Monthly Archives: August 2014

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EIBF 2014: James Robertson with Allan Massie

 


It is all too easy to mistake historical novels for actual history. Both Allan Massie and James Robertson stressed that The Professor of Truth is based on events very like the Lockerbie bombing but is not a fictional version of that reality. Robertson’s novel concerns Alan Tealing, a lecturer of English Literature, whose wife and daughter are killed in an aeroplane disaster. It deals with loss and Tealing’s conviction that the person found guilty of the atrocity was the wrong man. Robertson read from a section of the novel where Tealing consults a lecturer of Jurisprudence. They discuss how the justice system functions and the implications this has for notions of truth and justice. Massie and Robertson talked about the misconception that what goes on in a courtroom is a search for truth. Both agreed that Scottish courtrooms should move away from an adversarial format in criminal cases. An investigative approach would perhaps favour truth over a false justice.

     Talk moved on to Robertson’s sprawling And the Land Lay Still. The genesis of this novel came from the author’s involvement with the Campaign for a Scottish Assembly in the 1990s. The novel charts the history of modern Scotland, but in order to capture this he realised he had to go back to the 1950s when ‘Scotland was as tied in to the UK as an entity as it ever was’. Robertson pointed out that the political cultures of Scotland and England started to become divergent at the advent of devolution. It was the affect of this political change he was trying to capture. Despite earlier warnings to themselves and others, the discussion spiralled off in to talk of actual history. The novel travels with Scotland up to the point of devolution at the end of the twentieth century. 

Massie gave plenty of time for inquisitors from the floor, and the question of independence was clamouring for attention. Should devolution stop at Holyrood? How would an independent Scotland react to the ‘ring of fire’ in eastern Europe? Will the SNP survive after independence? How can we make Scotland a more socially just country? How does Scottish independence compare with that of Singapore? 

This last one stumped Robertson, and probably the rest of the audience. It was encouraging to see so many people fired up, even if some approached the debate from an angle foreign even to mathematics. Nevertheless, for those of us who were there to listen to two historical novelists there could have been more talk of culture, or novels for that matter. Perhaps this was a sign of the parameters of political debate in Scotland generally. When Robertson was finally asked about the influence of Scottish literature on the referendum he replied that ‘questions about culture have not figured’. Scotland might not be having a referendum if it did not have such a strong sense of its own identity. All the same, Robertson is in agreement that civic nationalism is far healthier than a nationalism based on ethnicity or identity. Massie suggested that the struggle for independence in Ireland was a catalyst for the Irish renaissance. Robertson agreed that if there was a yes vote, we might find ourselves in a ‘calmer literary landscape’. One hopes the literary world will not be ‘calmer’ if independence does come, but a different sort of turbulence would definitely be welcome. 

 

 

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EIBF 2014: Robin Robertson

 

It was blood and guts on Sunday morning in the Spiegeltent. The bull-like Robin Robertson read from Sailing the Forest: Selected Poems. He opened with the gentle ‘Six Views From Your Camera Obscura’. These fleeting snapshots and reflections of transient life in Edinburgh were full of a graceful voyeurism: ‘a girl in a red dress/ steps between parked cars/ into the forensic flash, flash of cameras’. If that unsettled the audience, the following four poems about a heart operation surely had the same effect on their stomachs. This thick slow verse had a visceral and primal weight reminiscent of Ted Hughes. The first of them, ‘It Was Diagnosed as a Seagull Murmur’, compared the surgeon’s skills to those of a fisherman gutting a fish. To cure a man’s ‘leaking heart’ the surgeon’s run a ‘cut down his belly’. They ‘wire’ his chest back together like a cage. In ‘The Immoralist’ the body bleeds out again. A blood ‘clot dark as liver/an African plum in its syrup’ slides into the protagonist’s lap. ‘There will be pain’ says the nurse.

A reading of a new poem did not staunch the wound. Not that the story of a ‘rieved man’ in the Borders was ever going to do that. It started in winter, ‘the whole year broken before it began’, and contained some gruesome beautiful images of the dead strewn across the frozen land. The next poem described ‘Corryvrecken’, the infamous whirlpool in Hebridean waters. This ‘deep black gullet of loss’ is often referred to as ‘the gateway to hell’ and almost took the life of George Orwell whilst he was rowing off the coast of Jura.

Robertson is a ‘friend of Dionysus’. The androgynous Greek God of intoxication and spiritual transformation was causing havoc outside. The Spiegeltent clanged and shook violently. Robertson has wanted to play Dionysus all his life, and was finally granted his wish whilst reading from his translation of Euripides’ The Bacchae. He was joined on stage by a elegant mysterious woman who played The King of Thebes, Pentheus. The reading itself was rather stilted and the wind blew tumbleweed between the two actors at times. The classical theme, the windy atmospherics, and the bracing poetics continued when Robertson resumed reading from his own work. A dramatic monologue described Menelaus, the King of Sparta, grappling with the shape-shifting ‘man of the sea’, Proteus. Menelaus wakes in the morning to find ‘the sea wind tearing pages from my book’.

The hour concluded with another change of form. The sonnet ‘Abandon’ compared the evanescence of love with ‘that sudden loosening into beauty’ at days’ end when the sun ‘ignites the valley’ and ‘picks out every bud that is green’. Robertson’s last poem  ‘Aberdeen’ was a ‘salute’ to the poet’s birthplace. Two figures sat in a boat on the shores of the Granite City. They look out at the ‘dark that goes to nothing’ and listen to the ‘flat slap of waves’ in the ‘italic rain’. This last image perfectly sums up Robertson’s poetry. It is an attempt to grapple with the elemental and incorporate its force on the page. As the audience dispersed from the event a few of the attendees swayed uneasily. It was perhaps proof that poetry can still unsettle the body as much as the mind.

