Monthly Archives: June 2013


Tree Spirit

Once upon a time, it was all forest, and we were all forest people. Hard to picture if you are surrounded by concrete and traffic, but not so hard to feel it. All it takes is a solitary walk in your nearest woods (which may not be that near, but make the effort), and within minutes you will experience a tangle of primitive emotions which Sara Maitland describes as ‘a strange brew of excitement, recognition and peril, with more anticipation or even childlike glee than simple “terror of the wild”  because of the other sense that this is somewhere I know and have known all my life.’  You will hear invisible creatures and glimpse things which may or may not be there. Is that an oak or a house on chicken legs? Does that warty toad remind you of someone? If you lie down on the moss-carpeted floor and close your eyes, will you dream desiringly of bad sad wolves and wake up a hundred years later? 

Well, you might, says Maitland in her spell-binding Gossip from the Forest, because even if we are no longer physically dwelling in the forest, our myth-making imagination is still rooted there. In fact, the forest and the European fairytale grow from the same turf, and have nurtured each other symbiotically through the ages, transcending time, fashions, and the Brothers Grimm’s pious nineteenth-century adjustments. She explicitly locates her cultural tradition, and like the landscape, the tradition is northern European. It is embodied here by the Brothers Grimm Märchen or fairy tales which represent what Maitland sees as a common Teutonic sensibility that Britons share with Germans and other northern Europeans. Interestingly, she sees this as distinct from the Viking mythology and further questions the assumed universality of folk tales by looking at the Arabian Nights. The stories there spring from a flat desert-like landscape as opposed to a verdant mountainous one, and the adventures are therefore more about setting off on the seas, like Sinbad the Sailor, and less about hiding and getting lost, like Hanzel and Gretel.

This internalised geography has laid, in her view, the very foundations of the northern Europen collective psyche, including psychoanalytic theory (we all know a witch and a cruel king) and it feeds into our ideas of what is justice, truth, beauty, and love, especially romantic love – the great themes of fairy stories and indeed all stories.

An example: in the fairy tale, those who make a living in the forest are essentially good characters – the dwarves in Snow White, morally and existentially linked here to the Free Miners, the last of whom Maitland meets in the moving Forest of Dean chapter, because ‘what defines a dwarf is that he is a miner’; the woodcutter who saves Red Riding Hood from the wolf; and of course all the talking, telepathic birds and animals who save the protagonist from misfortune – think of the talking horse’s head in Little Goosegirl, or the animals who help the gormless but kind hero of The White Snake.

If the forests have given us our fairytales, Maitland argues, the fairytales give us the forest back, both the vanished forest and the still-standing forest which we have forgotten how to enter and enjoy. This simple and compelling idea gives the book a solid, though never rigid conceptual backbone. Having thus outlined the lay of the land, Maitland sets off on a series of woodland adventures, one for each month of the year – starting in March in Galloway’s Airyolland Wood, ‘a little fragment of what was once a far more extensive forest and we are lucky to have it still’, and ending again in Galloway in February, ‘the bottom of the year, the dead time’ – a pleasingly organic structure in unison with her subject.

Forest by forest, fairytale by re-imagined fairytale, and with an infectiously Maitlandish verve for magical discovery, she goes after our collective ‘dreams of wildwood’. In Britain’s physical and mythical undergrowth, curious things lurk.

Did you know that witches’ brooms were traditionally made from birch, a magic tree, and that ‘silver birch’ was coined by Tennyson? That coniferous plantations take more than a century to grow. That frogspawn feels both lumpy and slimy (I tested this in the nearest puddle); that goats in stories speak more often than any other animal; that in the nineteenth century, despite the 300 English deer parks, the ‘gentlemanly’ way to kill a deer was to go to the Highlands (plus ça change); and that the Gypsies don’t have a place in northern European stories though they are central to Eastern European and Mediterranean folklore?

Did you know that, although the tradition of ‘bringing the forest into the home’  is ancient, the Christmas tree tradition, in existence in the Baltic region since the fifteenth century, was only brought to the rest of western Europe by ‘assorted German princesses marrying widely across the continent’? In the book’s most arresting episode, Maitland goes looking for her own clandestine Christmas tree in Galloway’s memorably named Purgatory Wood where there was once a leper colony, only to be shocked by a hunter. Prompted to reflect on different kinds of fear, she concludes that fear of the forest is essentially fear of ‘stranger danger’ – and this fear is well covered in fairy tales. Robbers, marauders, and general dark forces dwell in the woods, never mind that the greatest damage is likely to come from your step-mother (Snow White) or your own father (Hansel and Gretel, Rumpelstiltskin). She contrasts this with the ‘uncanny fairy-tale shivers’ she experiences in Glen Affric and the Cairngorms. I must admit that, if only for reasons of a childhood spent in the Balkan mountains where you hear wolves howl at close quarters and see bear prints on the forest paths (or at least you did in the 1980s), I found Maitland’s forest terror more enviably thrilling than I can hope to feel in a British forest. Though there has been talk of re-introducing wolves in parts of the Highlands, so there is potential…

But one thing I have always felt to be true, in all the forests of my life, and Maitland elucidates it brilliantly on her walk in the poignantly named Great North Wood  which is neither great anymore, nor north. Many fairy tales are about the separation of true identity (often found in the forest) from a false identity (often found in a castle). The forest, therefore, is the home of your secret true self, perhaps because it is such an ancient self. Where else but in the forest can you relish the mirrored duality of our ‘ruined past and lively present’, where the ruined walls of a house and ‘the wicked grinning fungus’ live side by side with ‘the magnificent ancient tree’ and the ‘cloud of butterflies feeding’?

I was also strangely reassured to read that the great Caledonian Forest is a bit of a fairytale itself, and apparently no more than 7% of Scotland was ever covered in forest, thanks to grazing wild animals and later farm animals. ‘Once upon a time the whole country may not have been all forest,’ Maitland concedes at one point, and it is this unprejudiced spirit of quest, this purity of inquiry, that makes her such a engaging narrator, ‘but there was certainly forest where now there is not.’ Once upon a time here translates as the last glaciations, and the process of deforestation began some 5,000 years ago when people moved northwards with the ice caps, following the forest. Contrary to what I thought – as someone who lives in an intensely beautiful area of the Highlands where every week a massacred native forest is replaced by pylons the size of the Eiffel Tower – the greatest devastation of forests in Britain occurred not last week, but in the wake of World War I, thanks to which there is precious little ancient woodland left. It looks as if the Scottish Government would like to finish it all off, in the service of the brave new pylon schemes, which are sold to the public as ‘bringing power to the people’. I fear that all they are bringing is lots of money to a few. And so in the shadow of this War of the Worlds film-set, we shall live unhappily ever after. Maitland herself has written on the visual torment of the wind-mills in Galloway in an incisive essay in Aeon magazine online.

If the substance of this book lies in its natural and historic exploration of woods, its greatest delight is the re-telling of fairy tales in Maitland’s own playfully subversive style. Red Riding Hood is just a secondary character in a dark story where the wolf is a tortured soul. Rapunzel is told by the witch who wants to possess the beautiful girl. Dancing Shoes belongs to the sad king who will always be the sad kid at the party. There is huge fun to be had here, balanced by Maitland’s more sober, but equally impassioned plea.

Forests, like the spirit of fairytales, are endangered, because our sense of freedom, adventure, and time for contemplation has been cut down by artificial living and a sanitised culture, both physically and imaginatively. It is time to reclaim all of the above, and to rediscover the magic of forests by experiencing them, knowing them, and imagining them for what they really are: ‘beautiful and savage, useful and wasteful, dangerous and free.’

Come to think of it, so is the subject of Maitland’s earlier Book of Silence, which you will find just as full of secrets and surprises as this one.

Gossip from the Forest: The Tangled Roots of Our Forests and Fairytales
Sara Maitland

Granta, PP354, £9.99, ISBN 9781847084309

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A Gowk If Ever There Was One

Nancy Brysson Morrison is best known for her 1933 novel The Gowk Storm, though, in fact, she is little known these days even for that. Despite an active writing career spanning over 40 years in which she kept up an industrious output of novels, non-fiction books, stories and journalism, and despite being well respected and well reviewed, she has almost completely vanished from the history of Scottish letters. Mary Seenan’s detailed survey makes the case for her rescue from obscurity.

However, anyone undertaking a literary biography of Morrison faces significant challenges. She may have been  something of a hoarder of documentation relating to her literary work, but she has left behind very little personal material. Despite coming from a family of scribblers – four out of her five siblings were published writers – there seem to be very few letters. She never married, had no children and guarded her privacy fiercely. Even when she gave interviews, she seems to have given little away.

