry from the Eildons and the equally dramatic hills of Swabia from which both Scot and Staufer had wandered. In The Hanging Tree (1996) the devious, callous Maurie Laidlaw, from a poor tower-house above Jeddart, near to one debateable land, will cut his own swathe through the divided England of the Wars of the Roses.
And what happens in the conquered lands? That we shall see in the Bordeaux trilogy. A E Housman, authority on Manilius, tutor of Enoch Powell, described himself as a pejorist, not a pessimist. A foe to extremes of feeling: hence perhaps Massieâ€™s indifference to Alasdair Gray. Both are men equally locked into literature, encyclopaedic in their understanding. Gray in Something Leather makes little sense to those not into this fetish, and the same might initially seem to go for 1982 Janine, where flawed electric Promethean Jock MacInnes recovers himself only in the most marginal way. He represents that eldritch Asperger-like empathy with his subject â€“ to be found in Urquhart or Hugh Miller or MacDiarmid â€“ accompanied by a unique graphic sense. He is literally awkward in the sense that â€˜the interpreterâ€™ Sir Patrick Geddes was: the prose is insufficient â€“ the author-artist has to be invoked to sort things out. The masque has to work; we have to know the meaning of its symbolism, decode it.
Meanwhile the formula of the â€˜Big Fourâ€™ sort sells, a wayward but profitable province of the fey theme-park of The West, wasting more money in policing an Old Firm afternoon than would stock the pantries of Scots poets for a century. Both Gray and Massie have had to live with their fricative visions in a literary economy as hand-to-mouth as that of MacDiarmid. â€˜Call-centre folkâ€™, remarked Karla Benske in 1995 of the packed early-evening Glasgow bars, replacing the tea-rooms and bookshops that replaced the drawing-offices and shipbrokers. Style, maybe, but not much sustenance and not much geld.
The Unionist mind is far more complex than the nationalist â€“ because it is axiomatically pluralist, Massie would insist. This happens on both sides of the Border, and the most negative nationalist is maybe the soi-disant London liberal: â€˜Talking to Middle Englandâ€™ was the headline of a Fabian Society symposium, December 2011, glancing at but not seeing the fracture which will probably first bring down the Cameron government, then the UK state. Massie would probably light on the inherently personal, improvisational, short-term: the intrigue that replaced the Scots Whig Menzies Campbell â€“ a wing of that dishevelled sociability that embraced David Steel, Donald Dewar, Neil MacCormick, John Smith, Angus Calder â€“ by the camera-friendly Nick Clegg. Further he would, like Burns, only guess and fear.
There is little of the who-whom political in Gray, almost a superfluity of it in Massie. He may have in fact warmed to Salmondâ€™s nationalism as it has â€“ for all the inconsistencies of the First Minister â€“ habituated the country to expect something positive from Holyrood. In A Night in Winter his would-be SNP MP is socially and sexually out of control, while the wise old fund manager has, Tiresias-like, seen it all before: â€˜It has not ended the old song, but it has led us into the last verse.â€™ Not a judgement that would survive September 2008.
VII Sicily and Selkirk
Games that are ritualised, heroes trapped in a malignant world, writing turned into a cosy comfort zone or an urban Gothic excursion. Against that the image of Doctor MacRae doing good in Gorgie, or Lampedusaâ€™s donnish Chevalley, making the best of his grim Sicilian posting. That is the difference between the Prince and the teacher: Chevalleyâ€™s affection for Monterzuolo, his scruffy property in the Piedmontese back-country might square with the indescribable confusion of Massieâ€™s Selkirk scriptorium: books as a sort of intellectual mulch, from which the draft of wisdom is drawn. Redshirt Tancrediâ€™s drums and trumpets mask gambles that donâ€™t pay off, magnificent surfaces that corrode, yesterdayâ€™s technocrats and reformers brought in to sort out the mess, corroding in their turn; his real contemporary Oliver Wendell Holmes, a soldier in another 1860s civil war, wrote â€˜Between two groups of men that want to make inconsistent worlds, I see no remedy but force. It seems to me that every society rests on the death of men.â€™ These words gave Massie the title for his best-known book.
