Monthly Archives: August 2015

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EIBF 2015: ALI SMITH (PEN / HG Wells Lecture): The ‘Not Yet Written’ Lecture

ALI SMITH (PEN / HG Wells Lecture): The ‘Not Yet Written’ Lecture
2.15pm on Saturday 15th of August 2015, Garden Theatre
By Beatriz Lopez
 
‘Can we get the lights up so that I can see you’re not asleep?’ This was the beginning of Ali Smith’s playful lecture on the legacy of H.G. Wells, whose fierce defence of the freedom to write and read – as evidenced by his expelling of the German PEN from PEN International after the Nazi book burnings – has remained a constant inspiration for writers and readers alike.
 
Drawing on personal anecdotes, Smith enthusiastically demonstrated the contemporary validity of H.G. Wells’s ideas. She positioned the writer as a visionary who ‘drew a thin line between fantasy and reality’, foreseeing unprecedented inventions that would radically change the world, such as the internet – which he called World Encyclopedia –, global warming, mass surveillance, and the atomic bomb, among others. Coming from an unprivileged background, Wells stayed apart from modernist elitism and managed to express the experience of the outcast in his novel The Invisible Man. 
 
His books, said Smith, ‘are full of people who would happily eat each other’, yet his pessimism is useful, for it serves as a warning that the worst may still be to come, unless we do something about it. Most importantly, she drew attention to H.G. Wells’s enormously influential declaration of human rights, first ratified by Britain in 1951. Setting the author’s progressivism against the current political situation in Britain, Smith voiced her concern that ‘the appearance of “scrap”, “human”, “rights” and “act” in the same sentence evidences evolution going backwards’.
 
Although she spoke awfully fast, and her rapid change from anecdote to the historical and literary context of H.G. Wells was sometimes distracting, she managed to make her lecture deeply entertaining and humourful, even when drawing attention to the bleakness of the Wells’s concerns and the prospect that in our contemporary crises the worst might be ‘Not Yet Written’.

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EIBF2015: MARILYNNE ROBINSON with Lennie Goodings: The Restless Reader

MARILYNNE ROBINSON with Lennie Goodings: The Restless Reader
11.45 am on Saturday, 15th August 2015, Baillie Gifford Main Theatre
By Beatriz Lopez
 
President Barack Obama said of Marilynne Robinson: ‘Your writings have fundamentally changed me’, and indeed, she intends her novels to expand our minds. In her first appearance at the Book Festival, the Pulitzer Prize winning author of critically acclaimed novels such as Housekeeping (1980), Gilead (2004), Home (2008) and Lila (2014), discussed the relationship between her reading and writing in a philosophical lecture encompassing epistemology, cosmology and wonder.
 
Having received a classical American education, Robinson acknowledged the impact on her work of past literature. Antiquity, she said, gives us a ‘deeper sense of reality’ than contemporary writing can afford. However, literature can never attain truth, but different viewpoints which, while evidencing the fallibility of human knowledge, also allow the development of cultural diversity. It is precisely the unknowability of things which shows that our reason is generally no more reliable than our opinion. Therefore, Robinson warns of the dangers of single-minded rationalism, which often portrays human beings as instinctual mechanisms devoid of complexity. For her, we have the responsibility of making ourselves out of the different perspectives writing provides. As she put it, ‘You need to make the mind you want to live with. Respect your interests!’ for the portrayal of the educated person as the product of a certain scheme is an insult to people’s diversity.
 
Robinson’s compelling and well-delivered lecture showed that she has certainly made a great mind for herself. Often, though, she became entangled in philosophical arguments, losing the essence of her own writing along the way. Readers expecting her to discuss her novels may have been disappointed. But the lecture did throw light on the author’s approach to fiction, particularly her ongoing interest in the mysteries of human individuality.

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Volume 11 Issue 1 – Editorial

WHAT Edinburgh was like before the coming of the festival is hard for anyone who did not know it then to imagine. That it was smaller, less populous, darker, sootier, beerier and danker is undoubtedly true. In the years immediately after the Second World War, Britain in general was often portrayed in unflattering shades of grey. Scotland’s shade was the grey of old underwear.  Rationing was still the norm and bananas were regarded as exotic. Kenneth Tynan, visiting in 1948 on the occasion of the second International Festival, felt that it would take a Daumier to do Edinburgh justice. ‘The well-born Scot,’ he added, ‘is making conversation of a formal brilliance never encountered south of the Cheviots.’

Who exactly Tynan meant by this throwaway remark has long puzzled us though we can make an educated guess. As he flitted from the Usher Hall to the Royal Scottish Academy, from Don Giovanni (‘a splendid show for the very rich and their kiddies’) to a Bonnard-Vuillard exhibition, it is unlikely that he had much contact with hoi polloi. What he did in the main witness, however, were performances of the highest quality. He chortled at the Marx Brothers in A Day at the Races, marvelled over Tyrone Guthrie’s legendary production of The Three Estates, and revelled in The Hungarian Quartet playing Mozart, Schubert and Bartók (‘electrically thrilling as a succession of untoward sounds’). It was a very selective programme and it was possible for the assiduous culture vulture to enjoy most of it, giving the fortunate few the impression that they were on top of the arts.

The International Festival was the beginning of an efflorescence that is without precedent and happily shows no sign of waning. Where once every performance could be contained in a few pages there are now brochures as fat as Argos catalogues, offering something for every taste. Festivals are Edinburgh’s modern forte. From time to time doom-mongers have predicted that the capital is about to be usurped by envious rivals with deeper pockets but as yet nowhere has mounted a serious challenge to its supremacy. Of course that must be no cause for complacency. If it is to remain the festival city then it must continue to innovate and invest and reinvent itself annually as it has been doing for nearly seventy years.

Relatively speaking, the Book Festival was a latecomer to the feast, making its debut in 1984, which a few people at the time thought an inauspicious date. From the beginning it was headquartered in Charlotte Square Gardens which loud New Towners felt was a desecration of hallowed ground. In those far-off days it looked more like a Boys’ Brigade camp site than a library en plein air. But its appearance was deceptive. In tents through which wind blew unrestricted, and on which rain hammered remorselessly, writers of the ilk of John Updike, Anthony Burgess, Doris Lessing and James Baldwin appeared in the flesh and did not disappoint those who knew them only as names on the covers of books.

Over the years the Book Festival has grown, like a tale in the telling. There have been many highlights, many of which were unplanned. Older festival-goers fondly remember those few occasions when the unexpected occurred. One such was in 1987, when Hunter S. Thompson, author of Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas and other chemically-fuelled japes, promised to make his presence felt.  It was all to no avail; Thompson never made it out of Colorado. Later, he explained that he had been hijacked by a drunken cab driver who had been to a Grateful Dead concert. As excuses go, it takes some gazumping. In Edinburgh, meanwhile, a chapter of Hell’s Angels who had ridden up from London to see him needed to be appeased, which task fell to Thompson’s sometimes sidekick, the artist Ralph Steadman, which he wisely decided would be life-threatening and declined.