So beyond the hard facts which can be established, the dates, places and publications, there is only supposition: ‘She would have found…’, ‘She may have read…’. And, of course, there is the work. It is a dangerous business making guesses about a writer’s life based on their imaginative work, and Seenan is rightly cautious. However, it seems logical to conclude that the prevalence of preoccupied, irritable fathers in her novels may suggest an element of personal experience.

Nancy Brysson Morrison (christened Agnes, but always published as N. Brysson Morrison) was born on Christmas Eve 1903, to a middle-class family in Glasgow, the fifth of six children. Three of her siblings, John, Tom and Peggy (who wrote as ‘March Cost’) published novels. They were known as ‘the writing Morrisons’ and reviewers compared them to the Brontës, but no explanation of such literary genetics survives, save an offhand remark by Peggy who once said: ‘Perhaps it was because our father could sharpen pencils so beautifully.’

Morrison’s first novel, Breakers, was published by John Murray in 1930 when she was 26, and tells the story of the illegitimate grandson of a minister whose life unfolds against the backdrop of the Highland Clearances. The Gowk Storm, her third novel, is also historical, set in the mid 19th century, and tells the story of three daughters of the manse and their (mostly tragic) attempts to find happiness in love. Her writing was frequently acclaimed for its poetic qualities, and in the course of her career she garnered praise from L. P. Hartley, Stevie Smith and Kingsley Amis.

Signature themes emerge throughout her work: history, family, religion, marriage and the position of women in society, attitudes towards marginalised groups. The Strangers is about an Italian Roman Catholic brother and sister who become innkeepers on a remote Scottish island. The Winnowing Years tells 300 years of history through one Scottish parish. The Hidden Fairing revisits the life of the Catholic dominie in The Gowk Storm, and was praised as a remarkable portrait of childhood. As well as some ten literary novels, she wrote religious books and biographies – of the Brontës, Thomas and Jane Carlyle, Mary, Queen of Scots and the Tudor monarchs.

Thirty years after her death, her literary executor discovered that in the period between 1939 and 1959, she lived a double life as a writer, publishing 27 light romantic novels with Collins under the pseudonym Christine Strathern, and a quantity of short stories in the People’s Friend magazine. It seems to have been a way of earning a crust as a writer in a difficult publishing climate, and an aspect of her writing she preferred to keep secret.

Seenan contends that after the publication of The Hidden Fairing in 1951, Morrison’s literary work declined, her vision narrowed and her sense of moral complexity retrenched into a more overtly religious sensibility. Her biographies, however, gained some popularity, particularly in America, where her book on Mary, Queen of Scots won a prestigious (and financially significant) Literary Guild Award. Correspondence which survives from her later years shows a woman trying to argue better terms with publishers on the basis of her reputation, while feeling upstaged and undervalued. When Antonia Fraser’s 1969 book on Mary, Queen of Scots was described as the first major book on Mary for 50 years, she took umbrage and a spate of letters ensued.

With so little biographical information to draw on, much of Seenan’s text is a detailed book-by-book study of her oeuvre. It’s valuable because the majority of her books are no longer available, but one wonders if its very length will deter all but the most committed. Her argument, sensibly, is not that Morrison’s books are universally good, but that the best of her work is worthy of being in print and of being discussed along with other literature of that era. Dr James Michie wrote in her obituary in The Times: ‘The Gowk Storm and The Hidden Fairing are built to survive.’

She makes a good case for The Gowk Storm as an important novel, and one which, despite its historical setting, is modern in its outlook. It certainly had a measure of both popular and critical acclaim, was adapted for the stage at Dundee Rep, and was one of a clutch of British novels optioned for film by the Associated British Picture Corporation, to whom, at that time, Audrey Hepburn was attached (though the film was never made). A later stage adaptation at the Royal Lyceum in 1997 was described by the critic Joyce McMillan as ‘a film script in waiting’.

The book tells the story of the three sisters through the eyes of the youngest, Lisbet, and Seenan argues that Morrison uses the safety of the historical setting to examine the contradictory situation of women in the 1930s. Though they now had the vote, and lip service was paid to the notion of equality, in practice most women still had to find happiness within the constraints of a patriarchal society. Good Housekeeping spoke of the ‘chaos of illogical notions, contradictory longings and confused images’ which were part of womanhood at that time.

Seenan argues that The Gowk Storm is ‘proto-feminist’ in the way it negotiates these issues, that the novel is a subversive critique of the status quo. It is possible to see traces of the influence of modernism in the subtleties of these negotiations, and in the way the undercurrent of the book concerns Lisbet’s search for her own identity. Shades of the modern are also present in Morrison’s subtle questioning of moral certainties, her interest in psychology, her poetic, episodic narratives and occasional use of shifting perspectives.

However, she was not hailed as a radical writer, either at the time or with hindsight. While she did not shy away from tackling controversial themes such as adultery and illegitimacy, there remains a shy prudishness in the way she writes about sex. A perspective on history through the eyes of the illegitimate grandson of a minister was radical in 1930, but doesn’t seem so today, unlike Nan Shepherd’s writing about women shaping their own destinies, or the hints in Willa Muir’s Imagined Corners about two women finding fulfilment in a lesbian relationship.

Morrison, perhaps, falls between stools. Not of the kailyard school (though at times her books looked like it), but not sufficiently radical to appeal to the true aficionados of modernism. It is revealing that when she is reviewed badly it is sometimes in patronisingly domestic terms, like the reviewer who described The Winnowing Years as “bread pudding fiction… basically wholesome, close in texture, full of fruit, and digestible if munched in small quantities, slowly”. In her later years, as the pace of change in society accelerated, Morrison retrenched into more traditional views, both religious and political.

There is a telling little piece of doggerel by Willa Muir which hints at another reason why she has slipped so easily into obscurity: ‘N Brysson Morrison/ is a gowk if there was ever one,/ for instead of being a/ ranter and roarer/ she writes good novels/ and so the Scots ignore her.’ There is a suggestion that her quiet demeanour, old-fashioned reserve and refusal to be in the limelight has also impacted her reputation.

It is frustrating how little sense of the woman herself emerges from the pages of Seenan’s book, but there are two brief snatches of light in which she is almost illuminated. Once, after a PEN conference in Stockholm in 1948, she writes an article for the Glasgow Herald in which she is amusingly scathing about Swedish women’s dress sense. Here, briefly, is a feisty, sarcastic woman, quite capable of using her pen as a weapon.

And there is the story, told by her literary executor Dr Elizabeth Michie, of an occasion when she and her husband James hosted Morrison to tea. The writer, by then on the cusp of her sixties, was appalled when a piece of green crayon, put into the teapot by one of the Michies’ small children, dropped into her cup. To the discomfort of all, she was not able to see the funny side. Here, we glimpse a restrained, straight-laced spinster, beginning to be set in her ways, not given to frivolity. How far she is from the 29-year-old author of The Gowk Storm is lost to us, though that, no doubt, is the way Morrison would have wanted it.

Nancy Brysson Morrison: A Literary Life
Mary Seenan

KENNEDY & BOYD, PP706, £24.95, ISBN 1849211221

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Gene Genius

William Hamilton’s name became known to the general public in 1976 through Richard Dawkins’ The Selfish Gene.  Written to popularize recent discoveries in Darwinian evolution, this book claimed these were mainly due to Hamilton. Some biologists questioned these discoveries in the following years, but when Bill’s funeral service was held in July 2000 at the Chapel of New College, Oxford, nobody contradicted Dawkins when he said biologists and geneticists mostly agreed that Bill was the world’s greatest evolutionary biologist since Darwin.  Of course total agreement in any region of thought is impossible. Students of science in parts of Ireland, the USA and some Muslim states are taught that new kinds of plant and animal did not evolve from earlier ones, because God separately invented each. Otherwise most folk interested in biology will recognise the importance of Bill Hamilton and this biography. 

This is the fourth Oxford University Press publication about Bill’s life and work. The first three were the trilogy of his collected papers titled, Narrow Roads of Geneland. Bill edited the first two, Evolution of Social Behaviour and The Evolution of Sex, in which his scientific papers were printed in the order they were written, each with his preface explaining the circumstances, with teachers who doubted the value of his research and colleagues who valued it. Not all good scientists believe that the personal struggles producing their best ideas may cast light on them. Kepler did, thinking the mental process by which he found planetary orbits were not circular but elliptical as interesting as the discovery.

