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A Question of Trust – Scottish Review of Books

To Be Continued or, Conversations with a Toad

James Robertson
Hamish Hamilton, £16.99, ISBN: 978-0-241-14684-2, PP323
by Dani Garavelli

A Question of Trust

August 10, 2016 | by Dani Garavelli

Though the blurb describes James Robertson’s To Be Continued as a madcap adventure, I turned over the first page with all the gaiety of a blobfish caught in a trawler’s net.

Its main character, Douglas Findhorn Elder, is a middle-aged journalist in the grip of an existential crisis brought on by his decision to take redundancy from the Spear (clearly the Scotsman) after twenty years’ service. There is, I concede, no better context for the mental unravelling of a literary protagonist than the protracted demise of the nation’s newspaper industry. But – as a middle-aged journalist who has spent two decades employed by Scotsman Publications – well, you can see the problem.

To Be Continued opens with Elder heading for the funeral of a former colleague who has clung on to his job in the hopes of collecting his pension, only to die of a heart attack three years short of the finishing line. ‘Hilarious take on the Highland romp genre?’ I had my doubts. Add to this my preconception – reinforced by the use of the word ‘rag’ – that Robertson doesn’t rate reporters very highly, and I was bracing myself for another round of ill-informed MSM-bashing.

Anyway; none of that came to pass. Robertson’s description of the fate that has befallen newspapers in Scotland – the dwindling resources, the demand for click-bait, the fixation with listicles, the endless rounds of cuts – is acutely-observed and delivered, if not with sympathy, then at least stripped of the schadenfreude and gloating that so often accompanies discussion of journalistic misfortune.

As it turns out, To Be Continued is – as promised – an upbeat caper set in the ‘wilds of wildest Argyll’. Like the same author’s The Testament of Gideon Mack, it centres on a man whose mind is fragmenting under pressure and draws on folklore and legend to blur the boundaries between the real and the imagined. But while in Gideon Mack the woodland around Monimaskit and the Black Jaws river gorge form a sinister landscape which fuels the faithless minister’s descent into apostasy/madness, Glentaragar estate and its  environs have a restorative effect on Elder.  The mystical atmosphere and events  transform him from a man unwilling to put his head above the parapet to a risk-taker who treats every twist of his odyssey as a potential opportunity.

Elder’s journey – both literal and figurative – begins soon after the independence referendum when John Liffield, the editor of the newspaper he has just left, commissions him to interview Rosalind Munlochy, a former MP and novelist, for a series called The Idea of Scotland. Munlochy, who is about to celebrate her centenary, lives ‘away in the sticks’ and has slipped out of the public consciousness. Liffield’s plan is to present her as ‘the Mother of the nation’ and as the live link holding ‘the two ends of that 100-year story in her crooked wee hands’. So Elder, who has split up with his long-term partner and is struggling to come to terms with having placed his dementia-stricken father in a care home, sets off to find her and ask the question his editor thinks readers will most want answered: Did she vote Yes or No?

Embarking on his quest, Elder exchanges the predictability of life in Edinburgh for a world in which the normal rules – of behaviour, but also of time, space and geography – appear to have been suspended. As the dour edifices of the capital yield to the untamed beauty of Rannoch Moor, he has a series of encounters with mysterious strangers who eventually lead him to Glentaragar, Munlochy and a new beginning. On his journey, he is accompanied by Mungo Forth Mungo – a talking bufo bufo or (un)common toad – whose philosophical meanderings and wry observations on human mores are woven throughout the book. If you are wondering if this anthropomorphism is a step too far, I can only say Mungo Forth Mungo is the novel’s most compelling and plausible character. He imbues the story with its warmth and utters all the best lines.

Robertson has a predilection for reinventing Scots classics for a modern audience. The Testament of Gideon Mack is a contemporary take on James Hogg’s  Confessions of a Justified Sinner, but it is also influenced by Kidnapped and The Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde. To Be Continued is most obviously a pastiche-cum-homage to Compton Mackenzie’s Whisky Galore: the raiding of a crashed hearse full of bootlegged bottles is a turning point. But, as Elder gets off a train in the back of beyond to head to the mysterious Shira Inn, there are also hints of The Thirty-Nine Steps. Indeed, with its exaggerated characters and surreal plot hinging on a series of unlikely coincidences, To Be Continued fits Buchan’s definition of a ‘shocker’: ‘a romance where the incidents defy the probabilities and march just inside the borders of the possible.’

Yet perhaps what it owes most to is the kitsch fairytale Brigadoon. Robertson constantly plays up the other-worldliness of the Glentaragar estate. Prefaced with a disclaimer – ‘The geography in this book is not to be trusted’ – it’s as if its location exists outwith the realm of maps. The sole purpose of the section headed  ‘VARIOUS WAYS OF GETTING FROM EDINBURGH TO GLENTARAGAR AS GLEANED FROM NUMEROUS WEBSITES, MAPS, BUS AND TRAIN TIMETABLES AND ONE LONG SATURDAY-MORNING TELEPHONE CONVERSATION WITH A HELPFUL WOMAN IN THE TOURIST OFFICE, OBAN’ is to emphasize how far off the grid Munlochy’s home is and, of course, it has no phone signal, so it is effectively cut off from reality. When he arrives, Elder finds it full of eccentric, multi-layered characters who defy convention and often speak in non sequiturs. It is a fantastical place where adventure and love are a given and a happy ending guaranteed.