Such happenings, alas, are all too rare, doubtless to the relief of the organisers of what is known today as the Edinburgh International Book Festival. One mark of its success is the number of similar ventures it has spawned. If indeed imitation is the sincerest flattery it should be blushing like a rose. In Scotland alone there are more than fifty book festivals covering all parts of the country. In the late 1940s this would have been unthinkable. Authorship then was not a common occupation. In Edinburgh, for example, you could count on one hand those who earned a living through writing. Poetry was the form to which those who wielded pens aspired. How things change. For the past several decades fiction has been in the ascendant despite regular predictions of its demise. As things stand, however, it remains in robust health as visitors to Charlotte Square this August will surely testify.

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Volume 11 Issue 2 – Editorial

EARLIER this year Creative Scotland published a report on the state of literature in Scotland. Titled Literature and Publishing Sector Review, it included a raft of recommendations. Of particular interest to the Scottish Review of Books was the section dealing with reviewing and criticism where it was asserted ‘critical review remains fundamentally important’. That being the case, it was recommended ‘that more literary reviews and criticism should be supported…and that the literature community should more emphatically deliver that message to traditional print media’.

It is painfully apparent that ‘traditional’ sources of reviewing – newspapers, journals and, to no less a degree, radio and television – have contracted in recent years. It would appear that they have been usurped to a certain extent by what is described in the CS document as ‘the on-going proliferation of citizen journalism and digital recommendation sites’. To bemoan this is to assume the guise of the Luddite. The internet has brought many benefits but it has also ushered in an ethos that has changed the critical climate, a feature of which is that anyone who feels inclined to comment can do so and acquire an audience of fawning ‘followers’. That is all very well and good but it is increasingly difficult to separate considered, intelligent, informed criticism from the cheerleading of a crowd of enthusiastic amateurs.

We must leave it to future scholars to assess the impact this may have on wider society. To be a critic now, however, is not a profession many people seem eager to embrace. Nor is criticism seen as legitimate or healthy or even useful. Children, for example, are brought up to believe that failure is an alien, undesirable concept.  Recently, Gordon Strachan, the Scotland football coach, remarked with understandable astonishment that when children are on the losing side of a game they are often not told the score lest it upset them. Much the same, it seems, pertains in literature, where it has never been easier to have your back slapped and your banalities hymned. Meanwhile prizes proliferate irrespective of the fact that their recipients are undeserving for, as it says in the Literature and Publishing Sector Review, these are ‘considered an effective mechanism to connect writers, publications, retailers, press and media with the public’.

Some blame for this situation must lie with the education system and in particular those universities which pride themselves on teaching literature and creative writing.

We have long been sceptical of the benefits of the latter and have advocated that the money students spend on them would be better invested in buying books and the time it takes to read them. They might even consider reading books of criticism which is an art many talented writers have facetiously derided while practising it themselves.

Great critics are like great poets and great novelists; they help us see things differently and more clearly. Considering VS Pritchett – who reads him nowadays, who knows of him? – Gore Vidal, another great critic, wrote: ‘At work on a text, Pritchett is rather like one of those amorphic sea-creatures who float from bright complicated shell to shell. Once at home within the shell, he is able to describe for us in precise detail the secret of the shell’s interior; and he is able to show us, from the maker’s own angle, the world the maker saw.’ As an articulation of what the best criticism can achieve this could hardly be bettered. It involves imagination, attention to detail, deep knowledge, wide reading, insatiable curiosity and an ability to discern why one  piece of writing is of higher standing than another. Then there is the not insignificant matter of laying out one’s argument in prose that is lucid, insightful, stylish and captivating. It is not enough simply to say what is good or bad about a book, it must be argued convincingly. In that respect criticism is at the heart of virtually all human activity.

Our book shelves are testimony to this unfêted activity. Here, sitting side by side, are the likes of Harold Bloom and John Dover Wilson, Virginia Woolf, F.R. Leavis, Frank Kermode, Henry James and countless others. Not so long ago we found mouldering in a second-hand bookshop a collection of literary essays by the Edinburgh scholar David Daiches. In it, there is not to be found any notion of what are today routinely labelled ‘issues’, without which contemporary readers have difficulty in talking about books. In common with other critics of  his era – the latter half of the twentieth century – Daiches was primarily concerned with meaning. He was keen, too, to draw a distinction between scholarship, which contextualizes work, and criticism, which assesses its worth. Those of us who believe that literature is fundamental to our existence must be interested in both. Above all, though, we would like to think that the better the critics we are the better readers we are likely to be.

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Volume 11 Issue 3 – Editorial

EVEN today, when we are blessed with an avalanche of history books, many Scots remain painfully ignorant of their nation’s past. This is not a problem for which there is an instant panacea. For too long, influential Caledonian cringers and whingers have argued that if children in school are force-fed stories about their ancestors they will grow to become narrow-minded and parochial adults. That this is not the experience elsewhere appears not to trouble these sages. From their point of view it is better to know what happened on the other side of the planet than on their own doorstep, as if the one was mutually exclusive of the other.

And so generations of Scots grew up oblivious of countless of the events that shaped us. We knew not of Skara Brae and the Sutherland Clearances, of the Border reivers and the Glasgow rent strikes. Scotland’s past was indeed a foreign country where things were done differently. It is not so long ago, for example, that children had to choose between studying Geography and History. Indeed, many opted for the former because the teaching of the latter was so arid and uninspired. Moreover, Scotland’s story, what little was known of it, appeared in the main to be one of failure, of Cullodens and Floddens, of defeats prised from the jaws of victory, of tragic queens and dissolute kings. We knew not of the inventors and intellectuals who shaped the modern world.

As this issue of the Scottish Review of Books demonstrates, we have in recent decades, historiographically speaking, been making up for lost time. Never before has there been such an embarrassment of riches. In one of the books under review, Independence or Union: Scotland’s Past and Scotland’s Present, its author, TM Devine, considers how the teaching and writing of history has changed over the years. ‘In 1907,’ Devine writes, ‘the Scottish Education Department in its memorandum on the teaching of history in schools directed that the curriculum should develop from the study of Scotland to British and then to international themes but always throughout by stressing the nation’s role in empire.’

Then, apparently, the most popular textbooks were called Cormack’s Caledonia Readers, which overtly and imperialistically championed ‘heroes’ such as General Gordon, Sir Colin Campbell (of Indian Mutiny fame), Mary Slessor, the missionary and, inevitably, David Livingstone, ‘the most famous and venerated Scotsman of the nineteenth century’.

In addition, in the mid-Victorian era, there was a reverence among Scotland’s legal and academic elite for the constitutional history of England. Consequently, notes Devine, ‘when the first Chairs of History were established in Scottish universities in the later nineteenth century, no Scottish-born appointees were made’. It was not until 1901, with the creation of the Sir William Fraser Chair of Scottish History and Palaeography at Edinburgh University, that there was an established professorship of Scottish history in a Scottish university.

Inevitably, such neglect had a ripple effect. For instance, it is remarkable to learn that for several decades in the twentieth century few if any serious books on Scotland’s past were published. Change, when it arrived, came from an unlikely source. John Prebble, English-born and Canadian-raised, was inducted in Scottish history in a tartan-tinted town in Saskatchewan. Though such books as Culloden (1962), The Highland Clearances (1963), Glencoe (1966) and The Darien Disaster (1968) were routinely derided by academic historians (‘utter rubbish’ was how Professor Gordon Donaldson, not the sweetest of writers, dismissed them), they were seized by a reading public desperate to know more about the land of which they were the present tenants.