Last Words, the trilogy’s third volume, was edited by Mark Ridley with each paper introduced by a co-author or colleague because Bill had died of a disease contracted in Africa. Even without his introductions to Last Words these collected papers are a scientific record and self-portrait – a scientist’s Pilgrim’s Progress. Like all autobiographies it omits much that the author took for granted or thought unimportant, hence our need of Ullica Segerstrale’s biography.

It is an excellent account of a character nineteenth-century writers called an original, meaning not easily classified. As a lecturer Bill had some traits attributed to absent-minded professors — no respect for merely conventional manners and appearances, with carelessness over a pay cheque. This combined with practical though unconventional efficiency on expeditions in equatorial rain forests, and with unusual physical strength few noticed because he never flaunted it. Once, perhaps, he quietly enjoyed disturbing an audience by explaining how he had plugged a leak in a boat while swimming under it in Brazil, ending with the casual remark, “The danger of piranhas is greatly exaggerated.” (When I mentioned this to his wife Christine last year she said impatiently, “There is no danger from piranhas if you aren’t bleeding.”)

Every healthy meerkat community has a member who stands on its hind legs with raised head like a human sentry, looking out for predators while the rest seek nourishment with four feet on the ground. A meerkat community too small to support a sentinel is soon killed off.

Segerstrale shows that Bill’s originality as a thinker derived (as often happens) from highly original parents. Both were New Zealanders who, from the mid 1930s onward, brought up six children in Oaklea, five acres of Kentish woodland surrounding an ordinary two-storey house with useful outbuildings.  Here their offspring found space to develop their own interests and hobbies, with parents who gladly helped when they wanted help. This gave the children freedoms their parents had enjoyed as youngsters in New Zealand, and perhaps  colonial prejudices against what they called posh. They used thriftily mended broken china, dined without tablecloths when guests were not present, avoided hotels and restaurants by travelling in a car with tents and camping equipment. This came easy to a family whose engineer dad had supervised building a road for the British Empire through the mountains of Kurdistan and used prefabricated bridges of his own invention. Life at Oaklea was both tougher and more varied than that of most middle-class British children. Bill’s love of natural history began in the woods of Oaklea.

More about his parents. His mother Bettina had qualified as a general medical doctor who meant to work as a missionary, but after marriage abandoned that, becoming a full-time housekeeping mother. She loved art and literature, read poems and stories to her children, also the Bible which she thought should be part of everyone’s education. Her husband’s influence may have made her more of an agnostic than a Church Christian. A sentence on page 10 of Nature’s Oracle may be misleading: “Archie and Bettina often attended a church on Sunday, sometimes taking the children.” Their eldest child, Mary Bliss, tells me her father was an outspoken Atheist who never went to church. From Archie, Bill picked up engineering skills which, like natural history, stimulated an intelligent imagination also fed by paintings, poetry, the novels of Dostoevsky and Kafka. Two of his closest friends and scientific colleagues, Hugh Ingram and Colin Hudson were practising Christians, and in later life George Price. Bill greatly sympathised with Price, helped publicise his discoveries, could not save him from suicide when Price found living as Jesus commanded and giving all he had to the poor was too difficult.

Bill’s lack of snobbery and remarkable absence of prejudices came from his family being a small republic which quietly supported its members while expecting each to earn their independence, so at the start of her book Segerstrale concentrates on family matters.  After Bill’s professional studies get underway she gives them priority, mentioning lecturers who thought his ideas unimportant or suspect, others who valued them and all his helpful colleagues. Bill had no small talk of the kind most young people use in mating games, so was surprised to learn later that he could be ‘a ladies man’, after meeting women with educations more like his own. Apart from his wife Christine, Segestrale says nothing about other women in his life. She mentions an early proposal of marriage being turned down – the woman refused to accept his condition that of the two children she would bear, the second must have a different father. Bill was not proposing a ménage a trois, but his faith in altruistic kinship made him sure different fathers would give both children a broader range of support in life. He forgot that most women willing to wed one man are instinctively monogamous. He may have abandoned that idea when Christine accepted him. Segestrale leaves later biographers to scavenge for names and details which she rightly thinks gossip irrelevant to Bill’s main story. Here comes some gossip of my own.

I met Bill through friendship with his sister Mary when I was a studying mural design at Glasgow School of Art and he studying genetics at Cambridge University. We were both keen on the work of William Blake and Samuel Palmer. (Palmer’s best paintings were made near Oaklea, at Shoreham where Blake had visited him.) We also discussed behaviour uniquely human – our capacity to eat when not hungry, drink when not thirsty, fuck in almost any season of the year and, alas, hurt or kill other people after making them helpless. It is also obvious that some of us enjoy doing so. Theists blame these traits upon the fall of man and original sin and Atheists upon the nature of things, often called Nature for short. Bill and I were Darwinian enough to think these capacities were inherited from a time when they helped people survive, but we now worried about human survival in a world where belligerent nations threatened each other with nuclear weapons. As a Socialist I thought this belligerence mainly due to needless competition causing poverty and overcrowding. Bill also thought overpopulation dangerous, but believed belligerence had a profounder genetic source.

Our talks in the 1950s have no place in Bill’s biography because they did not influence his work, which explained selfish belligerence and xenophobia indirectly. He saw there was more to be learned about the nature of human and other animals by investigating capacities for self-sacrifice. Most birds live upon insects and seeds, only a minority of bigger ones are predators, yet many smaller birds give a special cry if they see a hawk circling overhead, a cry warning others in earshot of the predator, though the cry will first attract the hawk’s attention to itself. Most people incline to call individuals who risk or lose their lives helping others heroes or idiots, but a species without these self-sacrificers is in danger of extinction. Every healthy meerkat community has a member who stands on its hind legs with raised head like a human sentry, looking out for predators while the rest seek nourishment with four feet on the ground. A meerkat community too small to support a sentinel is soon killed off.

While studying altruism genetically at Cambridge Bill wished to attend anthropology lectures as a second subject but the anthropology department rejected him because he was a scientist.  Anthropologists saw themselves as an arts faculty working at an interface between history and philosophy.  So did most biologists who believed human societies could never undergo experimental proofs required by exact sciences. This disgruntled Bill with Cambridge. He  decided that evidence for genetic altruism could be best investigated in places where animal life was thickest, among the social insects of South America. Nature’s Oracle tells how Bill’s investigations were first dismissed as ‘politically incorrect’, though that phrase was not yet in general use. A historical excursion is needed to explain why.

Malthus’ Essay on the Principal of Population was published in 1798 when the French Revolution was underway, and still welcomed by many critics of the British government.  Among these was Tom Paine who had strongly supported the war for American independence. His book The Rights of Man said hereditary monarchs and aristocracies used taxation to promote warfare while supporting a hoard of unproductive parasites. He said a democratic government could use taxation to abolish hereditary bosses and poverty by setting up what was called a Welfare State over a century later. Malthus argued against this that in every land more people were born than there was food enough to feed, so death from warfare and poverty were needed to keep efficient societies working. He said that if a widespread sharing of social wealth ever produced a wholly well-fed generation, their numbers would increase so much that the next would be decimated by famine.

This argument seemed conclusive to land owners, employers and politicians who had no wish to pay better wages or improve working-class conditions. It was attacked by those who saw it used to justify widespread corruption and selfishness in what Harold Wilson once called ‘the commanding heights of the economy.’ Malthus’ justification of warfare was ancient — in Chaucer’s The Knight’s Tale Mars the war-god is praised for cutting down Nature’s excess — but his essay was probably first to suggest that deaths from poverty were good for a nation.

The link between population and food supply in Malthus’ essay gave Charles Darwin a clue to The Origin of Species. This book persuaded Herbert Spencer to invent the phrase survival of the fittest, which became popular with thinkers called Social Darwinists.  These tended to talk as if much money, inherited or earned, was an obvious sign of people fittest to survive. This contradicted Dean Swift’s remark, that if you want to know what God thinks about money, look at those who have most.  Only the sycophants of multi-millionaires can believe they show human nature at its best.  By the 1890s it was also proved that working-class families with good wages tended to have fewer, not more children than their poorer neighbours.

