Monthly Archives: March 2017

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Man on the Margin

Judging by the curtained stage at the back, Clydebank Town Hall was envisioned as a place suitable for theatre productions, but standards change and the touring group who put on The Cause of Thunder did not consider the proscenium stage serviceable for a show like theirs, which invites intimacy, not distance.

The acoustics in the large, cavernous hall are not ideal, and there is no lighting rig or raked seating. These are challenges once faced routinely by companies like 7:84, Wildcat and Borderline when they took their productions to small, often improvised, venues the length and breadth of the country, but these days are gone.

The visiting group with Chris Dolan’s new play erected a slightly raised platform close to the front row as an ad hoc performing space. Two small tables and chairs and a bar suggest a pub. A more or less impromptu meeting of friends seems about to take place and since there is no thought of a theatrical fourth wall, the audience becomes the fellow drinkers and listeners as a tale is told. That is not to say that the technical team, David Hayman Jr as director and Fraser Milroy as technical manager, dispense with all theatrical devices. They have brought their own sound effects, so when Bob Cunningham makes his entrance, he does not slouch in but strides in to the accompaniment of peals of thunder, sounds which will ring out to striking melodramatic effect in the course of the performance.

The first words spoken by Bob, ‘Blow, winds, crack your cheeks! Rage! Blow!’ could be the challenge to the elements issued by King Lear, dethroned and forsaken, buffeted by wind and rain on the moor. Is this man the Lear of the shipyards, racked by inner rage, abandoned and uncomprehending? Or is he just soaking wet?

Bob was last seen three years ago when the same team of writer Chris Dolan and actor David Hayman produced an earlier monologue, The Pitiless Storm. The storm then turned out to be more pitiless than they expected, for the spirit of that play was optimistic and exhilarating, since it was set in the days immediately preceding the referendum which all three, writer, actor and character were convinced would lead to independence. The final production took place the night before the vote and Bob’s closing line had a grand rhetorical flourish, ‘This is our Ascension Day!’ History took a different turn. The feet of all three were firmly planted in the clouds that night, but they were back on earth the following day.

On that night, Bob was also facing the dilemma of whether or not to accept an OBE offered to him for his services to trade unionism. It was hardly a choice for such a man. The royal letter was shown to the audience before being torn contemptuously apart. In the new work, which is not precisely a sequel but an updating on the life of the same man, he has in his pocket a different kind of missive, one offering him terms for retirement.

Bob is aware he is in a ‘different universe’ compared to the hours before the ‘Big Day’, which was ruined because ‘some bastards voted No’. His feeling is that he is living in a world which is post-something – post-referendum, post-truth, post-hope, while he himself is post-work, work which may have been grinding and hard but which conferred meaning on his life. Retirement can mean different things. It could mean freedom, new opportunities, new adventures, new horizons. It could also mean losing bearings, and an exit from the market-place which is the fundamental provider of value in late capitalist society. It could mean aimlessness or personal transformation and even conversion. He is not sure.

In character and outlook, there is something in Bob which recalls those strong, angry, unanchored men who people the fiction of the late William McIlvanney. In any other culture he would be an unlikely hero, but he is a common type here. Fundamentally a good man, whose instincts are sound and humane, whose imagination has not atrophied, who has not lost the capacity for wonder, he is essentially bewildered. Something has gone wrong. Some kind of secular original sin has been committed – and Dolan is skilled in the subtle, unobtrusive use of semi-religious images – but he is not sure where or by whom, or what he can do about it.

The year 2014 was, in his view, pivotal for the man and the society in which he has his being. Real decisions are taken elsewhere, and that is the basis of his rage against the outcome of that year’s referendum. He is upset at the result of both referendums, but especially The referendum. David Hayman must be the only actor who can actually speak in italics. Had it gone differently, decisions would have been open, accountable, visible, reversible, but the loss means that Bob and his kind are condemned to live in a new Plato’s cave, aware that events are unfolding outside, but unable to influence or even fully understand them. Of course, there are references, equally bitter ones, to the later referendum, when the three musketeers morphed into the three Brexiteers, Asshole, Podger and Take-The-Piss. ‘The Brexit hokey-pokey.’