It was left to another Englishman, TC Smout, to pick up the mantle cast aside by his academic colleagues, first in 1969 with A History of the Scottish People, 1560-1830, and then, in 1986, with A Century of the Scottish People, 1830-1950. In these, he showed that it is possible to produce a compelling narrative without forsaking scholarly credibility. As their titles suggest, this was history as seen from the bottom up, relating how people lived and toiled, worshipped and played. Eager to avoid sentimentality, he portrayed a country rich in natural and human resources but wanting in its determination to improve the lot of its citizenry. Smout’s books also indicated just how much work remained to be done by historians from whose point of view Scotland was virtually terra incognita.

As Devine indicates in Independence or Union this is no longer the case. In that regard at least the country has matured. There is now no excuse for not knowing who we are and from whence we came. Many, if far from all, of the blanks have been filled in. We know how the Union of 1707 came about and have a fair idea how it began to unravel. We know, too, about our role – glorious, vainglorious and inglorious – in the forging of the Empire. We have made our mark in places of which we are proud and in others, such as the enslaved Caribbean, that we would rather forget. The joy of the best history is that it demands we take a good, hard-headed look at ourselves.

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Bombing Belfast

ONE of the late Brian Moore’s many fine novels was The Emperor of Ice Cream, published in 1965. It is a coming of age story whose young hero, Gavin Burke, the son of a middle class and Catholic Belfast family, decides, after the outbreak of war in 1939 to do his bit for Britain’s cause by joining the Air Raid Precaution Service. He reckons however without the reaction of some of his close relatives. On arriving home in his ARP uniform he is at once berated by an aunt who is having tea with his mother.  ‘Gracious God, did I ever think I’d live to see the day when my own nephew would stand in this room dressed like a Black and Tan’.  The aunt then appeals to her sister for support: ‘Surely you realise that these ARP places will be filled with the scum of the Orange Lodges. Are these the sort of companions you want for a boy of his age?’.  Gavin stays in the ARP and acts with bravery when the full horror of the Luftwaffe’s fire power is unleashed on Belfast in mid-April of 1941.

In fact many of Northern Ireland’s disaffected minority were unwilling to give any help to Britain’s war effort. Out of 36,000 who joined the Home Guard, only 150 were Catholics.  This was hardly surprising, given that Stormont ruled that it should be placed under the RUC’s B-Special reserve, a force  deeply distrusted by Catholics.  Moore’s novel showed brilliantly just how thinly the war masked Northern Ireland’s sectarian divisions and Brian Barton confronts this reality in his long awaited and truly magnificent history of the Belfast blitz.

Dr Barton has already written extensively on the subject and brought out a book on it as far back as 1989. This new, lavishly illustrated work will surely become the definitive work on the blitz, given the immense trawl of sources he has carried out, from state papers, army, RAF and Luftwaffe records, unit logs and diaries and above all the often unbearably moving testimony of those who survived their city’s ordeal by fire in April and again in early May of 1941 and were also so cruelly bereaved by it.

Northern Ireland was ill-prepared for total war, largely because of the complacent inertia of its Unionist rulers. Lord Craigavon, as  Barton points out, was drawing a larger salary as Stormont prime minister than Neville Chamberlain, but he was a notorious absentee from his desk, often departing with his wife for lengthy winter cruises. ‘Only good sailors should apply’ was one of the jokes circulated about his possible replacement. One source quoted in The Belfast Blitz claimed that when at the end of 1939 Craigavon was pressed by a colleague on the inadequacy of air raid shelter provision in Belfast his reply was that people ‘can take to the ditches’ outside the city. That was exactly what thousands of working class people did in April 1941 after the Luftwaffe struck. They had little choice, given that there were shelters for only twenty-five percent of their city’s population.

These shelters, like the fire services, were only brought up to the required standards well after the danger of renewed attack was long gone. Anti-aircraft guns and searchlight defences were also disastrously under resourced. Their allocation was however not a matter for Stormont but for the War Office and the army as the blitz on mainland cities intensified. And Belfast’s needs were not given a high rating. A squadron of RAF fighter aircraft was moved from Edinburgh to Belfast early in 1941 but without night interceptor equipment. Many in the emergency services during the great raid of 15th/16th April were left with the thought that Goering’s bombers had ‘had Belfast to themselves’.

The north of the city and its dock and shipbuilding areas bore the brunt of the attacks but on the night of the 4th/5th May the Luftwaffe returned with a huge incendiary attack which brought a swathe of  devastation which reached the city centre. Even today it’s hard to walk past Belfast landmarks such as the Falls Road’s indoor swimming  pool or the now splendidly restored St George’s Market without recalling how both were pressed into service as improvised mortuaries for the hundreds of victims who had died under the red hot rubble of collapsed buildings, all too often their own homes, as whole streets were destroyed by deadly parachute mines and raging fires. At the market, a nurse called Emma Duffin did duty helping to lay out and identify the corpses. She kept a diary from which Barton quotes. She had seen death before, she wrote, ‘but here it was grotesque, repulsive, horrible. No attendant had soothed the last moments of these victims, no gentle reverend hand had closed their eyes or crossed their hands. With tangled hair, staring eyes, clutching hands, their grey faces covered in dust, they lay bundled into coffins, half-shrouded in rags or blankets, often wearing their dirty, torn garments. Death should be dignified, pacific. Hitler had made even death grotesque. I should have felt pity, instead feelings of repulsion and disgust assailed me’.

These dead were Belfast’s poor, victims of the most atrocious housing provision of probably any city in inter-war Britain. For many of them life had been defined in terms of a long struggle against overcrowding, damp, tuberculosis, and the loss of children in infancy. It was a struggle, too, against low wages and starvation rates of outdoor relief for the unemployed. When Catholics and Protestants briefly united with big protest marches in 1932 they were met head-on by the armoured cars, machine guns and truncheons of the RUC.

 As with evacuees from target cities in England and Scotland, along with those who fled into the country for safety, the state of Belfast’s poor appalled the social services who tried to cope with their plight as well as those who gave them sanctuary in their homes. Across the sea revelations of this kind created shock waves which drove the process of political change that culminated in Labour’s 1945 election victory. Northern Ireland was different, as  Barton makes clear, and its electorate followed a different drum. After Lord Craigavon’s death late in 1940 his party began to lose by-elections and his successors saw the need to head off the Northern Ireland  Labour Party by wrapping themselves in the rhetoric of shared sacrifice and began to throw their weight behind a more proactive war effort.

For some Unionists the latter could only mean conscription  and the abortive attempt to introduce it in 1940 was repeated in 1943. The problem was to convince Churchill of the case for it. Voluntary enlistment had never been conspicuously good, even within the majority community. Most Loyalists and Orangemen opted to remain loyally at home, often in reserved occupations or serving in the RUC’s B-Specials, waiting for the ‘real war’, as some of them referred to it, i.e. against the IRA. It as an organisation would of course have fought conscription and there was strong opposition to it within the broader nationalist community. Its leaders took their cue from the de Valera goverment in Dublin but some voices within it, notably among the Catholic clergy, were openly pro-German, such as Cardinal MacCrory, the Primate of All Ireland. His response to the Belfast blitz was a hurried visit to the German legation in Dublin as he was on good terms with the Reich’s minister there, Eduard Hempel. His concern was to seek protection in any further raids for Armagh cathedral, the seat of his archdiocese.