Darwin never wrote or said a word that would identify him with those called Social Darwinists, but his distant cousin Francis Galton was a good scientist, meteorologist and investigator of hereditary traits who added the word eugenics to the English language. Galton worried about the general health of the British people.  He saw the aristocracy threatened by the dangers of inbreeding, which the European royal families had made notorious.  He saw workers in the cities plagued by tuberculosis and a host of other diseases which he thought might become hereditary.  Since the fourteenth-century Black Death London’s population had grown steadily bigger, though parish registers showed that the death rate there always exceeded the birth rate. This proved that the expansion had been caused by people constantly arriving from healthier places outside.  Stockbreeders knew how to strengthen traits they approved of in horses, cattle and fowls. Galton thought public health should be improved by breeding people in the same way, and endowed a Eugenic Society to foster a healthier, more intelligent race of Britons.

Galton was no more a fascist than other prosperous Victorians blind to the fact that people of any intelligence will always choose mates for reasons that have nothing to do with public health, so eugenics never became a science. But its arguments were welcomed by people who liked dividing humanity into their own race, class or religion and those outside it, usually folk they wanted to exploit.  That is how all imperial governments divide the human race. Four enforced eugenic laws. Nazi Germany set out to kill all Jews, gypsies and (before the Catholic Church protested) the incurably sick. For some decades before the twentieth century ended the USA, Norway and Sweden forcibly, legally sterilised those judged mentally subnormal for reasons later found inadequate.

Fascism was defeated after World War Two and Social Darwinism rejected, but a scientist studying genetic traits common to mankind and other animals was suspected of Nazi tendencies, especially when he related these to birth, death rates and food supplies.  On leaving Cambridge Bill decided his best chance of a regular income was in secondary school education, and applied to train as a teacher of science at Moray House in Edinburgh University.  He was told his degree in genetics only qualified him for training to teach in primary schools. Bill appealed against this decision because his degree had depended on passes in three other sciences, but the appeal was dismissed.

Nature’s Oracle tells how Bill gradually overcame that prejudice, though some papers now widely accepted were first denounced as fascist.  He went on researching and publishing because he thought scientifically proved facts politically neutral, no matter what moral codes people choose to base upon them. Many left-wing people like myself were probably repelled by the title of Dawkins’ book which first popularised Bill’s ideas, just as it may have attracted right-wing thinkers of the anti-Christian Ayn Rand kind.  The Selfish Gene could have been more accurately named The Altruistic Gene Functioning Between Near And Distant Relatives Of The Same Species, a more difficult name to remember, so less likely to help a book survive.

My incapacity for mathematics unfits me to understand the whole range of the achievements that made Bill first president of the Human Behaviour and Evolution Society, but when I translate them into human terms they seem sensible. The heroism of sentry meerkats, the warning cries of small birds are like the willingness of thinkers to tell unwelcome truths, and why greedy dictatorships censor free speech. Bill thought the effects of genetic inclinations to xenophobia in social circumstances could be predicted, and did not doubt that extra-genetic altruism between those who shared unselfish ideas could act against it.  He called behaviour which benefits our self and harms others selfish, which benefits our self and others, co-operation, which benefits others at our own expense, altruism. Behaviour damaging both our self and others he first called stupid then re-defined as spite. The purest example of spite is Hitler’s attitude before his suicide in the bunker – he hoped every German would be exterminated because they had let him down by failing to conquer Britain, Russia and the USA.  The importance of spite is known to psychologists, but mainly ignored by historians.

Nature’s Oracle is a success story because Bill did not fade out like most of us but died still masterfully investigating the nature of things, still open to new ideas and helping to generate them. Unlike many scientists he never rejected a suggestion by someone younger because it was unfamiliar or unproved, but reacted by first examining the evidence.  He gave the Gaia hypothesis some support by recognising the part played by clouds in seed-distribution. He realised the fact that the brilliant variety of autumn leaf colours is not a just a sign of decay, but a pre-winter signal to attract or repel helpful or damaging insects.

His death was partly the result of willingness to investigate an unpopular idea. He had written an introduction in 1999 to Edward Hooper’s The River: A Journey to the Source of HIV and Aids. This book argued that the Aids epidemic had an African origin in the experiments there of pharmaceutical companies. Bill’s introduction said there might be truth in the argument.  His mother Bettina, still alive and a qualified GP, told him he would make many enemies by doing so. He believed the argument could be made by finding onsite for analysis the dung of anthropoid apes.  He was flown back from Africa with what proved a fatal haemorrhage before finding any.  His line of investigation may never be reopened.

Since his death in 2000 some biologists who find his theory of altruism distasteful have been casting doubt on his kin-selection formulas in order to suggest he has undervalued co-operative traits.  These include Nowak, Harvard professor of biology and mathematics, Wilson an emeritus professor there and former colleague of Bill, and the mathematician Tomita.  Their revision has been repudiated by the majority of biologists who find Bill’s concepts a useful source of new thinking and experiment. The value of scientific ideas can only be tested scientifically, so those who highly value Bill’s achievements need not be disturbed by attacks which will test them further.

More than scientists will find Nature’s Oracle interesting. Bill’s sister Mary calls it a tour de force, while listing some factual errors easy to correct in a future edition. Segestrale should be proud of this book.

Nature’s Oracle: The Life and Work of W.D. Hamilton
Ullica Segerstrale

Oxford University Press, £25, ISBN 978 0 19 860727 4

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Where Mary Met Muriel

Sometimes you meet an author who takes you by the hand, and engages some hitherto untapped corner of the mind. Mary Shelley was such for Muriel Spark, and Spark must have been for countless others. I would count myself one. My first conception of Scottish Literature (apart from Burns, omnipresent in Ayrshire) came in a dingy classroom in a now-demolished school. An English teacher called Mrs Adrain gave us a reading list comprising three texts by James Hogg, Robin Jenkins and Spark. That sixth-year English class was all girls, a small group, and perhaps it isn’t surprising that after a few pages in Jean Brodie’s company we were arguing over who would be Sandy, Jenny, Monica, Rose. Nobody wanted to be poor Mary McGregor, who would later run ‘back and forth along the corridors’ in a hotel fire, ‘through the thickening smoke’. Mrs Adrain was no Miss Brodie thankfully, but in her choice of these three texts she inspired a great deal in us, and we did gaze intently at her flowing skirts, and the way she coiled her long hair and secured it with an enamel clasp. 

It astonishes me that twenty-two years ago a female Scottish writer should have seemed such a delicious anomaly. Reading Spark was just the beginning and I found many more sisters-in-arms later on, as well as recognising the need to raise those arms. Even so, it is chastening to remember that Mary Shelley had been virtually ignored by critics before Muriel Spark published a book about her in 1951, dismissed as an author of sensation rather than skill, a depressive appendage to her more famous husband.

Child of Light first appeared at the centenary of Mary’s death, and Spark revised it over the years until it was republished as Mary Shelley in 1987. In his introduction to the new Carcanet edition Michael Schmidt suggests that Mary Shelley was for Spark ‘a point of departure and a touchstone.’ Writing about Shelley had ‘a superstitious rightness’; the two women shared initials because of their husbands’ surnames, and ‘1 February was the date of Shelley’s death and Spark’s birth.’ Spark’s other motivations were powerful if more prosaic; she needed the money and she needed to strike out on her own creatively.

Spark’s original proposal for the book, here published for the first time along with her abridgement of Shelley’s novel The Last Man, is typically confident: previous studies were inadequate and she would examine Mary’s works by ‘assessing the personality that motivated them… would bring to light those qualities in her work that other women writers do not possess.’ Thus she would capture Mary’s ‘intellectual breath’, her ‘essential femininity’ and the way in which she realised her mother Mary Wollstonecraft’s ideals ‘by natural acceptance of her status as a creature the equal of, yet different from, the male of her times’.

Mary Shelley shows Spark at her warmest, although we must be glad that she did not write so that we might think her a nice person. We must hope too that the days are gone in which any female author of talent is so neglected that she needs such reclamation as Spark performed on Shelley

Spark achieves precisely what she sets out to; no surprise to us now but pretty impressive given that this was her first book. In the biographical section she, to quote her biographer Martin Stannard, clears off the ‘sludge of sexist varnish and restores a portrait of a woman of intellect’ who coped with the hands life dealt her in as practical a way as possible. Spark admires Shelley without becoming seduced, and defends her with vigour and wit. Who else could get the measure of Shelley’s step-sister Claire Clairmont so adroitly?

‘There is a type of person who, having glimpsed the glories attendant upon the life dedicated to creative achievement, and who is yet unqualified to create, pursues in a vague sort of way not the achievement itself but its accoutrements. Such a person was Claire Clairmont, the type of young woman who today would be known as “arty”’.