Two great films mark the limes of Massieland. Laurence Olivierâ€™s Henry V, 1944, the epic of the British that Carlyle forecast, and Viscontiâ€™s The Leopard, 1962, set around the triumph of Garibaldiâ€™s Thousand at Palermo: both realised through literary and musical brilliance, then simultaneously undermined. Olivier choreographed honest patriots beating Vichy France, personified by the dotard Charles V as Petain and the thuggish Dolphin as Laval. But the charge of the French knights, a cinematic marvel involving the Irish army, Waltonâ€™s score and the building of a mile of railway, made balletic what was in history straightforward butchery. In Visconti the triumph at Palermo is parodied by the frocks and polkas of an interminable ball, the old order triumphantly reassembling itself, the actuality a roomful of brimming chamber-pots glowered on by mannerist, aristocratic deathbeds.
The Prince quits the ball, after almost seducing Claudia Cardinaleâ€™s Angelica Sedara â€“ a ripe, shrewd Young Italy. A priest passes, with the last unctions, and he drops to his knees when he hears shots: the last of the Garibaldini, captured at Aspromonte, being despatched by the new state, by Tancredi and Provost Sedara. Just as in The Hanging Tree, Maurie Laidlaw will fix, trick, kill for the new Union state that Henry Vâ€™s Agincourt tosses before him, until at Aikwood tower â€“ the seat of Lord Steel, in his way the Scottish Cavour â€“ his family catch Maurie without his troops, remind him of his crimes, and hang him. Only a mile or so from Thirladean, two centuries later and against the walls of Newark tower, the Covenanters, victorious at Philiphaugh, would line up Montroseâ€™s camp-followers, the Irishwomen and their whining weans, and steadily shoot and bayonet the lot. â€˜Ay, the wark gangs merrily on!â€™ A black Genevan minister rubs his hands.
Yet Newark is where Scottâ€™s â€˜Lay of the Last Minstrelâ€™ will begin, forty years after, with words to be caught up by Michael Powell: his celestial judge in â€˜A Matter of Life and Deathâ€™ (1946) lets David Niven live, with the strophes of Canto Three:
In peace, Love tunes the shepherd's reed;
In war, he mounts the warrior's steed;
In halls, in gay attire is seen;
In hamlets, dances on the green.
Love rules the court, the camp, the grove,
And men below, and saints above;
For love is heaven, and heaven is love.
Such delights and traumas pervade Massieâ€™s novels about World War II: interweaving in the discord between crusade â€“ so prevalent in contemporary film â€“ horror and reckoning. The clashing loyalties of Vichy and resistance France, the late awakening to the Holocaust, the divisions within the Scoto-British governing class, the Buchan entourage. These have acquired classic status; the important thing is to relate them to the wider Massie oeuvre, and his robust notion of the writerâ€™s purpose.
Change and Decay â€“ an eccentric in the Massie galere, toying with Chesterton-Spark Catholic anarchy but unaffected, even in 1978, by the real thing in Ulster â€“ saw Massie invent an ice-eyed Tory called Mrs Hedge. She didnâ€™t develop, though neo-liberalism and politics had deep-enough roots in his background. Austrian economics, of the sort the banker-backed David Hume Institute and for a time Massie embraced, were founded on the assumption of a market in which the play of prices empirically produces economic reason. This assumes that the monetary â€˜factsâ€™ are presented in a rational manner, discounting not just â€˜moral hazardâ€™ of a criminal sort but the dissidence of the writersâ€™ art and the harmonies of music: the dangerous world of the Manns, father and son. In a Hume Institute pamphlet, â€˜The Novelistâ€™s View of the Market Economyâ€™ (1988) Massie said exactly that. He didnâ€™t, at the time, gauge the ideologyâ€™s collapsibility.