The IRA reacted to events with predictably brutal stupidity. Dominic Adams, an uncle of Gerry Adams, master-minded a bombing campaign against some major English cities which began in January 1939 and ran to over two hundred attacks which claimed seven lives, five of them in Coventry. It was meant to serve notice to Berlin of the organisation’s readiness to join the war when it came on Hitler’s side. This was not just a pragmatic equation of a British emergency with Ireland’s opportunity. Some IRA leaders were well-wishers to the Nazi state, and one of them, Sean Russell, was happy as an emissary to Berlin, to be wined and dined by leading figures in Hitler’s regime. It was another matter to convince the Abwehr, the Reich’s intelligence service, of the IRA’s capacity to launch major operations on both sides of the Irish border if and when Germany invaded.

All this was soon put on hold though a number of German agents were parachuted into Ireland to report on the situation. The IRA kept up sporadic attacks against the police in Eire and against the crown forces in Northern Ireland. After one of their Belfast volunteers, Tom Williams, was executed in September 1942, its Northern Command announced, in anticipation of a new German blitz, that it would launch attacks on the ARP, the RUC and its reserve force, as well as destroying electricity generating plants and also cinemas. The latter objective seems to have been rooted in the belief that too many people went to the cinema so they deserved to be ‘kept in a state of pictureless tension. With less cinema-going they might have more time to think’.

Some major Stormont figures did in fact think that the real enemy was the IRA. They feared cross border migration because of the security threat it might pose. There is scant proof that it did and migrants from Eire simply wanted work. For Unionists of this mindset the impulses which drove the IRA and the degree of support for it, if mostly passive within the nationalist community, posed a real and present threat to the Protestant mini-state which they saw it as their duty to defend. The great strength of Barton’s book is the way it puts under the microscope all Northern Ireland’s cultural and political divisions which would surface in malignant form barely twenty-five years from the war’s end. Unionists were happy to accept  the largesse provided by Britain’s post-war welfare state but they were careful to neutralise the onset of class-based politics. The militancy of organised labour in the war years didn’t alter the political map of Northern Ireland though it greatly alarmed Stormont which saw it as proof of shaky morale illustrated by people’s response to the blitz.

This was unjust and mean-spirited. Morale in Belfast during the blitz buckled at times, as in other cities, but there is little reason to suppose its people would not have adapted to more sustained attack, and they showed their resilience under the very different ordeal of the Troubles. Barton has done his adopted city proud. He has also declared his support for any initiatives to raise a city-centre memorial to the nearly one thousand victims of the 1941 raids. Should this not come to pass many will feel that The Belfast Blitz fits that purpose.


The Belfast Blitz: The City in the War Years 

Brian Barton 

The Ulster Historical Foundation £19.99, ISBN 978 1 909556 32 4, PP648

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Grecian 2015

NOT many critical essays stick in the mind on the basis of title only, but ‘Sheherazade runs out of plots, keeps on talking – the king, intrigued, listens’ is one of them. Philip Stevick’s 1973 Tri-Quarterly article was a manifesto of the new ‘fabulatory’ fiction and criticism of the decade, committed to the notion that in the postmodern realm narrative generated its own significance and its own morality, without reference to external consequence or ends, or even the depiction of character in the old rounded sense. Penelope’s web, the tapestry made each day by Odysseus’s wife to keep at bay her importunate suitors and then unpicked at night to prolong the process, stands equally well as a metaphor for that kind of racially deconstructive narration. That both images involve female storytellers won’t readily be missed, though it isn’t clear whether the weight goes toward the feminist conclusion that women are the primal storytellers (and survivalist storytellers at that – Sheherazade stands to lose her head if she doesn’t keep on talking; Penelope faces a fate worse than death), or the notionally misogynist counter-argument that casts Sheherazade and Penelope as interrupters and debunkers of epic consequence.

Both women are deeply embedded in world-classic narratives, The Thousand Nights and One Night and the Odyssey, respectively, but neither is strictly speaking a central, active character, and more of a narrative backstop. Christopher Rush’s aim in this remarkable novel is to offer a new version of the Odyssey and the Trojan war prequel of the Iliad – not a true siege, his protagonist insists – mixing narratives by Odysseus (mainly), Penelope (usually more briefly) and an omniscient narrator who views events from the aspect of the gods and their supposed intervention in human affairs. Within this structure, whose subdivisions are marked by either a male or female profile relief or a Greek-key symbol to indicate the god-like perspective, there is, of course, constant reference to another pre-existing narrative, which is Penelope’s woven version of events, unseen by us but the first attempt to give coherence and aesthetic shape to the Trojan adventure.

Rush has Odysseus articulate a version of Stendhal’s paradox – reflected in La Chartreuse de Parme in Fabrice’s confusion as he wanders the field of Waterloo – the idea that a single narrator cannot take and articulate the full significance of great events. Odysseus says, ‘You don’t see much of a battle except what’s in front of you and what you can catch out of the corner of your eye. For the big picture and the exclusive scenes, for the mass and individual slaughter outside your range, you have to go to the web’. It used to be said that the twentieth century was closer to the medieval mind-set than to the seeming certainties of the Enlightenment and after. In the same way, the postmodern world partakes of antiquity in curious new ways. The web – or Web – has acquired new meaning, and the notion of a shared epical/mythological knowledge disseminated and available across the known or civilised world is revived in the labyrinth of the Internet. Rush doesn’t make the connection explicit, but it is difficult to avoid it. He proceeds by a kind of dis-enchantment, not so much debunking myth as showing the process by which quotidian fact is transformed on Penelope’s web and then in the poems attributed to ‘Homer’ into magic and mystery. 

The death of Achilles is a good example. As readers of myth, we understand him to have died of cosmic mischance, hit in the one part of his body not prophylactically dipped in the river Styx during babyhood. Odysseus, in his bluff, soldierly way, says that a shot to the heel even with a poisoned arrow is beyond the skill of that fanny-merchant Paris and beyond even luck. The detail of the heel is spurious. Achilles was actually hit in the back, but such information isn’t for the people at home and isn’t for posterity. Likewise Philoctetes, who nowadays comes down to us through Freudian theory as a type of the wounded artist whose disability is balanced by a fearsome bow-arm. Here, he’s merely the casualty of a non-theatre injury, an inglorious snakebite that has gone septic. He’s kept off the ships because, great shot or not, no one wants to smell his pus at close quarters, day after day. Again, Rush plays it cleverly and light and without any hint as to whether he’s read Edmund Wilson’s The Wound and the Bow, though I’d take a small bet that he has.

Fiction of this ambition requires the subtlest harmonisation of narrative registers. Rush has form, having ventriloquised the dying Shakespeare in Will from 2007. This is a more complex project, with a wider remit and a less obviously theatrical context. There are moments when the three separate voices are too obviously orchestrated – and the little chapter icons a designer’s indulgence – but the logic of the retelling demands a very subtle movement from real-life event to mythological encapsulation to divine intention and thus an extremely subtle shift of idiom to express these in parallel or in sequence. As readers of classical literature, we generally think of Odysseus on the voyage home, and undergoing adventures which already seem metaphoric and symbolic, recounted in some measure of tranquility; the Odyssey has already been used as the Ur-text for a single summer day in Dublin, June 16 1904, so we are primed for drowsy pub adventures and conversation. 