Spark establishes Shelley in her proper position as an artist in her own right and the advance guard of Wells, Huxley and Orwell, her works ‘almost entirely without their counterpart in feminine literature.’ When Spark was writing the atom bomb had been dropped and might be again, and what had seemed speculative was the new reality. While she does not shy from the ‘weak characterisation, want of humour, and heaviness of style’ in Mary’s The Last Man, she is more interested in its atmosphere and apocalyptic themes: ‘It was a universal hospital and a universal morgue that Mary envisaged, before the French Symbolists had cried in their several ways, ‘Cette vie est un hôpital,’ to be echoed by Rilke and T.S. Eliot… the menacing force has become as impersonal and impartial as nature, by which the individual man is held in isolated subjection.’

Let me quote that original proposal again: ‘the equal of, yet different from, the male of her times.’ Spark was the first critic to recognise that Mary was playing with the big boys, but also that her writing was, if anything, even more relevant after Modernism.

Fascinating and trenchant as Spark’s analysis of Mary Shelley and her work is, there is a tremendous temptation to read the book for what we can glean about Spark herself. The publication marks the most significant turning point in her professional and personal life. As she wrote about Shelley, Spark’s energies were also taken up with her relationship with Derek Stanford, an aspiring writer who was later to prove himself a prime cad; the ‘grade-A bête noire in her life,’ as Martin Stannard puts it. When Spark became famous, Stanford cashed in with alacrity, selling her letters as well as childhood notebooks he had stolen, and writing inaccurately about her life in Inside the Forties: Literary Memoirs 1937 – 1957. He seems hardly to have been the most sensitive of souls back in 1950; later Spark wrote to Stannard of how she shared her rations with Stanford while he ‘left his ration card with his mother, so that he got sumptuous extra meals while I starved. [. . .] As far as money was concerned he was a frightful scrounger. As soon as I had any he was very much in evidence.’

Spark was never one to mince her words, and yet she had entertained high romantic and artistic hopes of  Stanford. Her love life to date had been unfortunate in the extreme: her first husband, Sydney Oswald Spark (‘S.O.S.’, as she termed him, clearly wishing she had heeded the warning in his initials) had mental health problems and was violent and unpredictable. She was lucky to escape him – and their life together in what was then Southern Rhodesia – alive and could never quite say why she had married him in the first place; perhaps, she suggests in Curriculum Vitae, ‘I longed to leave Edinburgh and see the world.’ By the time she met Stanford she was almost completely detached from her family, including her son Robin. Stanford seemed different from the other men with whom she’d had affairs, a potential Percy to her Mary. She wrote to him she loved him, and had never been happier. When they wrote Tribute to Wordsworth together they ‘saw themselves first as artists rather than critics, and also as equal partners’. Spark told her biographer that Stanford had been integral to her creative process, releasing her from any possessiveness ‘by helping to build protective walls within which she could work’. Not to mention the sex: ‘Muriel and Stanford both drew energy from this stimulating combination of erotic and aesthetic desire,’ Stannard writes.

Child of Light attracted positive attention immediately, helped by a double page spread Spark had been commissioned to write for the TLS. Stanford was in like Flynn, beating a path to the door of the editor, Alan Pryce-Jones, to ask for work himself. This made Spark ‘rather embarrassed’, and after the publication of Child of Light the couple’s way of working together changed. When they translated or wrote poems they did a verse apiece, and their introduction to their edited collection of Mary Shelley’s letters was conceived as a dialogue. Spark had found word by word composition with him ‘agonizing’, she writes in Curriculum Vitae: his prose was ‘flamboyant and convoluted; mine, simple’. A parenthesis notes that he ‘suffered a nervous breakdown’ at the time of her first success, and Spark told Martin Stannard: ‘No marriage with him would have lasted. I found him convenient as a literary partner up to the time I did a selection of Mary Shelley’s letters with him. After that he was just a drag.’

Writing again about Claire Clairmont, Spark insists ‘there can be no more insidious or inconvenient company for the truly creative mind than this parasitic type of manqué individual’. Perhaps Derek Stanford was in her mind, perhaps not. Certainly she must have recalled the assorted poets manqué and hangers on she had encountered through her work as Secretary of the Poetry Society. The period 1949-50 resonated for Spark and she uses it as the setting for one of her funniest books, Loitering With Intent (1981), in which Fleur Talbot writes her first novel whilst working for the Autobiographical Association, ‘on the grubby edge of the literary world.’ The couple who write scathing reader’s reports on Fleur’s manuscript share the surname of Mary Shelley’s stepsister, ‘Clairmont’, and Fleur’s erstwhile lover Leslie ‘was ambivalent about my writing, in that he often liked what I wrote but disliked my thoughts of being a published writer’. Loathsome Leslie, it seems safe enough to say, is a literary exorcism of Derek Stanford; Fleur rids herself of him and other perfidious influences in order to develop her own talent.

Spark always took a robust attitude to the relation between life and art; ‘All experience is good for an artist,’ John Masefield told her, and in Curriculum Vitae she is up front:  ‘I transferred a number of my experiences in the Poetry Society, as I usually do, into a fictional background, in my novel Loitering With Intent’. Fleur’s cluttered bedsit, too, is the mirror of the one Spark rented in Kensington. At the time she was poor, and she views Mary Shelley’s lamentation that supporting herself and her son Percy on £2000 a year was tantamount to being ‘quite ruined’ as ‘that luxurious hyperbole in which only those assured of a livelihood to the end of their days dare indulge’.

Loitering With Intent is a delight from start to finish, but out of all Spark’s novels The Girls of Slender Means is my favourite.  This is 2013’s other notable reprint, appearing fifty years after it was first published in a gorgeous Folio Society edition that illustrates in colour the May of Teck Club ‘for the Pecuniary Convenience and Social Protection of Slender Means below the age of Thirty Years, who are obliged to reside apart from their Families in order to follow an Occupation in London.’ One of the girls, Jane, pursues an occupation in the ‘world of books’, in which once again we meet these manqué individuals, ‘young male poets in corduroy trousers and young female poets with waist-length hair, or at least females who typed the poetry and slept with the poets, it was nearly the same thing,’ many of whom are destined to become habitués of a ‘no-man’s-land of Soho public houses… the familiar messes of literary life.’

On the surface of the novel is a ‘a waterfall of debutante chatter’, a microcosm in which use of a glorious Schiaparelli gown is traded for ration coupons and ends of soap, and ‘Bread-and-butter pudding is suicidal’. Social Protection, like almost everything else in post-war London, is in short supply. The girls take lovers, fall pregnant (‘Filthy luck… Come to the wedding’), and discover that some men are emphatically NSIT (Not Safe in Taxis); ‘He actually raped her, she was amazed’. In this of all Spark’s books, our proximity to savagery and betrayal is most subtly and terrifyingly portrayed. When, after a bomb blast, the eponymous girls are trapped in the upper floor of the burning May of Teck club it is the behaviour of Selina Redwood that proves to us that in 1945, ‘few people alive… were more delightful, more ingenious, more movingly lovely, and, as it might happen, more savage, than the girls of slender means’. As AL Kennedy writes in her excellent introduction to the Folio edition: ‘There is a type of scientific disinterest in [Spark’s] ways of showing how easily humans can lose their humanity, not because of evil, not because of something as clear-cut or condemnatory as Original Sin, but certainly because of their nature – fascinating, wonderful, but also individually and epidemically flawed.’

There are parallels here with Mary Shelley’s project in Frankenstein, although she is also concerned with what makes us human in the first place. In terms of style the two authors are polar opposites. We can imagine Spark speaking the words of Fleur Talbot, the novelist in Loitering With Intent, ‘I’ve come to learn for myself how little one needs, in the art of writing, to convey the lot, and how a lot of words, on the other hand, can convey so little’. Mary Shelley preferred to use a lot of words, but she succeeded in conveying a lot as well. Another comment of Fleur’s might ring true as well: ‘I wasn’t writing poetry and prose so that the reader would think me a nice person, but in order that my sets of words should convey ideas of truth and wonder.’ There is something liberating in this even today. I have found myself wishing that the Guardian would introduce Page 3, if that would allow more column inches to be devoted to the discussion of work by female novelists and fewer to large, glamorous photos of them. That said, Spark and Shelley were undoubtedly lookers, and at points that helped both of them attract attention and make connections. In a letter to Derek Stanford in 1949 Spark explained that she had always been confident that when her mind could not seduce, her body could.

