by Brian Morton

Cannon Fodder

May 26, 2014 | by Brian Morton

It may well be that 1914 was an unfortunate choice of year for a literary debut, as Isobel Murray and Bob Tait said of Gillespie on its second republication 35 years ago. Sometimes, though, ‘meaningless’ centenaries throw up coincidences and hidden patterns that go beyond journalistic convenience. How strange to be watching Putin’s sleekit annexation of sovereign territory and then to pick up J. MacDougall Hay’s dark masterpiece again and read its opening line: ‘Somewhat by east of the bay two of the Crimea cannon, each on a wooden platform, lifted to seaward dumb mouths which once had thundered at Sevastopol.’

The reference helps to locate the fictional time-frame of Gillespie. We know that ring-netting was made legal in Loch Fyne in the middle 1860s, a change in the law that Gillespie Strang has already anticipated and exploited, so the memory of a Crimean conflict would still have been fresh and its souvenirs prominent in the community. I’ve no idea if any vestiges of the Crimean cannon survive in Tarbert, which is the unhappy original of ‘Brieston’ in the book. It may well be that they were swallowed up by a hunger for metal in 1914 or in 1939. Though Tarbert remembers its human sacrifice in two twentieth century world wars, and in the South African conflict that began the century, Crimea is very far off now and past the event horizon of folk and family memory. In the past Tarbert has tried hard to forget Gillespie and the author who portrayed the town in such a bleak and unflattering light. It’s said that the book is not sold there, which given that Tarbert is not Wigtown and bursting with bookshops can’t be too great a surprise. But any suggestion of a Dooker Index Librorum Prohibitorum or red-faced fishermen burning copies on the foreshore is more than a shade exaggerated, stories put around with rivalrous relish in Lochgilphead, Carradale and Campbeltown. A scan of Tarbert public library’s online catalogue shows that multiple editions of Gillespie are held and that none of them is under lock and key.

The portrayal of Brieston is far from flattering. It lacks the affection that runs through, say, J. M. Barrie’s portrayal of the ‘wee red toonie’ in the Thrums novels, but it is shot through with a humour and a sharpness of recognition that couldn’t have pleased the real-life residents of Back Street and the denizens of the Pump but would surely have amused those who’d encountered them. Brieston isn’t merely a place of imagination. It exists on the real life isthmus where Bruce of Scotland once dragged his boats, in anticipation of another of this year’s centenaries. But the real weight of Gillespie doesn’t lie in its historical background or social satire, or even its detailed reconstruction of a fishing economy that also now seems as remote as Crimea cannon, but in its extraordinary modernity of narrative and literary style. Its year of publication may not have been the most propitious – though it did include A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man (in serial form) and Dubliners, Lawrence’s The Prussian Officer along with a more accessible and fantastical diet of Saki, Baroness Orczy and Edgar Rice Burroughs and the sentimental/patriotic beginnings of ‘war poetry’ from Lawrence Binyon and Rupert Brooke – but even without benefit of hindsight it seems the perfect, representative book for the year in question.

Hay’s anti-hero Gillespie Strang has a Caesar-like conviction that the stars themselves oversee and confirm his human purposes. The novel’s plot is both easily laid out and too complex for easy summarising. Gillespie’s rise, and equally his fall, are absolutely instinct with a nineteenth century moralism that punishes success won at the expense of kindness, but the manner of Hay’s telling is unique and strange. His surface realism overlays a narrative of deep metaphysical abstraction. The treatment of time – always a shibboleth of true modernist writing – is extremely strange, with the outcome of actions not just ‘fated’, as Gillespie is thought to be fated by his superstitious mother, but played out in advance of their contexts. Hay constantly tells us what will happen and then backtracks through long periods of intervening time. A generation later, the approach might be characterised as ‘cinematic’. In its own time, it seemed vivid and relentless (and reviewers praised it for both qualities) but also fraught with inconsistency which turns out to be not that at all but a mark of Hay’s higher, and scarcely conscious, purpose, which is to set out a tale which also dramatises its own telling. For Gillespie is a figure of folklore as much as he is a flesh-and-blood man, and his birth and upbringing under the sign of a dagger at the ‘Ghost’, a former inn that sits a little west of the Crimea guns and languishes in its atmosphere of murder and madness.