Here, though, we meet Odysseus as a blood-boltered participant in military action, an elite soldier with the invading force. His narrative is a virtuosic balance of Homeric/epical language and soldier’s talk. On a single page one might find such poetic formations as ‘wine-dark sea’ and ‘rosy-fingered dawn’ alongside combat slang: MBO (‘moving black object’), FUBAR, CFB, and, as sign-off to any unlikely, brave or foolhardy action, a laconic ‘As you do’. There are squaddies who can’t get out a sentence without saying ‘As you do’. Or without some kind of phatic obscenity. The language of Penelope’s Web will keep it out of the running for Book at Bedtime. Odysseus’s speech is strewn with what Billy Connolly used to refer to as pee-aitch-you-queue. More problematically, c*** is used freely, in both its invective and rough comradely way, but also as an anatomical term, and this in itself takes us close to the deep meaning of the book.

The Trojan war was sparked by the capture or elopement of a woman. It is, as Odysseus constantly reminds us, a war fought over c*** and with that prized vacancy placed always at the heart of the action. Rape is a way of waging war, and it is also the wages of war. Women are considered to be fair game and legitimate reward. Interestingly, while individual deaths in combat are anatomised in pathological detail, with javelins passing through eyes, bladders, nipples, mouths, there are no literal recountings of rape and the only physical violation of a female described in detail is the post mortem mutilation of Penthesilea, who comes into battle shortly after the death of Achilles, dressed in male armour. Rush doesn’t provide the moment with any heavy thematic cadence, but it’s hard to avoid a gasp of recognition as the Greeks discover who and what they have killed.

Deaths come thick and fast. Pages are strewn with names and genealogies, some familiar to the classically literate, but most of them not. At a time when we are borderline obsessed with the memorialisation of war – Waterloo, the Marne, Gallipoli; the Somme just round the corner – this heroic individuation is a striking comment on the supposed anonymity of modern warfare, which is only anonymous if you don’t know the fallen man or his family. So, Penelope’s Web is a book about war that, like The Naked and the Dead or Catch-22, manages to be about very much more. The more obsessively detailed the killing, the more we ponder (as you do) the wood-versus-trees perspective on combat and the more we look for the moment when military quantity flip-flops into epic quality. By repeating Joan Didion’s insistence that the classical world was never artfully distressed, cool and distant, but aggressive, bloody and in your face, Christopher Rush has written a profound meditation not just on our present condition but on how we all live inside ‘the web’, how we weave fact, how way we make and unmake fictions, and how we choose to live and die by them.


Penelope’s Web

Christopher Rush

Polygon, £14.00, ISBN 9781 846 973093

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SRB Diary: Our Friends In The North

UNTIL four years ago, when I accidently became a publisher, I was rather poorly travelled. Having worked continuously since graduating at 20, I missed out on the itinerant years of my peers. I never ever made it to Ibiza or Phuket; Arbroath and Plockton were as far as my hedonism extended. Publishing is an international business and it’s incumbent on those holding the rights to books to seek deals with other publishers across the world, to maximise revenues for their authors and themselves. There’s also the hope of stumbling across a potential UK bestseller buried in the backlist of a foreign publisher. Trust is the foundation of these transactions. So it’s better to meet publishers face to face. To this end, I’ve recently visited Ljubljana, New York, Frankfurt (several times), Berlin and Gothenburg, often with financial support from Publishing Scotland, our industry trade body. My company, Freight, has sold rights to Germany, France, Holland, the USA/Canada and Australia/New Zealand. We’ve also established export deals in North America, Australasia and South Africa. The sale of rights, I’ve come to realise, generates more income than sales of physical copies. And once one deal has been agreed with a particular publisher, it’s easier to sell other books. That’s the theory any way.

Late on a Monday night in May, I fly from Edinburgh to Oslo to participate in an international delegation visiting Norwegian publishers. The trip is paid for by Norla (pronounced noorla), the Norwegian public agency which promotes the nation’s books and authors abroad. Norway is one of the world’s richest countries; the International Monetary Fund places it fourth, behind Qatar, Luxembourg and Switzerland. The United Kingdom is 23rd. Scotland shares many historical similarities with Norway. Both are marginal north European nations in thrall to larger neighbours (Norway achieved independence from Sweden in 1905). Both have a heritage in agriculture, fishing and natty jumpers. Both discovered oil in the 1960s – one since faring rather better than the other. As a fan of Scandinavian design, I’m looking forward to seeing on what Norway has spent its money. 

* * *

FREIGHT has bought and translated just one Norwegian novel. From the outset I have been keen to publish literature in translation, encouraged by the example of Harvill in the 1980s. Favourites include Lars Gustafsson’s Death of a Beekeeper and Torgny Lindgren’s Merab’s Beauty and Other Stories. To date we’ve published translations from Swiss-German, German, Portuguese, Arabic, Farsi, Kurdish and Slovenian, as well as Norwegian, with Spanish and Afrikaans works also in production. We’ve also published international authors writing in English from Zimbabwe, Germany, France and Turkey.

Publishing is rather like Hemingway’s The Old Man and the Sea – we’re all chasing that one big blue marlin; they’re hard to find but they do exist. In 2012, Hesperus, a small London-based company, published a Swedish novel, Jonas Jonasson’s The Hundred Year Old Man Who Climbed Out of the Window and Disappeared. It probably paid about £1,500 for the rights. Translation will have cost around £8,000. For small independent publishers these are long odds. With production and editorial costs added, you’d have to sell at least 7,000 copies to break even. Most novels in translation sell a thousand if that. Earlier this year it was reported that Hesperus had sold half a million copies in print and 750,000 in e-book form. Unfortunately for Jonasson and Hachette, the ultimate owners of English language rights, Hesperus’s Jordanian directors jumped out of the metaphorical window and disappeared too, having paid a fraction of the royalties owed. 

On my first day in Oslo I have lunch with Arild Stavrum, former professional footballer and Norwegian international, whose scoring record at Aberdeen FC – the team I support – stood for sixteen years. Freight translated and published Arild’s crime novel, Exposed at the Back, which is set in the world of Scandi football. Arild takes me to a restaurant that sits high above city from where you can see the ongoing redevelopment of the docks area. There is a breath-taking view of the Oslo Opera House built by local architect Tarald Lundevall for a budget comparable with that for Holyrood. Arild describes how the area was cleared of the homeless and addicted in preparation for the project. For all its wealth, many Norwegians don’t buy into the cosy domesticity of traditional life. The country’s suicide rate is significantly higher than the UK’s.

Later I visit the magnificent Edvard Munch room at the National Gallery. I’ve been a fan of Munch’s since student days. Seeing the original of Girls on a Bridge is a big thrill; a large framed print hung on my wall for years. Then I meet up with my fellow international publishers. There are three editors from the USA, including Minneapolis’s Graywolf and St Martin’s, based in the Flatiron Building in New York, one from Ireland, three from Paris, including the French editor of our own Barry Gornell, three from Iceland, one from India and another also from the UK. 