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EIBF 2014: Paul Farley and Robert Crawford


As it is putatively summer and this poetry reading was taking place in the Spiegeltent, Paul Farley took the opportunity to open proceedings with a recitation of Robert Frost’s ‘The Silken Tent’. It was a bright vision in the midst of these last few dreich days. Farley then read from his new Selected Poems, but not before admitting the title of the work made him ‘feel half-dead’. There was plenty more humour. His Wordsworth Trust found-poem ‘Relic’ was a ‘shipping forecast of the mouth’. Farley had recorded the secret code the dentist relays to the assistant when checking the teeth. The next poem ‘The Heron started with light comedy: ‘one of the most begrudging avian take offs is the heron’s  fucking hell all right, all right, I’ll go the garage for your flaming fags cranky departure’. It ended in a final striking image of the bird throwing ‘its huge overcoat across the earth’. Despite Farley’s comedic turns on stage, it was the profundity that won out for this reviewer. The penultimate poem ‘Clever and Cold’ depicted a child’s chilling encounter with the sprightly Jack Frost. The appearance of the icy figure in childhood is a sign that ‘from now on things won’t be the same’.

Robert Crawford’s Scottish accent took over from Farley’s Liverpudlian one. His new book of poems, Testament, stirs in biblical paraphrases with poems inspired by the political zeitgeist. His chanting performance of a few poems from a section ‘A Little History’ was a bracing attempt to give poetry a public voice ‘in a campaigning way’. Crawford admitted this was ‘unfashionable’. Political poetry can turn polemical but Crawford employed enough irony and satire to ensure this was not the case. ‘March Past’ transformed the jousting and showboating of the independence debate into a procession. The refrain ‘aw whit a big parade’ rang out in between figures like ‘Edward Milibrand and Sir Ming’ dancing ‘a Hielan Fling’. The ballad ‘Daveheart’ was an excellent twist on the mythic veneration of William Wallace. Here it is David Cameron who rides ‘ride thro’ the nicht/ Tae flatter Scotland’s pride’ and deliver false harmony: ‘We’re better aff thegither!’ The more sombre poems were delivered in a strange staccato style which jarred at times, but contained some beautiful lines nonetheless. The best of these, ‘Persian’, was an erotic love poem warning of the dangers of fiery passion. The protagonist longs for a lover ‘at Waverley Station’, but by the end is watching a moth drawn to a candle’s flame. The candle speaks to the fluttering creature: ‘I may scorch your wings/my own flame consumes me head to foot’.

The discussion afterwards laboured at times with the agenda of homecoming. Thereafter, however, Crawford talked of his obsession with transferring the acoustics of a poem on to the page, which requires ‘minute calibrations’ of ‘line and lineation’. Surprisingly, the two poets defended the impact of technology, particularly new media, on poetry. Crawford said it was useful to look at a poem as ‘a sophisticated piece of machinery’. Twitter, he continued, was an ideal medium for the haiku. He agreed with Farley: what is most important is that a poem points ‘toward the soul’. It is a shame then that the online world is the scene of so much soulless activity.  

 

 

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EIBF 2014: Graham Swift, England and Other Stories

Graham Swift started writing short stories with little knowledge he would go on to become a novelist. He is perhaps best known now for the novels Waterland and Last Orders. After a period during which short stories ‘deserted’ him, it is good know the short story writer within him has not died. His new collection England and Other Stories is, among other things, a subtle allusion to the idea ‘England itself could perhaps be a kind of story’. He suggested that what defines a country is the ‘collection of ideas we spin through ourselves’.

Swift gifted the audience a whole story from England. It was told from the perspective of Dr Shah, who was of joint Indian and British descent and born in the same year as the NHS: 1948. ‘Saving Grace’ was a subtle fusion of national identity with the body, race-relations, and love. The story was set during a period of transition when India became independent from the British Empire after World War Two. It showed the psychological and political difficulties of assimilating into English culture, but also the pain of leaving a different country behind.

The real subject of the tale was Dr Shah’s father, Ranjeet, who fought for Britain in the war. In 1944 he was stationed in southern England; having always loved the country, he bought himself a bicycle and ‘whizzed around the lanes’ of Dorset. When fighting in Normandy he was ‘blown to pieces and had come back together again as somebody else’. His leg was injured and saved by a ‘brown-skinned doctor’, Mr Choudry from Mumbai, who was rejected by the other English soldiers. Ranjeet fell in love with a nurse, Rosy, and thus ‘he got his leg and he got the girl too’. There was a delicate humour to the story. Swift’s measured voice chimed with the methodical wit of the piece and conjured up the calm understanding tone of a doctor addressing a patient.  

‘Saving Grace’ was in keeping with Swift’s contention that a writer’s job is ‘to tell the stories that don’t get told’. He quoted the refrain from GK Chesterton’s ‘The Secret People’: ‘we are the people of England, and we haven’t spoken yet’. But, also, the story of Doctor Shah’s father was part of Swift’s approach to England, which is to think of it as somewhere foreign, and try to see it through a ‘stranger’s eyes’. This does not mean the two protagonists were not one of Chesterton’s ‘Secret People’. Englishness is ‘very hard to define’, which is ‘not at all unhealthy’, but perhaps the best way to understand England and its people is to ask those who have not long arrived.

Although ‘Saving Grace’ is set during a time when another country was seeking independence from England, Swift was keen to point out that the collection as a whole was not ‘aimed at Scotland in any way’. The fact that England and Other Stories has been released at this particular time is purely coincidental. Nevertheless, these are interesting times for Scotland’s neighbour. Sometimes it feels as if England is subject to an ugly reductionism by certain political factions within it. If his preview was indicative of the larger collection, Swift has written what is definitely needed: a serious imaginative treatment of what it means to be English.

 

 

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EIBF 2014: Karl Ove Knausgaard: Boyhood Island


Norwegian Karl Ove Knausgaard, with his long grey hair and goatee and denim jeans, looked like a frail biker on stage. He was launching the English translation of Boyhood Island, the third a six volume series called My Struggle. Although it was not hinted at in the talk, the rather distasteful title of the project is addressed more directly in the final book. Knausgaard maintains that these books are novels and not autobiography, although his life does form the basis of the fictional world. This new volume follows Knaussgaard from the age of six to thirteen in rural Norway, and is about adapting to the world outside your own ego. 