No matter how pretty the writer might be, ‘to live by her pen… was, as always, a precarious situation,’ as Spark notes in Mary Shelley. She is tough on the critic F.L. Jones, who in his Letters of Mary W. Shelley, referred to Shelley’s various pitches to publishers as the ‘most pitiful portion’ of her correspondence, a point at which she came close to ‘abject begging’: ‘Mr Jones is immoderate because Mary was not begging. She was an author who had enjoyed considerable success, who had faith in her own powers, and who was offering a publisher the commodity in which publishers deal. Many an author before Mary, and many a one after her, has plagued a good publisher no less’. We might think back to Spark’s proposal for her first book, and recall that it was one of very many that she put together around the time, most relating to female authors or the ‘intellectual and social emancipation of women’. Although she wasn’t living with her young son Robin, she did strive to provide for him just as Mary did for Percy.

Mary Shelley did not have a particularly easy or happy life. Not long before her death she wrote to Claire Clairmont of her habitual ‘lowness of spirits’: ‘To be as I ought to be towards others (for very often this lowness does not disturb my inward tranquillity) I need to be a little tipsy’. Near the conclusion of her biographical study, Spark writes: ‘I suppose it is the function of the biographer to diagnose, and not to indulge in vain retrospective proscribing. None the less I seriously suggest that if there had been more wine in Mary’s life there would have been fewer tears.’ Ultimately the tears are irrelevant, although I am sure they didn’t feel so at the time. Compelling as the lives of both Mary Shelley and Muriel Spark are, in the end we read them for their work.

Mary Shelley shows Spark at her warmest, although we must be glad that she did not write so that we might think her a nice person. We must hope too that the days are gone in which any female author of talent is so neglected that she needs such reclamation as Spark performed on Shelley, such advocacy of the ‘qualities in her work that other women writers do not possess’. Replace the word ‘women’ with the word ‘Scottish’ and we have a more interesting – and topical – proposition, for Spark is both world-famous and slightly neglected ‘at home’; perhaps because she left Scotland as soon as she could and did not often come back. Mary Shelley shows her on the cusp, discovering not only the style that would make her famous but the ‘integrity of [her] nature’ (as Percy Bysshe Shelley wrote to Mary). She achieved this not through a flesh and blood relationship, but in the relationship she forged across a century, with the woman whose initials she shared. Most crucially, she did it where it counts: in her mind and on the page.



Mary Shelley
Muriel Spark
Carcanet Press, PP266, £12.95, ISBN 978 1 847772 37 4

The Girls of Slender Means
Muriel Spark (illus by Lyndon Hayes)
The Folio Society, PP113, £24.95

Available from or from The Folio Society, 44 Eagle Street, London, WC1R 4FS, 020 7400 4200

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The SRB Interview: James Robertson

James Robertson is the author of five novels: The Fanatic, Joseph Knight, The Testament of Gideon Mack, And the Land Lay Still and, most recently, The Professor of Truth. Both Joseph Knight and And the Land Lay Still won the Saltire Book of the Year Award. Before becoming a full-time writer he worked in bookselling. The Professor of Truth has as its backdrop the Lockerbie bombing in December 1988 though it is not mentioned specifically. Its narrator is Alan Tealing, a university lecturer who lost his wife, Emily, and daughter, Alice, in the tragedy and who, twenty-one years later, cannot accept the official version of what happened. As he is at pains to point out, he is not a ‘real’ professor, ‘only an imagined one’. Robertson divides his time between Angus and Edinburgh, where this interview with Alan Taylor, editor of The Scottish Review of Books, took place. 

Scottish Review of Books: I don’t think I’ve ever read a more apposite epigram to a novel than the poem by Emily Dickinson quoted at the start of The Professor of Truth in which she writes: ‘The distance that the dead have gone/ Does not appear at first appear;/ Their coming back seems possible/ For many an ardent year.’ You must have whooped with joy when you came across it.

James Robertson: When did I find that? This is where you go, in which order did this stuff come together? Did I already have Alan Tealing’s wife’s name, Emily, before that quote came? I can’t quite remember, to be honest. But I had got interested in Emily Dickinson and I had started reading her poems, which I have to say had never really done anything for me, and I thought, some of these poems are amazing because they’re just so concise. At first you think they’re not saying very much and then you go, wait a minute they’re saying a huge amount. You could write a long essay about that one poem. It was so perfect, I just thought that’s ideal. And because I had already worked out that this guy’s wife was American and so on that came nicely together. But even if she hadn’t been American and hadn’t been called Emily that would have been what went at the start of the book.

It’s one of those poems which could inspire many different kinds of novels but it’s especially pertinent here because of its expression of loss.

Absolutely. That’s one of the things I’ve always been interested in. In one sense what The Professor of Truth is about is absence. I’m interested in dead people continuing to have that effect, sometimes over long periods of time, even going back hundreds of years.

It’s a special kind of grief, isn’t it? The people who’ve died haven’t died what we call naturally. They’ve died tragically and violently. 

And they haven’t even died tragically and violently in circumstances that you could have predicted, such as in a war zone. If somebody loses their husband because they’ve been on active service in Afghanistan that’s terrible for that family but it’s not entirely unexpected. But this, coming out of the blue – literally out of the blue sky – is unexpected and therefore it’s something that people have no preparation for at all.

And it’s not something you can ever dismiss from your mind.

It’s never over in that sense. Actually, Alan Tealing says something about that in the book. He talks about how if this isn’t resolved before he dies then in a sense it’ll never be solved or resolved because even if twenty years further down the line people say, oh, this is what really happened, that’s that sorted, it’ll be like watching the news from a foreign country. You can only sustain your sympathy for so long, whether over time or distance. When something happens in a far-flung part of the globe you can go, that’s awful, that’s terrible, but somehow it doesn’t quite have the impact of something that happens closer to home. I can remember quite distinctly the night that Lockerbie happened. And when it happens right there, in your place, it does have a greater impact than something that happens 10,000 miles away.

I remember that night too. The first callous reaction of a journalist is that it’s a great story. There’s an air, then, of disbelief, followed swiftly by the realisation of the enormity of what’s occurred. Though of course at that stage no one – certainly no one in the newspaper where I was working – had any idea of the implications.

I remember I was working in Waterstones in George Street, Edinburgh, at the time, and it was four days before Christmas. It was seven o’clock at night, the place was heaving with folk buying books, and the phone went and it was a work colleague, a friend now for many years although at the time I didn’t know him particularly well, but we knew each other for quite a while. And for some reason he had a notion that I came from that neck of the woods and he phoned to say, I’m just watching the news, is this anywhere near where you’re from? I said no it’s not. And, you know, you forget this is all pre mobile phones, pre internet, pre everything. So what he was communicating to me was what he was seeing on the television. People knew something had happened but they didn’t know quite what. Later I went home and I watched it on the news. After that it was the only story for days, weeks even. But it took quite a long time for the story – even just the basics of the story – to build up. News was a slower process then.

It was first thought to be an accident, wasn’t it? That there had been some plane malfunction. But what you’re concerned with in the novel is not who did what but the effect on the victims’ loved ones, on those left behind. That nothing, not even knowing who really planted the bomb, can ever entirely wipe away their grief.

I think that’s part of what I wanted to explore through this book. When that kind of thing happens, when parents lose children, that’s just such a horrible, awful thing, but particularly to lose them in the kind of circumstances that you’ve just described, or the kind of circumstances that happened at Lockerbie. You try imaginatively to put yourself in that place but actually you can’t do it. When somebody writes about it who’s been through it you know they’re telling the truth. Fiction can only be an approximation of that kind of suffering. That’s all you can say about it really.

‘If what you do as a writer is talk about, write about, the space you inhabit the novel does give you that much more scope. I remember years and years ago going into the National Library and there were little leaflets about contemporary Scottish writers and one of them was about Jim Kelman. At the time he only had one or two books published. His statement of intent was, “I live in Glasgow, this is what I write”. And that was it. Basically what he was saying was, the fact that I exist in Glasgow gives me the material to write.’

Can you talk a little about your choice of narrator? Alan Tealing lectures in English literature so he can write, but in a certain dry style. But he’s not given to Updike-like images. He doesn’t think in metaphor or simile, which, I’m sure, is deliberate on your part.

There were reasons for making him who he was. I knew the story was  going to be in the first person from somebody in those circumstances. There was no question of me writing in the third person. I just didn’t think I would be able. So then I had to think about who was going to tell the story. Yes, he’s an academic whose trade is literature. As you say, he can write but he’s not going to be doing flamboyant flourishes. He’s not going to write like John Updike or anybody else. He’s going to write like a man who knows about literature and that was quite useful. Sometimes he appears quite cold, even when describing his own emotions but that’s also because of what he does for a trade. He writes about fictional characters. He understands what narrative is. One of his concerns, in the first section of the novel when he is visited by the dying American intelligence officer, is this whole question of narrative; the official narrative of events has been altered, distorted to fit political objectives and requirements, and he understands this because of his academic work. He sees that narrative can be changed in real life just as the narrative of a novel might change between drafts. And this is what has happened and this why his search for truth and justice has been frustrated — because certain individuals and organisations have changed the narrative. They haven’t always done this maliciously but the effect has been malicious.