He has no great conceit of himself, but Bob is today a representative man. Pseudo-psychologists would diagnose a severe case of low self-image, but they would be mistaken. He is clear about his place in life, and does not shy away: ‘Bob Cunningham. Born Glasgow. Worked most of his life for the Union. Probably die Glasgow. End of.’ But it is not, or should not be, the end. He is not, and knows he is not, ‘one of the chosen’, so his plight cannot be endowed with the status of tragedy, but Chris Dolan is masterly in allowing the tragic to be glimpsed in the commonplace and in forging a comic tone which endows the man with pathos as well as self-deprecating humour. Bob could be the twin of Arthur Miller’s salesman.

He is not merely a political animal, but he has not made any great success of his private life either. The monologue is of its nature introspective, so his wife Ethel, who had left him, is not able to speak in her own right. Bob carries with him a letter she had written after leaving him, but its tenderness only heightens the mystery of why the couple split. I cannot help regarding this aspect as a weakness in the writing. Bob’s pain is raw, deeply felt and movingly expressed, but while his regret at his loneliness and the failure of his marriage is deep, the emotional life of the couple is under-written. Bob has no bilious words for Ethel, but since there is no two-sided probing of the shipwreck and no assumption of responsibility by Bob, this dimension lacks the depths it might have had.

He is not a man without qualities, but he is a very Scottish type, the irrelevant man, the marginal man. From his position on the side lines, he observes day-to-day life as well as political reality. Not all actors, no matter how skilled or experienced, are equal to the challenge of the one-man show, but Hayman gives a virtuoso performance as he not only presents the full gamut of emotions – melancholic, disillusioned, pained, bemused, amused – that rack this lonely man, but shifts effortlessly from the whimsical to the passionate, from the droll recollection to the committed reflection. He does not bring multitudes onto the stage but he adopts a multiplicity of guises to make the stage seem peopled by ghosts and memories.

The personal is not the political but the two overlap, particularly in the stories that are interspersed in the monologue. The gruel of realism is tempered by the charm of the whimsical, odd tales that are naturally introduced into the narrative but which have the piquancy of fable. Ethel had been a story-teller, and the stories scattered in the text allow it to lift off, but not towards a sugar-candy, parallel Elfland totally divorced from the world they inhabit. Nobody lives happily ever after. Bob recalls Ethel talking of two girls, Nadjme and Amber, who were like twins, ‘the Sun and the Moon’. When together, they were surrounded by voices or whispers which transported them to another dimension which, Nadjme said, was inhabited by angels and jinns. Amber began to think that at night she could fly where she wished, and Ethel used this experience to persuade the more prosaic Bob that there is an unseen world crowded with such delicate creatures, but the enchanted, Arabian Nights world cannot endure. The lights that flash are letter bombs and the whispers are transformed into racist chants which drive Nadjme and her family from the city. The exotic turns brutal.

And Bob sees ugliness all around, in the treatment of immigrants, in the neglect of old folk, in the philosophy which runs down the NHS, and in the crushing of hopes of those among the left-behind who unexpectedly awaken to the beauty of daffodils and wonder why they are planted in the middle of motorways and not at the side of streets. He is growing old, and fearful of spending his closing days as a ‘coffin-dodger’. Pessimism and optimism are at odds and, as in the earlier monologue, he finds some desperate hope in a quasi-religious vision. He and his wife had seen a depiction of the Resurrection of the Dead and Judgement Day, not in Tuscany or Provence but, somewhat implausibly, in Port Glasgow. In his idiosyncratic, apocalyptic and desperately optimistic interpretation, the painting is a glimpse of the next rebellion, when men and women cling to each other and ‘refuse to disappear’. Thunder is needed at that point.

Like Bob, Dolan is a man who takes things too seriously, and only in English could that be taken as a rebuke or a jeer. They both take Scotland seriously, and ponder its condition and its future. This is a thoughtful, deeply felt and deeply moving, engrossing work. It will not transfer to the West End, and is not likely to be seen in Paris or Milan, but its production, and the zeal behind it, is an important sign of the vitality of Scottish theatre in these dark days.

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Small Island

Call it serendipity, but even as Annalena McAfee’s new book Hame – an exploration of language and identity centred on a fictional island poet – was being posted out to reviewers, the country was, once again, getting itself all het up about the alleged politicisation of the Scots tongue.

Perhaps this seems entirely predictable. When, since the Indyref, has the country been anything other than het up over the way in which we choose to express ourselves? Every other week, a fresh row blows up about the extent to which it is taught in schools, while newspaper columns written in Scots are mocked by unionists who say they are inauthentic, an awkward cobbling together of what is really a series of English dialects, not a language in its own right.