Despite the rather slipshod, mumbling questions from the chair, Knausgaard occasionally came out with some interesting observations. Writing a novel, he said, is a ‘childlike activity’. To understand the perspective of a child is you have to write about what  ‘you can feel and notice but don’t understand’. He was resolute in his insistence that every day existence cannot function without lies and illusions. One of virtues of fiction is that ‘you can have a truth you can’t have in real life’. The knowledge that Knausgaard wrote quantity rather than quality entertained the audience, bar one. His reading was incredibly short, but it was enough to know that writing for quantity’s sake has its drawbacks. The phrase ‘a shiver ran down my spine’ being one of them. His rule of quantity-over-quality also comes from his dedication to intricate detail. This was sometimes odd. Do we really care about the slight colour differentiations in the protagonist’s urine from day-to-day? His Proustian style is an attempt to move the form of the novel ‘closer to the form of life’. Knausgaard has tried to shrug off conventional realist plotting, although it sounded all rather conventional to this reviewer. After all, the extract we heard was a well-paced scene concerning a father who has a revelation at the breakfast table about the fear his presence causes in his son. 

One reason for the controversy surrounding Knausgaard in Norway is his blunt honesty and self-indulgence in a culture where it is frowned upon to talk about yourself. It was also seen as a little unethical to unveil your own family troubles in public. The plight of the collective is more important than the individual in the Nordic realm. Thankfully Knausgaard did not appear too egotistical, and was actually quite an endearing figure. He seemed genuinely puzzled about himself and clearly craved an understanding of his own life. He was also aware of his inflationary ego. During the writing of Book Six Knausgaard started to think his writing was ‘actually better than Jonathan Franzen’. He wondered if he should include this in the novel: ‘but it’s true I did think that,’ he said, ‘and I put it in’. His need to record every single detail of his life is an understandable impulse but clearly absurd and narcissistic in practice; and the problem with narcissism is that it’s highly infectious. Hiding in the corner of the auditorium, one could not help but think: will yours truly be in Knausgaard’s next novel? 

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Cannibals by Rory Mullarkey wins James Tait Black Drama Prize

A play dealing with the consequences of war and the nature of love – which charts the story of a young farmer’s wife forced to flee her home during a conflict – has won the James Tait Black Prize for Drama.

Cannibalsis British playwright Rory Mullarkey’s first full-length play and the second work to win the drama category for Britain’s oldest literary awards.

The winning drama is set in a remote region of Eastern Europe. It centres on the story of Lizaveta, who is forced to leave her home when her husband is killed by a soldier fighting in an indeterminate war. On the run, she meets a variety of characters and ultimately becomes a victim of human trafficking, taken to England as a paid-for bride.   

The winner of the £10,000 prize was revealed at an award ceremony this evening (11 August) in the Traverse Theatre, Edinburgh, presented by theatre critic Joyce McMillan. The National Theatre of Scotland produced readings from extracts of all three shortlisted plays for the event.

The other shortlisted plays also deal with global issues and their effect on the individual. Some Other Mother by A J Taudevin explores the emotional wounds caused by immigration and George Brant’s Grounded looks at the ramifications of drone warfare.

George Aza-Selinger, Literary Manager at the National Theatre of Scotland said: “It was an incredibly exciting field from which to choose a winner this year. However, Rory Mullarkey’s play stood out for me from the very first scene, one of the most heart-rending and truthful depictions of love that I have ever read. Cannibals is a play of soaring originality, authenticity and ambition.”

The drama prize was launched in 2012 by the University of Edinburgh in partnership with the National Theatre of Scotland and in association with the Traverse Theatre, Edinburgh.

Nicola McCartney, playwright and lecturer at the University of Edinburgh said: “It was a real challenge to pick this year’s winner, as all three shortlisted plays have made a real impact in theatre this year. The James Tait Black Awards are renowned for showcasing the very best new writing and we feel Rory Mullarkey’s drama does just that.”

The drama prize was judged by students and academics from the University of Edinburgh, as well as representatives from the National Theatre of Scotland and Traverse Theatre.

The winning entry must demonstrate an original theatrical voice and makes a significant contribution to the art form.

The drama accolade complements existing James Tait Black Prizes for fiction and non-fiction. These literary awards will be announced at a ceremony at the Edinburgh International Book Festival on 23 August. 

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Off the Beaten Track

THIS collection of journalism was sent to me with a polite inquiry: see if it makes a book. The concern was raised by a newspaper journalist to a newspaper journalist about a newspaper journalist’s work. Self-deprecation may not be the first trait one associates with the grubbers of the press but there is a hesitation in the trade about how significant or enduring daily or weekly journalism can be. This is misplaced. My favourite non-fiction works are Joseph Mitchell’s At the Bottom of the Harbour and Hugh McIlvanney’s On Boxing, culled from the New Yorker and British broadsheets respectively. These show that something of substance can be built on newspaper columns and what were once only regarded as flighty features.

Peter Ross has followed this tradition with nimble, sure steps. The McIlvanney/Mitchell class has room for but two desks but Ross is in their school and has produced a collection of constant intrigue, brilliant wit and extraordinary insight.

Daunderlust – taken from the Scots word to stroll and the English word to experience an obsessive need – is a gathering of Ross’s work, mostly from Scotland on Sunday. It is subtitled: ‘Despatches from an Unreported Scotland.’ It is no such thing. It will also be widely described as a ‘snapshot of Scotland’ in its most important year. Frankly, it is better than that. First, Ross’s choice of subjects includes the basics on the features rota: the Forth Bridge, a night with an ambulance crew, Up-Helly-Aa, the Hawick Common Riding. Second, Ross works in detail rather than the quick snapshot.

This collection is marked distinctly and wonderfully with strong traits. Ross is an excellent reporter. His features thus are imbued with the sort of research that brings a jolt to the reader. A visit to Barlinnie could be the setting for ritual, maudlin hand-wringing and Ross is not immune to the tragedy of wasted lives. But instead of wailing against drugs use, he points out almost in an aside that 15,000 pints of methadone are consumed every year within the walls of the prison. Similarly, in an article on peat cutting, he observes that each millimetre in the bog is thought to represent a year: ‘So Norman Macleod’s feet, as he bends to lift the peat, are 1000 years deeper than his hips.’

Ross, too, has both a gift for humour and, more importantly in a writer, an ear for it, especially the Scottish variety that seems to be exclusively spoken from the side of the mouth. The murmurations of the tens of thousands of starlings that have brought tourists to the environs of Gretna to gaze in awe at the wonders of nature are met with the observation from a local: ‘They may be a nice enough sight, but there’s an awfa lot of shite to clean.’ A husband, lying in the back of the ambulance having suffered a heart attack, tells his wife: ‘There goes my Sunday shift.’