There is a receptions at Litteraturhuset, a former Christian teacher training college and the focal point for literary events in the city. Our hosts outline Norway’s state support for literature and translation. From a total arts budget of £98m, almost identical to that of Creative Scotland, it devotes £13m to literature, at least four times what’s spent in here. Around £1.1m of this goes toward translation and promoting authors abroad. While Norwegian publishers don’t apply for grants per se, eighty novels a year are selected for libraries. Depending on the book, the state buys between 500 and 1500 copies of each title, ensuring that the books break even before a copy is sold. 

* * *

MEETINGS having been arranged with editors and rights directors at Norwegian publishers. First we visit Spartacus, a non-fiction specialist based in a garret. Tiden follows. It boasts a prize-winning fiction list and was the only publisher to be closed during the German occupation because of its links to the Norwegian Labour Party. Cappelen Damm is next, one of the three biggest firms. It is jointly owned by two huge French publishers, a relationship that so far remains benign. A number of Scottish publishers in recent years have experienced the downside of foreign ownership.

Then comes Gyldendal. With origins dating back to eighteenth-century Denmark, it was founded in the 1920s with the express aim of repatriating the ‘Four Greats’ of nineteenth-century Norwegian literature, Bjørnstjerne Bjørnson, Henrik Ibsen, Alexander Kielland, Jonas Lie, plus Knut Hamsun, author of Hunger. It was a point of patriotic pride, post-independence that they be published in their homeland. Gyldendal now publishes 1200 books a year, co-owns bookshops, a book club and distribution business and has offices that resemble BBC Scotland’s building at Pacific Quay. Such is its scale, the central atrium contains a real-size re-creation of the original eighteenth-century Copenhagen house in which the company was born.

By lunchtime we’ve arrived at Oktober, founded in 1970 as an ultra-left wing house, but now owned by Aschehoug, the third of the big three. It’s home to Arild Stavrum and international literary stars such as Karl Ove Knausgaard, author of the My Struggle series and Per Petterson, author of Out Stealing Horses and I Refuse.

* * *

BY train to the Lillehammer Book Festival, where Norwegian publishing decamps annually for a week. We pay a visit to the delightful chalet of historical novelist Sigrid Unset, who in 1923 was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature. The guide tells us of her adult conversion to Catholicism, treated with great suspicion in overwhelmingly Protestant Norway, and her passion for American plumbing after becoming stranded in the United States during World War Two. Unset is revered, not only for dramatizing the nation’s medieval past, but as an outspoken critic of the occupation and also for her ascetic lifestyle (with the exception of her specially imported American sanitaryware).  

Lillehammer town is dominated by two huge ski jumps on the side of a mountain, a legacy of the 1994 Winter Olympics. They loom over me as much as the hangover I’ve inherited from ‘networking’ the night before. At over £10 a pint, Norway’s notorious alcohol prices leaving a serious dent in my wallet. To my shame I miss the first presentation of the day, although this greatly enhances my credibility with the three Icelandic editors – clearly they hold serious drinking in the same regard as their ethnic cousins, the Scots. The working day is spent in meetings with rights agencies. Interestingly, there are no literary agents in Norway. As a consequence, life for Norwegian publishers seems much easier.

* * *

APPARENTLY, Norwegian literature is taking America by storm. In April, Paris Review hosted a sell-out Norwegian-American Literary Festival, featuring the ubiquitous Knausgaard, Åsne Seierstad, whose recent book One of Us examines the aftermath of the Breivik massacre, Per Petterson and Dag Solstad. While Norwegian literature is flavour of the month, its overnight success has been 35 years in the making. Founded in 1978, Norla has since contributed much-needed cash towards the translation of 3,300 titles into 63 different languages. 

Creative Scotland’s recently commissioned independent Literature Review recommended that a Norla-style strategy of support for Scottish literature be created, including continuing help for inbound and outbound publishing delegations and literary translation. However, should this idea be acted on, expectations need to be tempered. Kristiansund wasn’t built in a day. And fingers crossed the delivery is delegated to an existing literature body, rather than founding another, as the report seems to suggest.

At a recent meeting to review the report’s recommendations, one prominent Scottish literary agent suggested a significant proportion of translation money should go to writers published in London. Her reasoning for this is that their work is of a higher standard than writers published by Scottish houses. Needless to say this is not a view I share. Norwegian literature can be thankful that, in addition to its generous financial support, it doesn’t suffer from our problematic two-tier publishing system. 

 

The absence of anyone other than the occasional Scottish crime writer on Norwegian language lists shows that Scotland has much catching up to do. However, a passing comment from our host, Norla’s Oliver Moystad, stuck in my mind. The current success of Norwegian literature was ‘built at home’. In other words, foreign publishers’ interest was piqued when books achieved big sales in their local market; a market, incidentally, that’s as small as Scotland’s. 

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An Inspector Calls

PENGUIN is currently republishing the great Belgian-born novelist Georges Simenon (1903-89), for which it is to be commended. Every so often Simenon (in English translation) has been around, before again passing out of circulation for a while. In France he continues to blaze among the Pleiades, the Immortals of literature. At one point he must have been the best-selling author in the world. Chandler and Hammett called him their favourite crime writer. Here, however, we need our collective memory jogged.

I happen to know there’s been a change of management, a new agency in the picture, and that his son John is very committed to the cause. So, all is well – again. A slew of titles, and moody covers. Twenty-plus of the re-published novels feature Simenon’s alter ego, Inspector Maigret, the pipe-puffing and self-effacing decoder of human character. They’re not so much whodunits as answers to why a crime was committed. Maigret works it out by empathy. (One could say that Maigret came to good: by a different falling of the dice in adolescence, he might have drifted towards crime as did some of his contemporaries – so random is chance.) Let’s see what Rowan Atkinson – yes, really – makes of the role, as TV’s next Maigret, following in the footsteps of Michael Gambon and Rupert Davies.

As a writer I had long envied the command with which Simenon evoked atmosphere, often through details of the weather. Just a few details, because he was never a man to waste words. There’s a famous story, true enough, that Colette instructed the young novelist/journalist to reduce his vocabulary to a mere two thousand words. That, she assured him, was as many as he would need. It did seem to concentrate his mind wonderfully on the bones of a story. He would think better of most adjectives and score them out. I was always impressed that he abjured the semi-colon, and I discovered from his example that one really can do without it quite well. 

He is the least prolix (hence least woolly-minded) of authors, yet that never feels like an affectation, a style-thing. A churner-out of pulp fiction early in his career, he was writing for the masses. A better novel for him was one which rejected the option to be longer. Shrewd in business as well as in fathoming human nature, he understood that his readership – while certainly not believing themselves short-changed: otherwise how could he have kept them? – would be only too ready to pounce on his next publication.

And there were to be very many of those. Six novels a year was easily within Simenon’s grasp. Such a rate of production, agreeing to his need to write, depended on a medical check-up before every new intense bout of work was begun – to check that his system could take the strain for the ten days or so of the really hard graft. I doubt he would have called himself obsessive (too busy writing), although we lazier specimens might judge that his exercise routine while working – timed and counted circuits (walking) of an internal courtyard at home, one hundred laps – was taking professional discipline to, well, prodigious lengths. The assortment of pipes laid out as in a tobacconist’s shop, the four dozen sharpened pencils lined up as he embarked on correcting the manuscript he had typed straight on to paper, the lucky shirt for each new book (laundered at the end of the day and waiting in the wardrobe for him next morning).