As you might expect from a book with such literary forebears, the humour is gentle and slightly dated. If you like your comedy dark and served with a  dollop of snark you may find it too safe and whimsical. The premise that Elder – an experienced journalist – is so daunted by the prospect of travelling to Argyll also requires a sizeable suspension of disbelief. But these are minor quibbles of a novel that offers plenty of pleasures. One is the manner in which Robertson experiments with form. To Be Continued is relayed in a variety of ways, which keeps it quirky and interesting. Elder is the story’s principal narrator, but his arguably untrustworthy account is interspersed by passages billed as notes for a future biography of Munlochy and with a series of conversations with the toad. Towards the end, in a chapter headed ‘A Reliable Narrator’, Mungo Forth Mungo takes over as chronicler, but given he may be a projection of Elder’s guilt and fear, and there is mention of the licking of psychoactive toads for their hallucinogenic properties, this does little to help the reader distinguish between truth and fiction.

As so often with Scottish literature, To Be Continued has duality at its heart. Two of the protagonists have split personalities. Rosalind’s daughter Poppy (aristocratic and dutiful) becomes Xanthe when she needs a break from Glentaragar. Another character changes chameleon-like between three different personae: at the Shira Inn, he is drunken ‘bard’ Stuart Crathes MacCrimmon; at the Glen Araich Lodge Hotel, the bootlegging owner, Ruaridh MacLagan; and at Glentaragar the teetotal butler,  Corryvreckan. All of these identities are aliases assumed by Edward something: ‘a friend from the south’, who believes he is a Scot stolen by fairies and taken to England as a child. Having shed his old skin as easily as Mungo Forth Mungo (although without digesting it afterwards)  he is now ‘as divided yet as unified as a block of Neopolitan ice cream’.

This split personality appears to be a playful allusion to (Edward Montague) Compton Mackenzie, who, though born and brought up in England, felt such an affinity to his adopted country he went to great lengths to trace his ancestry to the Highlands and sacrificed his literary credentials to write Whisky Galore and The Monarch of the Glen. He also became an ardent Jacobite, co-founding the Scottish National Party with Hugh MacDiarmid. As a former sub editor, Elder is interested in puns and To Be Continued sparkles with inventive word-play. Mungo Forth Mungo can also be read as Mung Go Forth Mungo (the toad has a hankering to travel like his namesake Mungo Park). There is a running gag about the patio of Elder’s home which is variously referred to as the ‘sit-ootery’, the ‘raindaffery’, the ‘nae-chancery’ and the ‘skitery’ and the bootlegged whisky is known as Glen Gloming – a play on the words ‘gloaming’ meaning ‘twilight’ and ‘glom’ – to steal (though, as the whisky brand is taken directly from Whisky Galore, that pun is Mackenzie’s not Robertson’s).

Robertson also references the creation of the book within the book. Adrift after his redundancy, Elder is secretly writing a novel, the contents of which change every time he talks about it. At first, it’s a navel-gazing exploration of mid-life ennui; then, it’s an action-packed thriller involving a mysterious Scottish recluse suspected of being the criminal mastermind behind a plot to destroy human civilization. Finally it becomes the story we are reading. As the epigraph makes clear, the toad is inspired by Warty Bliggens, the eponymous and loquacious hero of a satirical poem by American humorist Don Marquis. Bliggens sees himself as at the centre of a universe that has been designed around his needs. ‘The earth exists to grow toadstools for him to sit under, the sun to give him light by day, and the moon and wheeling constellations to make beautiful the night for Warty Bliggens.’ When asked why the creator of the universe would so favour him, the toad answers: ‘Ask rather what the universe has done to deserve Warty Bliggens.’

Mungo Forth Mungo – a dead ringer for Chic Murray, apparently – is slightly less arrogant than his  precursor, but he nevertheless views the human world from his own toadish perspective and shares Bliggens’ conviction that there is ‘purpose in the universe’. Ultimately, the world does seem to bend towards the characters’ desires, each of them finding in their shared escapade hope for a brighter future. Sitting out at the ‘wine-cowpery’ after it’s all over, Elder and his companion talk about the final passage of Ulysses and Molly Bloom’s repeated, orgasmic ‘Yes’. ‘It’s a good way to end a book. Affirmatively,’ Elder says.

And so To Be Continued ends. Affirmatively. It’s not the most challenging of conclusions. But at a time of seemingly endless turmoil, the notion of a benign cosmos tending towards human contentment is
very welcome.

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