There is also an unmistakable sense of community that runs through the collection from the monks of Pluscarden, to the pigeon fanciers of Glasgow, to dancers at the Royal Caledonian Ball, to the travellers on the doomed Renfrew ferry and to the regulars in the pub on Aberdeen harbour. In geographical terms, the book is exclusively Scottish and it has traits that may be recognised as particularly Caledonian as it reeks of drink and is haunted by death. This lurks in the most unlikely places: a cheerful pigeon fancier taps his chest and declares he is terminally ill with a respiratory illness, a jaunt doon the watter is interrupted by a reminiscence about hauling a body out of the Clyde, a tour around Glasgow Central is dotted by references to suicides, murders and fatal accidents. Indeed, the best article in a book of extraordinary depth and consistent quality is the interview with an extreme cleaner, a woman who deals with the debris of individual disaster. Marie Fagan walks into the homes where death has visited and scrubs them clean of the remnants of awful, unexplained violence or mishap.

It is a reminder that Daunderlust shares the preoccupation that marks the best of reportage. McIlvanney’s most affecting essays on boxing concern the resurrection of Mohammed Ali in Zaire and the death of Johnny Owen who never regained consciousness after being knocked out by the Mexican, Lupe Pintor, in 1980.

Joseph Mitchell remarks in the first sentence of ‘Up in the Old Hotel’, one of the wondrous pieces included in At the Bottom of the Harbour: ‘Every now and then, seeking to rid my thoughts of death and doom, I get up early and go down to Fulton Fish Market.’ There is an almost similar, unspoken purpose to the travels of Ross and the travails of his subjects. He mischievously states that ‘there are more things in Irvine and Perth that are dreamt of in our philosophy.’ His work, though, is a gently inspiring testament to the truth that in the the midst of death, we are in life. And there is a book, and more, in that.


Daunderlust: Dispatches from Unreported Scotland

Peter Ross

Sandstone Press, £8.99, ISBN 9781908737762, 224 P

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Amen to All That

ONE of the chapters of this always fascinating book opens with a reference to the first papal visit to Scotland, which took place in June 1982. Its author, Steve Bruce, a professor of sociology at Aberdeen University, notes that 300,000 attended the great mass at Bellahouston Park in Glasgow. It was a remarkable event, not least because it so nearly never happened. The Falklands War had started exactly two months earlier. Despite much high level talking and political negotiating, in early May it seemed almost certain that Pope John Paul would not come to Scotland. That he did was largely due to frenetic behind the scenes diplomacy by the then Archbishop Thomas Winning – who was generally not the most diplomatic of men. The decision to go ahead was met with great relief, and not just by Scotland’s Catholic community, but significantly also by Scotland’s political elite.

The irony is that the visit was not an official state occasion. That came 28 years later, when Pope Benedict visited Scotland, and also held a mass at Bellahouston Park. This time the attendance was only around 60,0000 (giving rise to a joke among cynical Protestants that at this rate the third Papal visit would have a minus attendance). Although Pope Benedict met the Queen in Edinburgh, and his visit was attended by much more official pomp and circumstance, it was an anticlimax compared to that of Pope John Paul. It is surprising that Bruce does not mention this second visit, if only to draw attention to the remarkable drop in attendance at the second mass. Did this merely reflect Pope Benedict’s comparative lack of charisma, his lack of status as a global superstar? Or did it rather indicate the spectacular decline of Christianity in Scotland, and RC Christianity in particular, in just three decades? More likely the first, I think, but I would have liked to know Bruce’s interpretation.

His approach is partial, selective, and at times quite quirky. He devotes several pages to the Findhorn Community, and takes an interest in Pentecostal and charismatic churches. This diversion from what might be termed mainstream religion is for the most part pertinent and pleasing. I also find what he calls his ‘tone’ very agreeable. I mention this because in the preface he apologises in case it offends; he worries that he may have tried too hard to lighten what can be a dull subject with subconscious expression of anti–religious animus. He needn’t worry. Nor am I certain that the subject is in any way dull. If it is, that is more the fault of the media than academics or the hundreds of thousands of religious folk in Scotland, many of whom are, in my experience, lively people, much engaged with the so-called real world. Bruce would disagree with me about the media; indeed he reckons that its executives are too keen to solicit the views of church leaders, and not necessarily just on religious matters.

Religion, and in particular Christianity, is still widely practised hereabouts, and far more people attend Christian services regularly than watch professional sport regularly. Yet the general impression that a casual visitor to Scotland would have is that the nation is sport obsessed, but utterly indifferent to religion. To some extent, church attendance has become almost a covert activity. Yet even now, after generations of decline, it remains a very popular activity – particularly among women. Despite that, neither the RC Church nor the Church of Scotland has treated women particularly well. The Kirk is becoming more enlightened. But just a few years ago there was a disgraceful saga involving a female minister, the Rev Helen Percy, an important episode which Bruce does not deal with. Percy was raped by one of her parishioners. Instead of treating her with care and compassion, her own church then subjected her, the innocent party, to a long process of institutional bullying, legalistic nastiness and bureaucratic obfuscation. Eventually there was a high-end legal case which was in essence Helen Percy against the Church of Scotland. The Kirk’s case was endorsed by the Scottish Court of Session – but the House of Lords overturned that decision. This entailed eventual victory for Helen Percy, but was all this high-powered legalism necessary?

Meanwhile it would be ludicrous to deny the decline in church going, especially as it affects the Church of Scotland. (Free Church attendances are actually going up, but this is from a tiny base of around 13,000.) It was in the 1950s and 1960s – superficially fat and successful years for the national church – that the decline in religious attendance really set in.