What I didn’t want was for him to become histrionic. This has been going on for twenty-one years so he has some measure of control over it when he writes this thing. He does talk about how he’s gone through moments of despair, a sense of being in prison and failing to escape, he keeps making what he thinks is a breakthrough but it’s not, the breakthrough is only into another cell. So he’s able to describe all the anguish and pain he’s gone through but also to put that little distance on it, that academics can do when they’re writing about literature.

It’s his way of dealing with what’s happened.

Maybe that’s also  how you survive, by – if you can put it this way – mastering your emotions. Again, you’ve got to be careful, and not say there’s one way to deal with grief. Of course, everyone deals with grief in many, many different ways. This is the way he does it.

His way, also, is to try and get to the bottom of a cover up. Or at least an injustice. Another way would be to find the people who planted the bomb and deal with them, as they do in the movies. Instead he seems to want clear someone who’s been found guilty of a crime Tealing believes he did not commit. 

Yes. The way Alan Tealing thinks that through is that he’s never going to locate the people who did it, therefore the only way for him to expose that cover up is by demonstrating that the man convicted of the bombing didn’t do it and therefore the case will have to be reopened. But the nature of Alan Tealing’s character is that he wouldn’t be able to hunt down the real culprits anyway. He’s not in a movie. It’s as if he’s too constrained by his own civilisation. His own polite decency.

He’s constrained in other ways too, isn’t he? He doesn’t drive. He could have climbed the academic greasy pole but he didn’t want to do it. It’s almost as if he’s completely risk averse. In a way, he’s the wrong kind of person to go looking for the solution to such a huge problem.

But he can’t leave it alone. And who can say in similar circumstances how anybody would react? People sometimes behave in very unlikely, uncharacteristic ways. It depends on circumstances. There’s a discussion in the book about cowardice and courage and he suggests that if, for example, you really believe that there’s a life after death then going into a situation where you might get killed is perhaps not as scary as if you don’t believe there is an afterlife. Facing death when you don’t know what’s on the other side or don’t believe there is anything on the other side at all may actually be braver than somebody who thinks that if he dies in such circumstances he’s going to go to his god. That’s a speculative discussion.

But it feels authentic. It must, for example, be the rationale of some suicide bombers. Whereas those of us who believe that this is it place some value on being alive now.

Absolutely. Whereas people who genuinely do believe that there is something beyond this life place more value on what’s coming than on this life. I’m not thinking so much of suicide bombers. I’m think of people who believe in heaven and who think that they’re going to a better place than the one that they’re in at the moment. I don’t believe that.

Are you religious?

No. I grew up in a good presbyterian background and I believed it all until I  was about 13 and then I didn’t believe it.  The framework remains. I still find it a useful framework for coping with life — there was an intellectual rigour to the way I was taught to confront ideas of moral behaviour and spiritual belief, and even after the belief has gone the rigour remains. Protestantism is – and particularly Scottish versions of it are – so schismatic. Protestantism was designed to challenge, and often in an uncompromising way, with the result that it ended up challenging itself, and its own rules almost as soon as it made them up. That’s the history of Scottish christianity really. It’s interesting. It demonstrates to me that actually it’s a rational religion and at the end of the day that’s hard to sustain. Those two things, rationalism and faith, don’t really fit together.

It’s similar to the left of which you were – are – aligned. I recall you were involved with the magazine Radical Scotland. 

I suppose then I would have described myself as a socialist and in some respects I still think of myself as a socialist but of course all of those isms have been chucked up in the air and have come down in different shapes since. I think in the 1980s particularly I got very very angry because whole communities and ways of lives were dismissed as irrelevant – or dismissed as having no value in themselves, and so it was justifiable to destroy them. We’re living with the legacy of that to this day, I think.

Were you then thinking like a writer? Even as recently as the 1980s Scottish books were conspicuous by their absence in many bookshops.

If there was such a thing as a Scottish section in a bookshop it was a couple of books on whisky, tartan and salmon fishing. It was Wee Macgreegor [by JJ Bell] and Whisky Galore [by Compton Mackenzie] and that would be about it. And Scott and Stevenson in Penguin Classics.

And the dominant writers were poets. 

The living dominant writers absolutely were; they were poets and they were men. And that has utterly changed in the last thirty years. At that period I was a student, I was working part-time in the bookshop and I was really trying to immerse myself in Scottish literature and catch up. Because none of this stuff  had been in my education. The idea that Scottish literature existed as anything other than an addendum, a footnote, to English literature — well, it just wasn’t there.

You were at Glenalmond.

Yes. You could argue that that was a posh private school and so you wouldn’t really expect it to be there. Nevertheless it was a school right in the heart of Scotland. But Scottish literature wasn’t really happening in state schools either at that point. Anybody who was interested in discovering the literature of this country had to do it for themselves after they’d left school. So I was busy doing that. There was a magazine  called Cencrastus which was a bible for me because in every issue I learned more about this hinterland that I hadn’t realised or nobody had told me had existed, some of which was twentieth-century hinterland, some of which was stuff that went back hundreds and hundreds of years.

There were other magazines around at the time. There was Radical Scotland, Chapman, Lines Review, New Edinburgh Review. To me, they were meat and drink. I was writing poetry, short stories. I was getting the odd thing published here and there. I did keep thinking I did want to write a novel. I’d written novels when I was in my teens. I’d always written. I wrote a couple of westerns actually. When I was a kid I was really infatuated with the American West. I wrote quite a lot in my teens but I didn’t have a real focus that was going to give me something to get a hold on.

And it was that period in the 1980s when I began to get a focus. Reading poets. Reading MacDiarmid, for example, totally revolutionised my thinking about loads of things: language, literature, politics, all kinds of stuff. MacDiarmid led on to lots of other people as well. And, of course, when I was working in the bookshop – MacDiarmid was dead  by that point – but most of the other big name poets were still around. They all came and did readings at that bookshop. That was a real privilege. So I met and got quite friendly with people like Norman MacCaig and Iain Crichton Smith. Sorley MacLean I met a few  times. Now I think, god that was special, to be at the tail end of that clutch of people. Eddie Morgan and so on. To actually meet them and know them was an amazing thing.

For the first time, it seems, there were people aspiring writers could relate to.

Yes, although that wasn’t the original impetus for me. From a very early age – six, seven years old, I did know I wanted to be a writer. I didn’t know how one did it, how you got there. There weren’t any writers in my family; I’d never met a writer. I went to the library every week and took three books out and took them back again and so on. I just knew that that’s what I was wanting to do and somehow I knew I was going to do it. That seems so precious now, it’s almost embarrassing. But I had written at least one book by the time I was fourteen and I’d sent it off to a publisher. And they very nicely sent it back again and said, thanks very much but it’s not for us!

In recent times there’s been a quite marked shift in emphasis from poetry to fiction. You’ve written both. What advantage – if any – does the novel have over the poem? 

If what you do as a writer is talk about, write about, the space you inhabit the novel does give you that much more scope. I remember years and years ago going into the National Library and there were little leaflets about contemporary Scottish writers and one of them was about Jim Kelman. At the time he only had one or two books published. His statement of intent was, ‘I live in Glasgow, this is what I write’. And that was it. Basically what he was saying was, the fact that I exist in Glasgow gives me the material to write. Not all writers obviously do it that way, because you’ve got genre writers and so on, but those of us who write what you might loosely call literary fiction (I hate using those categories) and are therefore writing out of that sense of place or tradition or whatever, yes, you can say a lot more through fiction sometimes than you can through poetry. Or you can say different things. And you can also vary it. You can write different kinds of books.

Your early novels were set in what might be called the distant past. The Fanatic was set partly in the 1670s in the days of witchcraft. Joseph Knight has as its period the aftermath of Culloden. But with And the Land Lay Still and The Professor of Truth you’ve come virtually up to date. In defiance of categorisation? 