But even more than his Maigret-versions of le flic, I admired Simenon’s romans durs – the ‘hard’/‘tough’, or psychological, novels. He wrote the better part of a hundred. Those were stand-alone, without a recurring cast. The central character is likely to be a previously unexceptional person who, due to some terrible pressure that is suddenly brought to bear, is forced to the absolute limits of mental endurance. Often, however, it’s a very small deed, the decision of a moment, which sets the whole train in motion – (to continue the analogy) on its crash course with destiny. 

There are no heroes and no villains in Simenon’s existential world. Sometimes salvation is possible, in the form of a sympathetic human presence alongside. But more often the personal tension is bottled up, and the conclusion – by the law of human physics – can only be explosive, and tragic. The suicides come fast if not furious: last-minute, realistic resignation brings a low-key concession of defeat. And almost always our central protagonist-victim will be a man. Yes, Simenon would feature a woman as a lead character now and then. Any charge of the ‘saints and whores’ kind is very wide of the mark: his women seem highly convincing and ‘lived’ to me, he gets under their skin better than most male authors.

But Simenon did have his own literary comfort zone. All that had happened to him proved grist to the mill: estrangement, divorce, his love-hate relationship with his formidable mother. He had come up in the world, and in his later books he was able to document the social uncertainties of those who appear to have everything. It was wholly Simenon that he should turn the greatest misfortune and sadness of his life, the death of his beloved grown-up daughter by her own hand, into a novel. He lived for his work, and his life – warts and all – is there in the books.

* * *

I argued Simenon’s case with BBC radio. The upshot was – is – that I’ve dramatised thirteen of those ‘psychological’ novels for Radio 4. His books lend themselves to this intimate aural medium: radio thrives on their introspection, the physical claustrophobia of people living too close to one another. We can get right inside the heads of the troubled narrators as they negotiate the shifting ground of reality/private fantasy. Filleting a novel brings you into very close contact with its writer. You read the lines, over and over, and in the process of immersion you start to read between the lines as well.

Simenon wrote speedily, at white heat, and there are occasional errors which have slipped past the translator and editors. You might have to re-read certain passages of dialogue, for the reason that one person’s line of speech has dropped off the page. The trick of adaptation is to condense, to elide, and also to insert little bridges in-the-style-of-Simenon. (The listener shouldn’t be able to hear any of the joins.) With what inimitable sleight of hand Simenon moves about between different phases of the characters’ lives. His flashbacks never go clunk. What this means in terms of dramatisation, however, is that the story has to be straightened out, made more sequential: incident ‘C’ is taken from later in the book to place before ‘B’ in the middle, and ‘A’ from near the beginning positioned after ‘B’.

I’ve found myself looking for stories which don’t carry echoes of others. There are, as I said, frequent suicides. Lethal arsenic poisoning occurs several times. Strangers’ conversations are eavesdropped on through thin bedroom walls. Exploiting his own interest in medicine, Simenon regularly focuses on a doctor or a surgeon. Lawyers and judges are subjected to the same pressure-test: how do they bear up to their travails as human beings?

* * *

I’ve reached this stage in proceedings and haven’t even mentioned that notorious Simenon-ism: his claim that over a lifetime and, despite being married twice (one biographer says three times), he had made love to ten thousand women. To whomever might be available. He would have his way with nightclub dancers (one followed by another) among the costume rails, and he simply couldn’t resist a maid down on her knees polishing a floor. A couple of minutes was all the time it took. It could be argued quite legitimately that hyper-creativity and a foot-on-the-throttle sex drive are in direct proportion: there’s nothing like a good day’s scribbling, or daubing with paint or throwing down crotchets on the stave, to send hot blood racing to the extremities.

The number is possibly an under-calculation on Simenon’s part? Two, even three a day: that’s not so unlikely. He wasn’t being boastful, nor was he being wilfully provocative. The French aren’t as bashful in this area as the British. In the interests of verisimilitude Simenon sought to be exact about himself, no concealments.

Perhaps the man didn’t have a granite core of self-belief – his mother undermined his confidence as no one else could, and he struggled well into middle-age to win her grudging approval. But he was ready to turn himself inside-out for his vast programme of Memoirs, written after his mother’s death and following his simultaneous rejection of fiction. 

There was less phoniness about Simenon than is the case with most of us. Success brought great wealth, but the man remained restless. Connecticut, the Cote d’Azur, Switzerland – there was a blandness to his surface life, while in his mind he still walked the back streets of Liege as a teenage jobbing newspaper hack, he still mentally lived on water as he’d done for two years in his late-twenties, sailing his own cutter about the North Sea and the Baltic while knocking out journeymen mystery novels en route.

One suspects the revered older author only found anything like contentment when he was in his study with the door closed, his secretary barring all phone calls. His cat-and-mouse games with publishers helped to pass some of the rest of the time when (for the sake of his health) he wasn’t working. Towards the end, he changed house yet again – I wonder how applicable the term ‘home’ was? – and wanting to downsize, he put the material accumulations of decades into storage. He was squaring the circle of his life by simplifying, just as he had always done in his writing: he was eliminating the non-essential.

I’ve noticed in his novels the recurring motif of the bistro regular’s cloth napkin rolled up and placed in a ring, kept for him in a pigeon-hole: a sense of belonging somewhere which Simenon’s wealth seemed to deny him. 

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Dam Builders

THE beaver, writes Jim Crumley, ‘is the animal that gives rodents a good name’. It’s an arresting comment from one of the country’s best known and most prolific nature writers, who has turned his attention to countless birds and animals over the years, from foxes, owls and badgers to swans, eagles and the wolf. His latest book, Nature’s Architect, is a paean to the four-legged lumberjack, but one could easily imagine him moving next to a colourful study of field mice, voles, squirrels or rats and bringing if not equal then sufficient enthusiasm to the job. Perhaps he sees other rodents as destructive, verminous or of little use, but you suspect his one-liner is designed more to appeal to readers’ preconceptions than any indication of his own prejudice.

To the untutored eye, beavers are of course destructive on a grand scale. Therein lies at least one of the problems about their mooted reintroduction. To gaze at a riverbank where they have been at work is to think a hurricane has just passed. For Crumley, however, their building abilities are on a par with the architect Frank Gehry, whose phrase ‘liquid architecture’ might have been coined expressly to describe the edifices erected by beavers. In a tone of unabashed awe, Crumley describes this most industrious animal’s way of laying waste to trees, dragging them underwater to dam streams and rivers, and piling them into messy looking lodges. In so doing, it fashions a waterlogged landscape of pools and canals, littered with matchsticks and wood chippings in which nibbled trees stand sentinel like broken pencils. As an Alaskan beaver expert told Crumley, ‘They create havoc, then they leave it, and nature makes a garden of it, because nature has time.’

The passage of time is a recurring theme in this book. It is 400 years since we hunted beavers to extinction, centuries during which we also wiped out the brown bear, lynx, osprey, pine marten and white-tailed eagle. Soon, Crumley believes, the wild cat will follow them, in their case with no hope of resuscitation. Meanwhile, the Scottish government’s five-year rewilding experiment in Argyll, with a handful of beavers, seems almost insultingly brief and ‘timid’.

