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Off the Beaten Track – Scottish Review of Books
by Hugh MacDonald

Off the Beaten Track

August 3, 2014 | by Hugh MacDonald

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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