There was a period when – you know, publishers always love to pigeon-hole you – when I was in danger of becoming a historical novelist. I didn’t want to have that label pinned on me. I did history as a degree – two degrees actually – and I’m always interested in history – I think it’s very important, crucial even. But I’m not actually interested in history – and historical fiction – if it’s just about recreating the fourteenth century in fantastic detail. That to me is tedious. What I’m interested in is if you can locate a story in the eighteenth or seventeenth or whatever century which has some kind of resonance for today. I’m interested in that relationship between past and present. That was my interest in writing The Fanatic. It’s only half a historical novel, the other half is set in the 1990s. And in Joseph Knight I was interested in uncovering this story about Scotland’s deep involvement in slavery, because it seemed to have been conveniently forgotten, and remembering it seemed very necessary and relevant to the challenges of Scotland becoming a multi-racial, multi-cultural, mutually tolerant place in the twenty-first century. And then you have to ask, where does history end? Much of the period covered in And the Land Lay Still is history to anyone under the age of thirty. Lockerbie happened twenty-five years ago: does that make The Professor of Truth a historical novel?

No small part of the appeal, I guess, of And the Land Lay Still was that people who read and enjoyed it had lived through the period you were writing about. They recognised the times and perhaps thought they knew personally some of your characters. It also painted a wonderful portrait of Edinburgh and its segmented nature. 

If you want to get a sense of nineteenth-century London who do you turn to? Dickens. In And the Land Lay Still, what was fascinating about the response was how many people came up to me and still come up to me and say, it was like re-reading bits of their my life.

What was the reaction to And the Land Lay Still outside Scotland?

The brutal truth is that it has not actually been widely read outside Scotland. Penguin have distributed in places like Australia but it hasn’t been published in the United States and it hasn’t been translated into other languages. One of the problems there is the size of it which has frightened off some publishers — it’s nearly 700 pages in English and god knows how many pages that makes in German. I’m not a well known writer outside of Scotland, I really am not. But also I think – this is the feedback I get – the book is considered to be too Scottish. That’s a bizarre thing for people to come back and say. We’re not going to publish a book because it is too Scottish or too French or too Hungarian. This is the feedback I get from my agent, the response they get from foreign publishers.

Is Ismail Kadare too Albanian? Is Orhan Pamuk too Turkish?

It’s ludicrous. I don’t know what it means. What I suspect it means is that people in other parts of the world don’t have a very clear sense of what distinguishes Scotland from the UK, England. They come across a book like And the Land Lay Still and they say, what is this about? To me, there’s just not an issue there; you read it and you know what it’s about. To be fair some editors in other countries have really loved it but been unable to persuade accountants to go with it. So the answer to your question is that outside Scotland there is very little reaction because it hasn’t been widely read outside Scotland.

That’s perplexing. 

I don’t know the answer to be honest. Part of me thinks, well, what I do is write and it’s down to the machinery of publishing to try and get the books out there in as many different places as possible. So part of me doesn’t want to engage with that stuff because it’s energy sapping. But another part of me is a wee bit disappointed that there hasn’t been a wider take up on what I’ve produced.

And the Land Lay Still was something of a breakthrough book, in that it was an ambitious attempt to embrace Scottish politics in fiction which no one had done for decades. Were you surprised to have the field left open to you?

I was a bit. Even when I was much more politically active than I am now I remember thinking this is such great material and I remember thinking someone’s going to do it. Iain Banks had captured some of it in The Crow Road. Alan Warner’s most recent novel, The Deadman’s Pedal, I think has something of that scope. I was thinking of American fiction when I started scoping out And the Land Lay Still. I wanted to do something on the scale of Don DeLillo’s Underworld. One of the things I find interesting about contemporary Scottish fiction – and this is a bit of a sweeping statement – is that a lot of it is quite focussed on individuals. It’s what you might call fiction that’s interested in psychology at an individual level.

Navel gazing?

That’s one way of putting it. There’s nothing wrong with that focus, that attention on particular lives, but there are not many Scottish writers out there who’re not genre writers who are writing big picture stuff. But yes, in a way I was quite surprised that nobody got there before I did that book.

I don’t want to put words into your mouth. But isn’t this indicative of a contempt for society or politics or even religion? 

Or a feeling that this is not anything to do with me, or perhaps that these things are too big to grapple with. I’m not sure. Maybe it’s a phase: literature always has phases. The things you’ve mentioned, and finance, economics, business: that was all meat and drink to the great nineteenth-century writers like Scott or Eliot or Anthony Trollope. I read for the first time a couple of years ago Trollope’s The Way We Live Now. It’s a fantastic novel. I didn’t read that until after I’d finished And the Land Lay Still. Otherwise that would have been the book I’d have wanted to emulate. Dickens does it as well in Our Mutual Friend. Maybe that will come around again. There’s so much material to be mined in Scotland you don’t need to look anywhere else for it. We’ve got politics on our doorstep; we’ve got religion on our doorstep. We’ve got finance; we’ve got banking. We’ve got city life, rural life, the environment. Everything is here.

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Event Review: My Life in Poetry and Perfume 30/05/13


Jennifer Williams, Ian Andrews, Alex Musgrave

(photo credit: Chris Scott)

My Life in Poetry & Perfume At Royal Botanic Garden Edinburgh

with Alex Musgrave, aka the ‘Silver Fox’

Perfume is a personal choice. A few dab a well-loved scent behind the wrists every day, some only on special occasions and others never spritz the stuff. Pondering the varied attitudes and molecular components behind a single perfume is interesting and pairing these scents thematically with poems is even more intriguing. Such was the basis of the rather unusual event with the Scottish Poetry Library and the Royal Botanic Garden Edinburgh. Champagne corks popped cheerfully, local musicians James Iremonger and Atzi provided elegant music on guitar and cello, and sunlight streamed through the glass-panelled Palm House. It was, unusually for Edinburgh, the best kind of weather for such an event.

As the audience settled under swaying palm fronds, it was difficult to guess how this fragrant literary evening would proceed. On high stools sat Jennifer Williams, Programme manager of the SPL, Dr. Ian Andrews of the Royal Botanic Garden Edinburgh and Alex  Musgrave, writer of a novel-in-progress called ‘Swoon’ and manager of Penhaligon’s, a perfumery on Edinburgh’s George St. 

Dr. Andrews began proceedings with insights about the context of flowers in perfumes and the rather neglected vocabulary of scent. ‘English speakers have a poor language of smell, ‘ Andrews explained, ‘things always smell like something else’. Andrews shared his three favourite scents: the vibrant scent of Spanish orange blossoms, the Japanese Cercidiphyllum tree which smells of candy floss and the South Pacific ‘Ylang ylang’ plant, an aphrodisiac with custard overtones. Andrews also mentioned that he had scents to sample, including an extract of tuberose which was outlawed in Victorian times because it caused spontaneous orgasms in young women. More on that later.

After that, Williams and Musgrave took us through a heady journey of nine poems and ten perfumes. The friendly duo took turns reading aloud the poem and the Silver Fox provided further insight on the creation and compound of the complimenting perfume. Generally the poem and perfume pairings were thoughtful, imaginative and evocative. The selected fragrance broadened the theme of the poem. Some pairings were gloomy, such as Shelley’s ‘Music When Soft Voices Die’ which was paired with ‘Drôle de Rose’ by L’Artisan Parfumeur, a perfume that apparently reeked of elderly ladies: ‘ like old lipstick and tissue paper in a leather handbag’.

But most pairings were dramatic, erotic and reminiscent of the body. Sharon Olds’ poem ‘True Love’ about sex in marriage was paired with the perfume ‘Amaranthine’, which Musgrave described as smelling ‘filthy, like skin under corsets’. Louise Glück‘s poem ‘Vita Nova’ was paired with Gorilla Perfume’s ‘The Smell of Weather Turning’, a very strong-willed scent that Musgrave imagined ‘Tess of the D’urbervilles to be wearing when they came for her’. Too bad Thomas Hardy hadn’t been into perfumes.

It was perhaps one too many pairings, but otherwise it was an enjoyable evening exploring the varieties of perfumes. Afterwards the audience was invited to sip more sparkling wine and take a whiff of the aforementioned scents. From this reviewer’s point of view, the ‘Cuir de Nacre’ (Mother of Pearl) by Ann Gerard was an pleasurable blend of iris, angelica and cassie absolute. It was a compliment to the R.S. Thomas’s ‘A Marriage’, a poem about steadfast love. But it was ‘The Smell of Weather Turning’ that had the strongest impact; the smoky fragrance was evocative of burning hay.

And the tuberose extract? A powerful and sickly sweet smell. And despite Williams’ jokey caution to the women in the room to ‘keep the screams down’, no Meg-Ryan-in-the-diner moment occurred.  

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