In The Leopard the operatic heroism of Tancredi gives way to the conservatism of busy inaction, changing everything â€˜if things are to stay as they areâ€™. Asked to save Tory Scotland in the late 1990s, Sir Malcolm Rifkind â€“ advanced, then backstabbed, by Thatcher â€“ responded with that exact phrase. Under his cake lay not only bony Dundee, but a press â€“ from Bertie Forbes and Keith Murdoch to the papers of Buchan agfish-capitalism, oil and banking â€“ allowing itself to comment and spy, but not to investigate the PR it processed. It would become its own story.
VIII â€˜The Mirror in the Roadwayâ€™
In 1934 the Yorkshire novelist Storm Jameson began a political sequence The Mirror in Darkness about a possible fascist takeover in Britain, its title alluding to Stendhal on the realist novel as â€˜a mirror in the roadwayâ€™. Its central figures were a woman political organiser and a progressive Jewish businessman brought into government. By her second volume the reader could see that she had transposed the Weimar Republic with Westminster, her businessman evidently Walter Rathenau, general manager of AEG, assassinated by the far right in 1920, a crime palliated by the conservative judiciary. She then gave up: too far a cry from Ramsay Mac and Uncle Stanley Baldwin.
With Rifkind, thoughtful, articulate â€“ â€˜Our new Disraeli, perhaps?â€™ Macmillan had murmured â€“ you had something less than a Rathenau or a â€˜superlative Hebrew conjurorâ€™: the personification instead of a post-imperial Union Andrew Marr likened to a disintegrating pizza. Corrado Duse, in Massieâ€™s The Death of Men, 1982, a man abraded by politics, was in effect killed by Democrazia Christiana, once a party of rebirth, though the damage would finish it in a few years. Rifkind as an MP survived Scots Toryismâ€™s demise, but only by fleeing to London, and maybe his quietus was delivered by Massie, writing an editorial on 30 April 2007 for the Sunday Times, urging its readers, for stabilityâ€™s sake, to vote SNP.
French politicians have had their energetic but uncomplicated sexual lives firewalled against the Orwellian Minitruth run by News International, but only so far. Against Murdoch-Cameron Britain even Muriel Spark, whose Abbess of Crewe showed virtuosity in surveillance, would have conceded. The English establishment, under assault from frantic populism, is much worse placed, and as for its allies? In place of the politic novel, the subtle satire, look at the weekend Murdoch press, the baying of Clarkson, or Rees Mogg, Niall Ferguson, identikit back-bench enrages: â€˜With friends like that, who needs enemies?â€™ But there is no succession in prospect, no road through the woods. Massie once trusted the castes of the Edinburgh financial establishment as the Scottish-realist bedrock. Salmond regarded them as an ersatz external affairs ministry. The political momentum continues but the banks have gone. Worse, the money-business has melded into what might be described â€“ by Ian Rankin â€“ as a finance-crime amalgam. Grayâ€™s future postulates science-fiction, Wellsian horrors. Massieâ€™s positive prospects are those of European Union, the Scot James Lorimerâ€™s invention of the 1880s, his alternative the descent into intra-European conflict, where â€˜moral hazardâ€™ could shade into fanaticism and slaughter.
This is what confronts the characters of Death in Bordeaux: a French provincialism subtly rendered, its characters as rooted and rounded as those of Mauriac, Alain-Fournier, Balzac. â€˜If way to the better there be, it exacts a full look at the worse.â€™ wrote Hardy, defending Jude. We will return to Jean Lannes and his colleagues, and opponents who hold the cards of collaboration, with affection though increasingly with pessimism and fear. If this makes us want to fight for a European â€˜state of lawâ€™, for Scottish or British politics that elevate thoughtful priorities over soundbites, and â€˜teach the free man how to liveâ€™ in Audenâ€™s words, Massie would be satisfied. This is what political fiction should be about.