But this particular stramash, involving our national Makar Jackie Kay, was almost uncannily relevant.  Written for inclusion in the SNP’s baby boxes, Kay’s ode to the new-born – ‘Welcome Wee One’ – was dismissed by some as sentimental doggerel and by others as propaganda. Such has been the fate of almost every Scots bard, from Robert Burns to Hugh MacDiarmid.

Now meet Grigor McWatt, the late and slightly comic hero of McAfee’s novel, whose attachment to the fictional island of Fascaray borders on the pathological. McWatt is a composite of several poets who hung out in Milne’s Bar on Rose Street in Edinburgh in the 1950s. From Orcadian George Mackay Brown, he takes his reclusive nature, his carnaptiousness in drink, and his doomed affair with a dipsomaniac muse (Stella Cartwright in real life, Lilias Hogg in Hame). From MacDiarmid, he takes his rampant Anglophobia and his commitment to writing in synthetic Scots with the aid of Jamieson’s Etymological Scots Language Dictionary. McWatt’s main poetic legacy – beyond a much-covered folk song ‘Hame Tae Fascaray’, which he loathes, but which keeps him financially afloat – are his ‘reclaimed’ poems: iconic English-language works rewritten in the Mither Tongue in the hopes it will ‘stell the Scots leid at the hert of the warld’s literarie tradeetion’.

Somewhat inexplicably, McWatt is also heavily influenced by Gavin Maxwell, of Ring of Bright Water fame, though Maxwell was neither a poet nor one of the Rose Street crowd. Hence, McWatt’s closest companions are his animals (most notably otters) and his teenage assistant Donald MacInnes, who, like Maxwell’s young assistant, Terry Nutkins, helps take care of them.

In addition to all McWatt’s inherited quirks, McAfee adds one extra just for him: McWatt suffers from hypergraphia, the uncontrollable urge to write, which sees him cataloguing the flora, fauna, gossip and even recipes of his island home in a Compendium of Fascaray, as yet unpublished and stored in a byre library at his croft house An Tobar, on the tidal island of Calasay.

When the book opens, in August 2014, a month before the independence referendum, McWatt has been dead for less than a year; he is brought back to life for us by Mhairi McPhail, who has moved to Fascaray from New York with her nine-year-old daughter Agnes to open a new museum, prepare the compendium for publication, and write his biography: A Granite Ballad – The Reimagining of Grigor McWatt.

McPhail’s biggest challenge is to fill in the gaps of his life before he arrived in Fascaray, in 1942, to attend a commando training school in the requisitioned Finnverinnity House, and to track down the mysterious ‘Jean’ – the woman poor, misused Lilias perceived as a love rival.

In many respects, McPhail is a mirror image of her subject. McWatt has no roots on Fascaray, but is as integral a part of the island as the pyrite embedded in the rocks; McPhail has an ancestral claim: her grandfather was one of the Fascaray Five – a band of men who took part in a historic, but unsuccessful land raid – but, having moved from place to place, belongs nowhere. McWatt insists on speaking and writing in Scots, and derides his friend MacDiarmid when he forsakes his Lallans for a ‘fantoosh’ form of English; McPhail’s Scots accent has been ‘ironed flat in a Canadian convent and further tortured by three terms in an English boarding school’.

It is not clear whether McPhail’s detachment – from the other islanders, from her new job and from her daughter – is caused by her rootlessness or a depression induced by her acrimonious split with Agnes’s father, Mario. Either way, it makes her a frustrating narrator, as lethargic as McWatt is spirited, as non-committal as he is dogmatic.

The only thing she seems passionate about is the use of the vernacular, railing at an assistant who transcribes an interview into ‘standard English’. As she delves into McWatt’s past and considers her own, she must grapple with the question: if dialect can be synthetic, then what about identity? And is either less authentic for being consciously constructed as opposed to organically evolved?

Hame is an ambitious and multi-layered tome. Its 570 pages include samples of McWatt’s hilariously intemperate columns in the Auchwinnie Pibroch, extracts from A Granite Ballad, and more than twenty complete examples of McWatt’s reworked Scots poems. These include ‘Sea Thirlt’ (after John Masefield’s ‘Sea Fever’) and ‘Spaes of Aefauldness’ (after William Blake’s ‘Auguries of Innocence’), along with McPhail’s first-person account of her new life.