Only – to pick a literary parallel a ‘little west’ of Kintyre – Nathaniel Hawthorne, or perhaps Edgar Allan Poe, could conjure up such a vivid impression of place and human architecture so thoroughly invested with fatality. Murray and Tait shrewdly liken Gillespie to Melville’s Moby-Dick. It has philosophy, language and, of course, the sea in common. But Melville, even in his masterpiece, stood on the example of his predecessors and Gillespie is unlike the search for the White Whale in lacking the American novel’s trundling inevitability. Once Melville’s metaphysical harpoon is in, his bloody ‘sleighride’ has begun. Hay, who was a Church of Scotland minister and well enough versed in Calvinist theology, evinces no such definite purpose. Every time he tells us that the end is foredoomed and certain, his text takes a turn that drives such an end out of the reader’s mind. He works at a deeper mythical level even than Melville, who clunked together the Book of Job, a manual on cetology and his own ambivalent experience before the mast. Hay watches a community watching its leading citizen take on the mantle of destiny, powerless to resist him, as much in admiration of his rapacity and ‘souple’ manipulation of circumstance as moralistically appalled by it.

And somehow we know, from the very beginning, that the silenced cannon are there to suggest something, and something different to the Chekhovian imperative to have a gun seen on the wall in Act One go off explosively in Act Three. Hay’s subversive message, which might well have seen him censured or cold-shouldered at the General Assembly, is to say that for all the rhetoric of divine predetermination that supports the narrative, the apparatus itself is rusted and spiked. God’s thunder, the metaphysical cannonade has been silenced. This God-fearing and God-bothering world is a one from which God is curiously absent. We somehow know from the beginning that the fundamental reality of this book is a community that will survive even its most prominent and self-serving members.

It is sometimes said that Mrs Galbraith, who Gillespie rouks of her farm even over her husband’s unburied corpse, is an example of Hay’s slackness of attention. She seems to age not an apparent moment in two decades, and for all her seemingly hysterical dependence on Holy Writ she exists in the novel as a representative of female power and its constant self-replication. Even Hay’s attempt to turn Gillespie’s wife Morag Strang, who we are told in the evasively explicit way of the time ‘made for love’, into a fallen Magdalene does not quite work. Mrs Galbraith may insist that ‘God is not mocked’, but God is constantly mocked in this book, whose morality is secular and Darwinian and overseen not by a Good Shepherd or a thunderous Jehovah but by a woman with a knife, an archetypal figure out of the collective unconscious. The ‘imperishable’ faith reasserted in the book’s final sentence is no Presbyterianism, or any other branch of Judaeo-Christian belief. It is the grim necessity of cultivation, a strange segue from Mrs Galbraith’s ‘earth to earth, dust to dust’ to a vision of a lone ploughman on the lea. Another subtext of the novel is the primal tension between hunting-gathering (Abel) and farming (Cain). Gillespie’s ‘fall’ begins when he turns from the one to the other near the beginning of the book.

All of this contained in a three-part structure that becomes increasingly ambiguous and haunted in the final section, where the sons (the almost-identically designated Iain and Eoghan) become the focus of action, not so much to suggest the sins of the father being visited down the generations but as representatives of a new and chastened reality. If one imagines the boys as wounded and traumatised veterans of a war that was only summer lightning and distant thunder when Hay wrote, it makes greater, almost prophetic sense of them.

The First World War was modernism on the move. It was conflict entirely dependent on the railway network and on an awareness of the relativities of time across regions. Hay’s world, with its new technologies, its atrocities and its timetabled capitalism, is the world of 1914 in miniature. If one were to recommend a book that best captured the atmosphere of that year and the world-changing conflict that began, it might seem perverse to name one that claimed no foreknowledge of trenches and mustard gas and the effects of machine-guns on crowded men. The book’s most visceral description is of a drowned man, which has a vividness comparable to anything by the ‘War poets’, but it is in terms of moral atmosphere that Gillespie seems so fitting a text for the centenary. It presents a world in which the old certainties don’t just fall apart but do so to an ever-heightening chorus of self-justifying rhetoric. There is a further tension in the book’s languages, not Scots versus English, though some of that applies, but between religious eschatology and the working-out of a much bleaker but also more democratic vision.

The summer of 1914 was, indeed, not a propitious time to be making a literary debut. Hay only published one more book and Barnacles seems as encrusted with literariness as its unfortunate title suggests, though maybe there’s scope for a revival. It’s worth noting that 1914 was also the year of Vorticism and of Raymond Roussel’s hallucinatory Locus Solus, in which an imaginary realm becomes the locus of story-telling itself. In Gillespie, John MacDougall Hay delivered one of the great novels in the Scottish canon, defined by its Scottishness and Scottish location but also a great European masterpiece that asks profound questions about how our narratives, personal and national, ought to be made.

Gillespie J. MacDougall Hay

Introduced by Bob Tait and
Isobel Murray

Canongate Classics, £12.00, ISBN 086241427X, 492PP

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