Bruce does not present a credible explanation of why this happened. I suspect that many of those who attended worship were going through the motions. For example, there was something rather phoney about the great ‘preaching stations’. I would cite a then fashionable church in Shandwick Place, Edinburgh. The minister in the 1960s was the Rev Murdo Ewen Macdonald, a remarkable man and an even more remarkable preacher. He had been an authentic war hero, he was a distinguished theologian – and he was very left wing. From his pulpit he thundered against the Tory party, private schools and the like. He was intensely, unashamedly political, and also intensely popular. His successor was Bill Cattanach, who found Macdonald the proverbial hard act to follow. People queued to get into the church, which was usually packed. Often there was no room in the pews for latecomers who had to stand. And yet many of those who listened eagerly to Murdo Ewen Macdonald seemed to pay little attention to him. They continued to vote Tory and send their children to private schools. Macdonald’s social and political, if not his religious, message was for the most part ignored. This disconnect between preacher and audience was significant.

You could say that such disconnects are less common now. The churches may be less well attended, but there is a committed core audience. In churches with a distinct evangelical slant, attendances have often been going up. Partly this is because of the Church of Scotland’s moves towards endorsing gay clergy, which most of the evangelicals deprecate. There have been well publicised ministerial resignations, and a few congregations have quit the church. What has been less noticed is that evangelical rather than liberal congregations are frequently gaining many new members.

As for the Catholic Church in Scotland, the issue of gay clergy has different, and more grievous, connotations. The disgrace of Cardinal Keith O’Brien was a serious blow to the church’s morale. When its high profile leader was exposed as a serial hypocrite, many thought it would take at least a generation to recover. The historian Sir Tom Devine, a prominent lay Catholic, actually claimed that this could be the Catholic Church’s biggest crisis (in Scotland) since the Reformation. A hierarchical church obviously suffers more if its leaders are disgraced. But the more enlightened leaders in the RC Church have understood for some time that their spiritual influence was waning, in an era when Christianity is becoming more private and more personal.

The late Cardinal Winning, who I got to know well when I was working as a journalist in Glasgow, was very interesting on this topic.

He believed his key task was to increase his church’s influence in the secular world, and the political world in particular. One of his critics (and there were many of them)told me that he had become obsessed with issues of secular influence to the extent that he could no longer be regarded as any kind of pastor. At the time this seemed nonsensical, but looking back I can see some truth in it. Winning was a determined and doughty champion of his church, particularly when he was Archbishop of Glasgow; when he was elevated to cardinal he became more aloof. He was a man who attended to issues he thought might benefit (or hurt) his church with intensive dedication. An example was his exceptionally thorough, and initially highly sceptical, examination of all the evidence before he finally sanctioned the sainthood of the seventeenth-century martyr John Ogilvie. This was after a Glasgow man, John Fagan, who was undoubtedly terminally ill, made an apparently miraculous recovery when his family prayed to Ogilvie.

As this piece is appearing in a review of books I must note that through the twentieth century Scotland’s great writers have often seemed obsessed, and sometimes deeply angered, by aspects of Scottish Christianity. The book that is now widely regarded as the best Scottish novel of the century, Grassic Gibbon’s Sunset Song, is notable for its consistent, scathing mockery of the Kirk. Various eminent Scottish writers felt driven to convert to Catholicism. In particular I’d mention Muriel Spark, George Mackay Brown and that fierce and much underrated novelist Fionn MacColla. Bruce does not discuss them. He does mention John Buchan’s Mr Standfast, but this is an inferior novel to Buchan’s historical novel Witch Wood, which is surely the greatest fictive assault on Scottish Calvinism written in the last hundred years.

Scottish Gods has many merits. The chapter on Scottish Muslims is a masterpiece of sympathetic yet trenchant concision. Bruce cogently concludes that the greatest impact of Islam in Scotland has been to hasten secularism. Overall, however, this is something of a ‘bits and pieces’ book; a series of insightful reflections, presented in a most winsome style. We still await a comprehensive, authoritative account of all aspects of Scotland’s problematic religious century. Perhaps this would require a team effort, by a group of academics, clerics and informed lay folk.


Scottish Gods: Religion in Modern Scotland, 1900-2012

Steve Bruce

Edinburgh University Press, £70, ISBN 0748682899, 256PP

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Reassessing Robert McLellan: SRB at the Theatre

DURING the Franco dictatorship, the use of the Catalan language was banned both in private and in public, so in Catalonia one of the main consequences of the restoration of democracy was the ‘normalisation,’ that is, the assertion of the right to use what Catalans considered their normal language. I met more than one Catalan writer in those days who declared with great simplicity, ‘my nationalism is my language.’

Robert McLellan (1907 – 1985) held a similar view. There is series of quotations from him interspersed throughout this collection of his plays, and one reads, ‘When he speaks English, the Scot loses contact with the national element of his unconscious.’ Some critics have advanced the view that the growing use of English after the Union led to a split in the psyche, with English employed as the currency of thought and the suppression of Scots robbing people of the normal language of feeling. The word ‘national’ lacks the force or coherence of ‘natural’ or ‘normal’, but it was the rehabilitation of the Scots language which seems to have been McLellan’s main passion and a recurrent theme in his plays. Scots is the language always employed in his writing.

The Flouers o Edinburgh (1948) is a rumbustious, near-farcical comedy, set in post-Union, post-Jacobite, Enlightenment Edinburgh when anxieties about correctness of language were most strongly felt. Both David Hume and Adam Smith felt the need to have their treatises read by a linguistic connoisseur so that Scotticisms could be eliminated, and in the play the minister-poet Daniel Dowie, author of The Tomb, and the Lord Advocate Baldernock are prey to a sense of inferiority because of their Scots tongue. Lord Stanebyres is a more robust defender of Scotland’s legal and political rights, as well as a champion of the Scots language, so he is disappointed to find his son Charles, recently returned from the Grand Tour and a period in London, adopt different ways.

Aa’s wrang. Baldernock’s been lauched at in the Hoose o Lords because he daesna speak like an Englishman; Doctor Dowie here’s been sneered at by a wheen o poets in London because he daesna write like an Englishman; and here’s my son Chairlie lookin like a skeerie-malinkie queyn, and soondin like a corn-skrech wi a bad hoast, because he’s tryin to be what he caas British.

In the outlook of late Romantic nationalism, as proposed most strongly by Johann Gottfried von Herder, a nation is distinguished by three main factors – religion, history and language, which together constitute what a later generation would call ‘culture.’ In the nineteenth century, political and cultural movements in many countries went hand in hand, with the same people often driving both. In Helsinki in 1831, when the country was still under Russian rule and Swedish was still the main cultural vehicle, a Finnish Cultural Society was established, whose aim was to have Finnish become the official language of a state which did not yet exist. Similar movements were springing up in Greece, Poland and Ireland. De Valera was active in the Gaelic League as well as in the Nationalist movement.

