by SRB

EIBF 2014: James Robertson with Allan Massie

August 24, 2014 | by SRB


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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