Crumley goes to some pains in this passionate, compelling, very personal work to articulate the necessity of taking a long view when dealing with nature. Politicians don’t have time, and nor, he writes, do most of the influential parties with vested interests, those who fish, hunt, or manage the countryside: ‘few landowners and farmers think in the long term’. Rather than look ahead, their objectives are quick results and returns. It takes a more philanthropic, philosophical and enlightened outlook to take an action whose full effect won’t be felt for decades. Great tree planters, such as John Evelyn, had such a facility, but it is something of a lost art, and one that this country would greatly benefit from. The recent interest in rewilding taps into this mood, but by comparison with the reintroduction of wolf and lynx that the standard bearers of rewilding propose, the beaver is surely an easier sell. To read Crumley, however, is to realise that resistance to rewilding, of whatever species, has less to do with fears of safety than with money.

Making no attempt to disguise its author’s disdain for those who remodel the land for economic benefit without a thought for the wildlife they supplant or harm, Nature’s Architect is a deeply political book, and all the better for it. Crumley’s exploration of the beaver takes place, therefore, not in the government-sanctioned Scottish Beaver Project in Knapdale, but on the River Earn, where wild beavers – breakaways or those illicitly introduced – are beginning to flourish. These creatures have been designated ‘the wrong sort of beavers’ by Scottish Natural Heritage. You can detect Crumley’s delight not simply in the knowledge that they have slipped through the official net, and are making Perthshire home, but in the thought of apoplectic bureaucritters, choking over their morning rolls as they demand to know where these beavers came from and what’s to be done about them. He does not need to add that ‘Nature knows that there is no such thing as an illegal beaver’. What is worth spelling out however is his concern over the beaver trial and his ‘acute unease about the fact that one of the partners in the official Scottish Government’s trial reintroduction of beavers in Argyll is an organisation [the Royal Zoological Society of Scotland] that owns two zoos. Somewhere down the line, if Scotland loses its nerve about beavers and caves in to the insistent bellyaching of the usual suspects, then I worry that the temptation will always be there to listen to the siren song of the easy option.’ 

There are many levels to Nature’s Architect, giving it the texture of a quest and a polemic as well as observational reportage. The elation Crumley feels at seeing his first beaver footprint is tangible, and brings a smile to the face: ‘There were two perfect prints that looked like little hands, and overlapping them slightly from behind were two more, larger and deeper-embedded, and apparently webbed because they looked like five toes bursting out of a sock.’ Nor is he tempted to play down the thrill: ‘This was like finding a cave painting or a yard of Ogham script carved into a stone slab in Kilmartin, runes executed by the mark-makers of history.’

He is right: the fact that beavers are now living and breeding on a highland river, whatever the outcome at Knapdale, is historic. Even more importantly, their presence promises dramatically to improve the ecology of the surrounding countryside. Perhaps the biggest point Crumley makes is that the benefits of beavers to the ecosystem are enormous. The wetlands they create act as ‘the kidneys of the landscape’, creating a habitat for a wide range of flora and fauna, and improving the quality of life for those already there, such as salmon and trout. Despite the fears of anglers, beavers it seems will actually improve their sport, their pools offering a safe breeding ground for young fish, who can then wriggle through the dams until they are large enough to leap them.

Nature’s Architect is in some ways a model piece of nature writing: based on hours crouching with binoculars, or hugging the riverbank, and drawing on decades of knowledge, experience and contacts, such as John Lister-Kaye and his beaver colony at Aigas in Invernesshire, or the late photographer Don MacCaskill, whose dream of seeing the beaver again in Scotland first ignited his own interest. Crumley began writing about nature long before the ‘new nature writing’ was born, and has trodden his own distinctive furrow. He brings a countryman’s touch to his work, a bit rough and outspoken, occasionally clumsy or overwritten as he strives for profundity — ‘the river is more bloated than boisterous, ill-tempered with its own too-muchness’. These, however, are venial sins, and leave barely a scratch on the vigorous, heartfelt impression he makes, whether he’s talking about a hungry otter on the prowl for a beaver kit, or a swooping barn owl, one of his first tastes of the wild in his boyhood, where he lived on the edge of the countryside in ‘the last street’ in Dundee.

Nature writing has a tendency to make sentimentalists out of readers, and much that is greeted as ground-breaking is nothing of the sort. In Scotland, Crumley has surprisingly, you might say shockingly few competitors or peers – John Lister-Kaye is perhaps the finest, though the more sober Kathleen Jamie is more to this reader’s taste. Casting further afield, he sits in a fine tradition, begun with John Muir, and continued to a pitch hard to better with the likes of Edward Hoagland, Barry Lopez and John McPhee. And then there’s Peter Matthiessen. I have yet to find any who can out write Matthiessen, whose taste for the wild went hand in hand with a metaphysical depth that makes his work timeless as well as wise. Crumley is not of that ilk, but nor is he of the latest breed, whose roots are urban, and who see the countryside through a mist of regret and wishful thinking. For all their commitment to the environment, their understanding of the land and how it is worked is thinner than their cagouls. There is nothing wrong, and much that is good, about books by such as Robert Macfarlane, or Helen Macdonald, but they are not nature writers as this reader understands the term. By comparison, Mark Cocker, bird expert and journal keeper, most definitely is, and so too is Crumley. He may not be the most polished or philosophical of observers, but that is not the role he has sought. He is, rather, the guide or tracker most town dwellers and country commuters badly need. His descriptive skills are excellent, his pacing that of a good journalist, his ability to place an animal or a piece of land in context skilfully done. Above all, the honesty of his voice is striking: there is no fakery or faux enthusiasm here. Nor does he care who he offends with his trenchant views, and some of the toes he treads on are among the most powerful and dangerous in the land.

So persuasive is he about the benefits of beavers that I for one am prepared to listen when he writes: ‘The only single innovation that could possibly offer a greater service to nature is to reintroduce wolves…’ After spending 200 pages in his company, I would trust his assessment, since there’s nothing of the fantasist or dramatist about him, other than in his occasional literary flourishes. One of the charms of his writing, in fact, is the aura of good sense he exudes: that, and a very retro – or post-modern – belief in putting one’s trust in nature to sort itself out without our interference.

The credo of this book could not be simpler: ‘Let wildlife manage wildlife.’ Humans, as we all know, mess things up for our own gain, or sometimes out of sheer ignorance. Books like Nature’s Architect help dispel such lack of understanding, and at the same time infuse others with a sense of the fragility and meaning of the wilds. Thus one can excuse the author’s occasional lapses into exaltation, when he grows almost bardic with excitement: ‘these beaver footprints frozen into the snow, are nothing less than the spoor of history, the imprint of a timewarp, symbolic of the march of the beavers of all time across the land.’ The only thing this passage lacks is the soaring accompaniment of Hamish MacCunn’s ‘Land of the Mountain and the Flood’. If Jim Crumley’s dreams are realised there will be far more flooding in future.


Nature’s Architect: The Beaver’s Return to Our Wild Landscapes

Jim Crumley

Saraband, £12.99, 200pp pbk, ISBN: 978-1-910192-06-1, PP200

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