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From Grangemouth to Satsumas – Scottish Review of Books
by Geoffrey Elborn

From Grangemouth to Satsumas

October 28, 2009 | by Geoffrey Elborn

GEORGE DOUGLAS, IN THE HOUSE OF THE GREEN SHUTTERS, comes close to describing the quality of Alan Spence’s writing when it is at its best. An Edinburgh Professor tells Gourlay’s son that the highest form of imagination is “both creative and consecrative…merging in diviner thought. It irradiates the world.”

The definition may seem a little florid, suspicious even, for the Scots as a nation in this age do not care very much for any religion or cults, regardless of the way they are bundled up. Perhaps more so than the English, they find the mention of personal belief something of an embarrassment.

Writers such as Muriel Spark and George Mackay Brown were never promoted by reference to their Catholicism. What they wrote about was never narrow, but was given breadth because of their beliefs.

Of contemporary writers, Alan Spence is one of the few, Scottish or otherwise, whose Zen Buddhism is central to his work. If this is considered a label, it is one that is likely to be misinterpreted, with incorrect assumptions involving religion and a vague attachment to a woolly exploration of mysticism. Zen followers insist that by meditating, the mind is cleared of rubbish, leaving more room for essentials. It is not theistic, and has nothing to do with God.

On the day of Spence’s mother’s funeral, when he was eleven, Spence was aware with an absolute certainty that he was surrounded by her love which had not died with her body. For him it was “a spiritual awakening…a knowledge that there’s more than this physical body. A sense of something vast. A sense that there is something in all of us that really doesn’t die, that really is immortal.”

Spence has never concealed his discipleship of Sri Chinmoy, a Zen teacher, whom he met several years before he published in 1977, aged 29, Its Colours They Are Fine. This first collection of short stories was a colossal achievement, for more than anyone else of his time, he recreated the mood and feelings of the first post second war generation. Unusually, it was a writing world without moralising, was non-judgmental, and did not attempt to analise life with psychological theorising about what had gone wrong. Neither were his characters destroyed by Calvinsitic guilt, yet nothing was missing. The exactness of the dialogue and a piercing awareness of Glasgow working class life resulted in fiction that that was assured and authentic. The stories have little or no plot, but place the characters in situations that are universally and often painfully recognisable, as are the confused emotions they feel. The filthy tenements, the poverty of the unemployed, and a claustrophobic head banging uselessness which Spence explored were not new. But typically, his young school leavers of the late 1960s run away to the new world of drugs, pop music and to different parts of the globe, the whole gamut of the hippy age of flower power. They have little control over what happens to them and take their chance. Others who are stuck in Glasgow grab what they can find there. Of course they are searching for instant gratification, including quickie sex, alcohol and drugs with a recklessness that is destructive, stimulating and ultimately unfulfilling.

The same discontent is felt by the four main characters of Spence’s first novel, The Magic Flute, and those of The Stone Garden and Other Stories, who are aware of a constant niggling question, undefined and therefore unanswerable. As the characters often circulate amongst the different books, their fictional existence has not come to an end. This is not apparent if you have only read one book, but when the details repeat, they merge to create the impression of one character and one event. The lives of Tam, Eddie, George and Brian, all unlike in personality and ambition, unfold in The Magic Flute. Nevertheless, each share experiences, unknown to the other which in circumstance are different, but affect them deeply and in much the same way. To reinforce this, after a paragraph relating a crucial event in George’s life, Spence follows it with one about Brian, but without immediately introducing his name to establish his identity. Although lives are different in detail, they all exist in the same reality, and, are in essence, one being.

These instances in Spence’s fiction, focusing on transforming incidents in ordinary lives, are moments of being that strike with such intensity their significance cannot be forgotten. They are as forceful as Spence experienced on the day of his mother’s funeral. This is not a religious revelation, and does not need the pastoral setting of the Lake District to invoke Wordsworthian spots of time. Instead, it is the glint of cheap Christ-mas tinsel which for a small boy transports him from the grime of Glasgow, or the importance of shared memories between two old men whose lives are otherwise pointless and barren.

Many who started following Buddhism in the late 1960s, came to discard it with the kaf-tans and the joss sticks, and in Spence’s early work, it is referred to, almost casually, with some poetry to express the significance of Zen. By the time The Magic Flute appeared in 1990 the age of flower power had gone; as Brian says “All that hippy shit is finished.”

Because Spence never tries to convert his readers to follow Zen, he is faced with a prob lem in being unable to project his beliefs and way of life by a direct explanation.

In any case, a definition of Zen (taken at random) preludes this, stating that “it is useless in trying to use words to discuss the Absolute.”