The case of Scots is, yet again, more complex, not only because the question of the language was posed much later. Scott, Stevenson and Buchan used Scots in their dialogue but not in the narrative passages, while many Scots poets and playwrights today, as happens in Mauritius, Haiti, Quebec, India or Sicily employ the spoken speech of their region or nation. But there is still a problem in certain circles over Scots. Liz Lochhead’s 1998 comedy, Perfect Days, is currently being revived in Pitlochry and it has been remarked that there is an audible murmur when certain passages are spoken. Perhaps it is an objection to what the TV warnings describe coyly as ‘strong language,’ perhaps to the idiom of Glasgow, or perhaps the audience in Pitlochry is more refined, or ‘refained.’ Lochhead uses language, whatever language, with verve and poetic fantasy, a characteristic which is even more marked in her translations. Curiously, Scots has been more easily accepted for translations, such as Lochhead’s adaptation of Molière in Tartuffe, Edwin Morgan’s version of Cyrano de Bergerac, or Victor Carin’s translation of The Servant o’ Twa Maisters.

The central complexity that presents itself in the case of Scots concerns the choice not just of tone and rhythm but of register and vocabulary. In Perfect Days, Brendan, a hair dresser, says to Barbs who is scoffing at the present he had given her:

Gie’s a brekk, time I’d finished that full head highlights and you’d finally let us oot of work that night, ya bliddy slavedriver ye, there was bugger all open except Waterstone’s and the Nine o’ Clock Chemists on the corner, and it was either that or a box of foosty Quality Street oot the Asian Grocer’s for which I did not think you’d thank me.

Is this Scots or English with a Scots accent? There is no doubt that that passage has the tempo and the overheard quality of speech in the west of Scotland, and it is comprehensible without the use of a glossary. A younger writer, like D. C. Jackson with his play The Chooky Brae, to take only one example, writes unashamedly in the tones of Ayrshire, and while his writing is accessible to Scots, I have seen English theatre-goers struggle. Both writers use up-to-date Scots, which is a way of saying that it has none of the traditional vocabulary which distinguished Scots in other ages, and to which people are exposed when celebrating Burns on 25 January. In the current patois, ‘one’ becomes ‘wan’, ‘wee’ is omnipresent, ‘isn’t’ becomes ‘isnae’, and there remain a few distinctive words and phrases which often those who use them are unaware are exclusively Scots – pinky, pawky, couthy, or ‘you missed yoursel’ are random examples. As I write, my computer puts disapproving red squiggles under these expressions.

It was different in the period which George Bruce, in a poetry anthology, termed the Scottish Literary Revival. Once again there was, Scotland being Scotland, a complicating factor, the sentimental Kailyard school, whose couthy sentimentalism produced a brief flourish and swift reaction. In debates then, there were two obstacles to the universal use of Scots in writing, even when it became called Lallans rather than the Doric. One was the range of choices available to a Scottish writer – English, Scots or, in some cases, Gaelic. Norman MacCaig, for instance, declined to use any form of Scots. To some writers, English was their domestic language and Scots was simply not as natural as, presumably, Sicilian dialect to a Sicilian. The other was establishing what Scots was and agreeing on the range of vocabulary appropriate for addressing a modern reader. How much respect should one have for the development of the language, or to what extent should Scots be regarded as fixed in the age of … whom? Henryson, Burns, Scott or RLS? Would an English poet choose to write in the language of Wordsworth and Keats, let alone Shakespeare?

Hugh MacDiarmid famously chose a synthetic Scots, which allowed him to make use of a dictionary to employ words which he discovered as he flicked through the pages. McLellan, a friend of MacDiarmid, would have no truck with this approach. He did not need to. Born in the Clyde Valley, he received his schooling in the posher suburbs of Glasgow but he returned to the farm for his holidays so his ear was thoroughly attuned to Scots speech. He uses the language with confidence and naturalness, to the manner born. For him this was also an assertion of political philosophy, although none of his works concerns themselves overtly with politics of any stripe. He uses some Scots words even in stage directions, and resolutely refused to increase his audience by writing in English or by tempering his Scots. But does his language enhance his drama, or is it an application of principle, admirable in itself, but not necessarily an element which deepens his work or widens its appeal?

The Carlin Moth is a one-act, verse piece which has dance sequences and visual effects which would seemingly make it unsuitable for radio, but they had more imagination in those days and it was broadcast in 1946. The play has a Celtic Twilight feel which is not representative of his main work. It features only four characters, the Mother, the Lass who is her daughter, the Lad whom the Lass loves, and the Moth. The Lass, with her mother’s help, tries to attract the boy, but he is enchanted by the moth, who takes on the form either of a beautiful girl when appearing to the Lad or of an ugly witch when confronted by the two women. The play can be interpreted as a fable about human capacity to remake identity in accordance with desire and fantasies or simply as a fairy story set in some Never-never land. But what will the audience make of these lines, spoken by the Mother to express her disbelief that any man could be taken by a female so ugly as she appears to them?

A fozie neep beglaubert in the rain

Hauf eaten by a tup, and fou o’ snails

Wad put her face to shame, she’s sic a sicht.

No doubt in the spoken form conveyed by a skilled actor the words could still make an impact, but it is senseless to deny that this pure, traditional, classic Scots raises barriers.

McLellan was a poet and a short story writer but viewed himself principally as a playwright. Sweet Largie Brae (1956), commissioned by the BBC, is a work for voices, and perhaps the commission, if not the writing, owed something to the memory of Under Milk Wood. He wrote five radio plays, which are included in Robert McLellan: Playing Scotland’s Story, as well as a series of short stories which recall his childhood on the farm, but these are omitted from the new work. It is good to have his work readily available, in part because it gives some substance to the Scottish theatrical tradition, which, it has to be said, is a wee, sleekit cowrin but not unduly tim’rous beastie. It was the hope of some campaigners, notably Paul Henderson Scott, who advocated the establishment of the NTS, that one of its functions would be to stage Scots plays from other times and revive recent plays which had enjoyed one single run before being filed away on a library shelf. I cannot see McLellan being revived by the current management of the NTS, nor by any of the major theatres in Scotland, and I cannot bring myself to see that as an outrage.