Zen could seem acceptable when wrapped up in fiction set in the Sixties when it did not stick out as being odd. Twenty years on, such writing with the odd Zen reference here and there, could seem a dated curiosity, no matter how timeless or valid the expression of the creed. Perhaps afraid of frightening off the reader by over emphasising Zen, the early work occasionally suffers from rather awkward insertion of stock Zen props. They figure as items to provide an instant explanation of some situation, such as a haiku which can seem pat, rather than something which is integral and has developed within the story itself.

Spence overcomes this by more firmly fusing the cultures of the East and West in Way to Go when the influence of an Indian woman is felt by the son of a Glasgow undertaker she marries. She persuades her husband to transform the traditional family business which repulses him, into something which celebrates death by facing it full on and by revelling in all the gruesome trappings of the business. More than Waugh’s The Loved One, the novel is full of corny jokes about coffins, body fluids, smells and details that are generally taboo. There is no aspect of the physical decay of the corpse that is not broached, and Way to Go is death with the coffin lid off. By confronting the death of the body, the mind is cleared of rubbish, and the way is open to answering the question: what happens when we die? For Spence who knows with certainty, “The body is perishable. The soul, the real in us, is deathless, immortal beyond birth and death, constant and eternal is the soul.”

To others, the answer can only be speculative, but it is the question which was always implicit in Spence’s fiction, one around which his characters grope, and once voiced in Way to Go, marked the conclusion of one phase of Spence’s development as a writer. Although he writes with detachment, and lets his imagination absorb the reader to the exclusion of Alan Spence the person, he allows the repetition of certain circumstances in different books, which can be considered as a series of sequels. These include death of his mother, an unemployed father and a fatal road accident. However with the novel The Pure Land, Spence has produced a completely new form of writing for him, suggesting he has come to an understanding of what were once necessary fixations and has let them go.

If a typical Spence character was young, Scottish, adventurous, and following a quest, you still have him in Thomas Glover. Except that Glover, known as the Scottish samurai, did exist. He was born in 1838 in Aberdeen and travelled to Japan when he was twenty, where he died in 1911. To create an imaginative account of one who has lived, with the facts already in place, and to make it plausible is a challenge which Spence takes on with bold confidence. Japan has previously appeared in glimpses in Spence’s fiction, but The Pure Land is total immersion in a country full of contradictions. Initially, Glover is only likeable for his dry humour, for his purpose in going to Japan is to make money, first as a tea trader, and then as an arms dealer. But he is struck by the urgent need to pull Japan out of the middle ages, and to make it a modern nation. The ruling military dictators, the Tokugawa Shoguns, despised Westerners, whom they regarded as intruders. They are anti progress and conduct a reign of terror, decapitating anyone who insults them in the slightest way. Invoking the help of the oppressed samurai Satsuma, Glover helped to overthrow the Shogunate and restore the Emperor with a fearless energy, an account of which drives the book with the pace of a swashbuckling thriller. The way was open to build a new Japan, where Glover founded Mitsubishi in Nagasaki, where he created an industrial centre, destroyed by the atomic bomb in 1945.

Despite his relentless ambition, Glover can love tenderly, and nearly goes mad with the loss of his wife Suno. His deep feelings for her and the other two women in his life who give him children are pivotal to the novel and to what Spence wants us to understand it is about. Glover succeeds after complicated circumstances, in having a son, who is opposite in character to Glover, but whose mixed parentage symbolizes a Japan that embraces Western ways, a man who is never wholly accepted and who represents a Japan still misunderstood today. The Pure Land is Japan, but the Pure Land is also, ultimately, Spence explains, “that of Amida Buddha, the paradise, the state of pure being we all seek, whether we know it or not!”

Before he left Scotland, a bored Glover remarked, “Surely there is more to life than this.” Once in Japan, he becomes a Freema-son, where, in near duplication of a passage from The Magic Flute, the initiate “looked round the room, these people, this place, saw it dreamlike but intensely clear, in the midst of it came to himself here, came to himself here. This was his life and this was him living it.”

A moment of being, that is echoed by the power of the mantra “Namu Amida Butsu”, words that invoke the Pure Land, which Glover hears at desperate points of his life and utters himself. But although Glover believes that this was only some thing that made him reflect momentarily, and is convinced he is governed by an inherent Scottish fatalism, Glover does achieve the Pure Land. The significant deaths, including Glover’s own, provide the most contemplative passages and the finest prose in the book, for they also are meditations on the Pure Land.

With these reflections, Spence reconciles contradictions between the Land of the Rising Sun and the West, and his understanding of them is completely at one with the story he has to tell. Spence’s dialogue, description and his ability to evoke a period long past, and to contemplate what lies beyond the scene are achieved with great brilliance. As Spence wrote in Glasgow Zen, without the “implicit dualism of value judgments…it’s awful good” .

by Alan Spence
Canongate, £14.99
pp304, ISBN 1841958557

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