In addition to the editor’s introduction, there are informative, engaged but not effusive essays by Douglas Gifford, Donald Campbell and Alastair Cording. Historical drama is McLellan’s genre, and Gifford makes the acute judgment that ‘re-reading McLellan’s work, I gradually became aware of an underlying pessimistic ethos. Scottish history is seen as damaged.’ More importantly, after noting the disagreements between McLellan and James Bridie over the future and nature of Scottish theatre, Gifford writes that ‘both writers came to seem out of kilter with the direction of Scottish theatre,’ which followed more the political passion and social protest of such writers as Ena Lamont Stewart or Joe Corrie (whose work will be toured by the NTS this autumn). Campbell states baldly that ‘whatever else he was, Robert McLellan was not a great playwright (his emphasis).’ He lacked the collaborative willingness, indispensable to theatre, to work with directors and actors. Campbell does add that McLellan was ‘a superb lyric poet who happened to have the additional gift of a great theatrical imagination.’

I am unsure about the ‘theatrical imagination’ Campbell generously attributes to him, although I do remember with affection a production in 1982 of Jamie the Saxt (1937), a work usually viewed as McLellan’s masterpiece, by the short lived Scottish Theatre Company. On stage, it showed an undeniable vitality and dynamism. On the page, McLellan reads badly, but it is impossible to conclude that he would now transfer easily to the stage. Donald Campbell informs us that McLellan resented any suggestion that cuts or alterations might improve his script, but it seems he would benefit from the attention of an intelligent director. His plots are often cluttered and awkward, twisting and winding before ending abruptly, his characters one-dimensional and often clownish, while his themes frequently shallow and undemanding, and the emotional life is not his forte. It is not just that his plays have no undercurrents; they have no real current of ideas. They live on stage as romps. The targets are recurrent and facile. In few of his works does he confront modern society, and then very gingerly.

McLellan was disappointed that his early work got all the attention, but The Hypocrite is a late play, and one all the contributors in this volume warm to. Hypocrisy is the easiest of targets for satire. It used to be the homage vice paid to virtue, but now it is the only sin a secular society recognises. The protagonist is a caricature of a righteous minister of the Kirk, Samuel Skinner, out to frustrate the plans of Signor Barocci to exhibit in Scotland etchings inspired by the canvases of Renaissance masters. Skinner’s objection is that the paintings are obscene and papist. McLellan would appear to give voice in several plays to the anti-Calvinism current among many writers in the 1930s, not on the grounds of theology but of its lack of colour. However the Rev. Skinner is seen exiting from the bedroom of a Lady who had seduced him, and faces ruination until the providential death of her husband means that the threatened divorce case cannot go ahead and so he is free to continue his hypocritical career. It is hard to see this thin work as an attack on double standards. McLellan himself was no hypocrite, but sadly there is a gulf between his aspirations and his attainments.


Robert McLellan: 

Playing Scotland’s Story

Edited by Colin Donati

Luath Press, £25

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Best Foot Forward

ON A HUMID June evening some weeks before the solstice, I embarked upon my journey. I’d packed carefully, making sure that my pen had plenty of ink and that my wine glass was full. Climbing gingerly into bed so as not to disturb my feline travelling companions, I made a nest out of sweet-smelling pillows and draped a light blanket over my chill-prone feet. Through the open window I detected siren wails, the tapocketa of idling taxis, and the susurration of sedans whizzing past on the busy thoroughfare. Children squealed, seagulls fought loudly over an abandoned pizza, and the beep-beep-beep of the traffic light crossing sounded at irregular intervals. I breathed deeply, inhaling the marine tang of Edinburgh just before it rains, picked up the first book, and plunged in.

Three books later, I find the repetitive tropes and cadences of the nature writer have adhered to me like sticky-back lichen. The fine art of nature writing is nothing new, nor is the notion of going for a walk to clear your head. Writers often speak of the terror inspired by a blank white page, and its paralytic effect on the ability to compose. But send the writer – or any artist – out and about, and they’re bound to come back refreshed and full of things to write about. There is a meditative quality to the act of putting one foot in front of the other. With the body otherwise occupied, the mind slips the tether of the everyday. It is almost impossible to worry about the mortgage when out yomping, more difficult still if following a path over rough, potentially dangerous terrain.

Whether or not one wishes to play fly on the wall to this experience is another thing entirely. Would total immersion in the great outdoors (by proxy) give this city mouse a hankering for wide open spaces and sleeping under the stars? If you’ve heard about Bjork’s new venture, Biophilia, you’ll know that the phrase was coined by Edward O Wilson to explain that humans are hard-wired to associate with other forms of life. This idea that we have no choice in the matter was echoed by self-styled ‘Earth scholar’ Thomas Berry, when he wrote: ‘The natural world demands a response that rises from the wild unconscious depths of the human soul.’

In each of the three books under review there is also a sense of pilgrimage and homage. These writers laced up their boots deliberately to walk in the footsteps of earlier authors – or family members – who’d either inhabited and been shaped by wild spaces, or who had sent their characters there. When inspiration came from an oral legend or a conversation, the importance of narrative, of teasing story out of the landscape, remained paramount. I read Linda Cracknell’s Doubling Back, Mike Cawthorne’s Wild Voices: Journeys Through Time in the Scottish Highlands, and Patrick Baker’s The Cairngorms: A Secret History. They’d read works by Thomas Hardy, Norman MacCaig, Alasdair Maclean, Syd Scroggie, and Jessie Kesson, among others.

All three writers argue that moving through the landscape is a means of attaching yourself to a story in order to understand it. For Cracknell, as well, it’s a way to tell another person’s story through her body. She is attuned to the idea that paths represent ancient connections between places – and between people – and finds the experience of following them emotionally grounding: ‘In the act of doubling back I discover what remains or is new and listen for memories, some of which have become buried. I also explore how the act of walking and the landscape we move through can shape who we are and how we understand the world.’ If these are big philosophical demands to make of nature, then it’s more than up to the task. There are a million stories in the Naked City, but the great outdoors is no slacker.

So the job of the nature writer is to capture the moment and deliver it back to those of us stuck at home – every rock and stream and every epiphany. And oh my goodness is there an accumulation of detail in each of these books. How do they do it? Walking is tricky enough, and even harder if you’re portaging a canoe or scrambling over a slick sheet of ice. It’s clearly impossible to take notes at every step and unlikely that they’re speaking incessantly into recording devices. Have they simply got prodigious memories? If you wonder why I ask, why I’m so wonder-struck, read these examples. Each is a snapshot of one moment among a multitude, and all illustrate the photographic quality of this writing:

From Wild Voices: ‘We were forced to pick our way rather, as the ground underfoot was all tussocky grass growing in odd clumps. . . . The closer rising moors where the bedrock came through had hollows and gullies, some snow-filled. Beyond these the hills showed more rock and were darker in tone, and clouds blocked out or rode just below the summits or crowns.’

From The Cairngorms: ‘As I rounded the river-bend I entered a small wooded canyon, deeply shaded in a soft green light. It was a landscape of completely unexpected proportions, feeling much deeper than it was wide and flanked on either side by sheer slopes of rock and scree-fall. Moss grew everywhere, carpeting the ground and furring tree trunks in a velvety pelt. Through the forest canopy I was able to see the upper rim of the canyon, a jagged outline of sawtooth crags and teetering boulders.’

From Doubling Back: ‘Farmland and its neat definitions gave way to the whip and wind-gutter of moor-grass as we climbed onto Wideopen Hill, our halfway point, our highest point. Deeper into the Cheviots, sunlight glanced into misted valleys, kissing them luminous green. . . . A dry stone dyke wormed, as integral as a spinal cord to each roll and curl of Crookenshaws Hill.’

To my ear they all, in varying degrees, run the danger of romantic overload that’s emphasised by a distinct shortage of humour. Rhythmically, it’s a case of: ‘I looked at X; I thought about Y.’ Everywhere it’s dark, secret clefts and quaking grassland and mist-covered plateaux. Luckily, in every instance this is balanced by enthusiastic curiosity and genuine excitement about uncovering the secret narratives that one can only discover by venturing forth.

There’s a self help book entitled Wherever You Go There You Are, which aptly describes the sense of self-discovery so important to these writers. Cracknell writes: ‘…setting out on a journey, leaving home, also gives me a sense of ‘coming home’. The dropping away of anxiety and everyday concerns results in a feeling of just being ‘me’.’ For Baker, the appeal lies in ‘…the need to escape, to reposition yourself somewhere wilder, more elemental than everyday life would permit.’ The power of place, he says, ‘[is] that it could simultaneously conceal and recast our stories. It gives us the chance. . . . to project an alternative narrative on our lives, to hide or re-imagine our sense of identity.’

Baker’s Cairngorms is the most straightforwardly informative of the trio, though also the driest and least literary. It’s crammed fuller than a stuffed backpack with facts, though what he lacks in poetry he makes up for with zeal, alerting us that no other area of Britain is so immensely high over such an immensely large area, that it contains five of the six highest peaks in Britain, and that there is always snow.

He also makes an interesting point about the region’s name. It was originally called Am Monadh Ruadh in Gaelic, meaning the red-mountain land, and referring to its granite. It is the name you give a place you’re looking at closely, intimately. The name given to a place you’re living in. But in English, Cairn Gorm means blue or green hill – their colour when seen from a distance. For Baker, this epitomises the demise of indigenous Gaelic culture and our departure from oral traditions.

Cracknell’s book is the most esoteric, and the riskiest. A sense of place has always informed her fiction. Her debut novel, Call of the Undertow, is the story of a cartographer living in a remote part of Scotland. (Ironically, the hand-sketched maps in Doubling Back are maddening.) Her ten journeys track authors’ routes, but they also retrace her own history and the story of her father, whom she barely knew because he died when she was still a baby. Cracknell has done this to anchor herself in the landscape and to remind herself how to live: ‘Perhaps reclaiming our own stories through a physical act can help ensure that life’s momentum doesn’t take us sleepwalking onwards, shedding memories carelessly along the way.’

Yet she is discreet to a frustrating degree. After an arduous 200 mile trek from Perthshire to Skye – which includes a visit to her former partner – she reflects that the process, ‘opened some burial chambers inside myself and the walk had given me time to dwell on their contents.’ Maybe so, but we don’t get many details. What is primarily described is the act of putting one foot in front of another, not the act of being Linda Cracknell.

Cawthorne occupies the middle ground. His facts are delivered more organically and less like a school lecture, while his flights of fancy never run away with the fairies. He admits the difficulty of transposing what you’re seeing onto the page. To a large extent he’s better at that task than at drawing conclusions. You’ll never set the heather alight by noticing: ‘Giving a physical feature a name confers on it some significance and value, acknowledging its role, however minor, in the unfurling of human history. . . . Sometimes we reduce a place, or one aspect or feature of it, by attaching a name.’

Still, it’s Cawthorne who makes the best summation of this impulse to explore. He understands man’s natural curiosity for seeing what’s around the next bend, even if that vision is only subtly different. Having convinced two friends to join him on an expedition, one asks where it is they’re going. Receiving no answer, he pushes, ‘A place in the middle of nowhere, perhaps?’

Cawthorne answers, ‘No, in the middle of here, the centre.’

At the heart of these writers’ work is the conviction that there’s something profound to glean from immersing yourself in wild surroundings. The trick is learning how to relax, and look, and feel small, losing yourself in something far, far bigger.

Can you really appreciate these books from the comfort of an armchair? I’m inclined to agree with Cawthorne when he says, ‘In order to understand a writer of the outdoors you need to get to the places they went, stalk their shadow and for a while follow their boot-steps. You must make some attempt to inhabit their world.’


Wild Voices: Journeys through time in the Scottish Highlands

Mike Cawthorne

Birlinn, £9.99, ISBN 9781780271927, 220PP

The Cairngorms A Secret History

Patrick Baker

Birlinn, £9.99, ISBN 9781780271880, 176PP

Doubling Back

Linda Cracknell

Freight Books, £14.99, ISBN 978190875547, 256PP

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