When McAfee describes Fascaray as Scotland in miniature, she means it to apply to the country’s past as well as its topography. Almost everything our beleaguered nation has endured – from the clearances to the attempt by an American billionaire to build a golf course on a Site of Special Scientific Interest – has happened within its few square miles, while McWatt takes on the role of a cantankerous Forrest Gump, witness to an array of seminal events from the aforementioned land raid to the theft of the Stone of Destiny.

A former literary journalist and editor (her first novel, The Spoiler, was a satire of life on a newspaper), McAfee’s attention to detail is remarkable. She covers great swathes of history and goes to enormous lengths to flesh out even minor characters. At one point, she has McPhail quote extensively from a weekend supplement profile on Fascaray Trust secretary Izzy Wallop. In it, her home is described as a ‘shambolic five-bedroomed landfill site on which [she perches], a prattling Winnie from Beckett’s Happy Days’.

McAfee’s deadpan humour means much of the book is wryly amusing. McWatt’s inflated sense of his own importance, exaggerated Anglophobia and contempt for cultural giants such as Ewan MacColl, is entertaining up to a point, and those who know their poetry will enjoy comparing the reworked Scots poems to their (far-superior) originals.

The constant interweaving of the real and the fictional – the way ‘Hame Tae Fascaray’ is covered by everyone from the Sensational Alex Harvey Band to Paolo Nutini or the reference to the agit-prop theatre company 24:7 – is also clever, and there’s satisfaction to be derived from pairing up fictional events (the fire at An Tobar, for example) to their real-life equivalents (the fire at Maxwell’s Camusfearna).

But, as the novel goes on, McAfee’s determination to cover all the bases – from Sunday sailings to the unionist ultras showing up in Glasgow’s George Square on the day after the referendum – becomes wearing, particularly if you lived through it all the first time round, and you begin to wonder if she too has a tendency towards hypergraphia.

Her account of the last few years, though accurate, feels as if it’s been pulled together from a comprehensive reading of newspapers rather than personal experience, and some of the passages seem perfunctory, as if she has a list of things she wants to include and is crossing them off as she goes along:  reference to Glasgow as the ‘Dear Green Place’ – tick; description of the Merchant City and its links with the slave trade – tick; mention of historian Tom Devine – tick. There is no let-up towards the end. When all you really want is for the mystery of McWatt and his Jean to be resolved, you still have to plough through details of Fascaray’s travails with absentee landlords, superquarries and Archie Tupper, the US billionaire.

Raised in London by Scottish parents, McAfee’s interest in the connection between dialect and a sense of self is personal. In interviews she has described how her Glasgow accent was stripped away by nuns and elocution lessons. Later, her father, amused by her transition into a ‘posh little English girl’, used to make her read out news reports from the Times as if she were a radio announcer.

Unfortunately, Hame appears to be in the grip of its own identity crisis. Unsure if it’s a satire on Scotland’s endless navel-gazing or a serious analysis of the drive for cultural self-determination, it hovers awkwardly between the two. It revels in the expressiveness of the Scots leid; the lists of words for different types of clouds – goog, grum, roarie-bummler – or snow – flindrikin, pewlin, sleekie – cannot be read as anything other than a paean to the evocative power of language. Yet, at the same time, McWatt’s obsession with linguistic purity is clearly being sent up.

As she learns more about the poet, McPhail accepts that there is an integrity to an identity for which so much has been sacrificed. By the time he dies, McWatt has softened his stance on the ‘non-Scot’, using one of his last Auchwinnie Pibroch columns to make the distinction between ‘white settlers’ and ‘the well-intentioned Gallgael’. The latter might ‘never truly be one of us…but surely some respect is due,’ he concedes.

McWatt decides what makes ‘the worthiest faux Scot, a Gallgael’ is ‘loving the land, accepting our subservience to it, and giving to it, rather than taking from it. Wha loues the laun, awns the laun and the laun awns him.’

This last line – which is inscribed on Holyrood’s Canongate Wall – is his epitaph, yet in the newspaper column, McWatt adds a coda. ‘Oor ain laun for oor ain fowk!’ he writes. It’s a nasty phrase with overtones of blood and soil nationalism. McWatt, it transpires, has good reason to be defensive, and he expresses his Scottishness with extra zeal, lest anyone challenge its legitimacy. There is, or ought to be, a poignancy about such a desperate desire to belong. But McWatt never quite transcends his caricature. So, though his love of Fascaray – of Hame – is fierce and unmistakable, it never touches the soul in the way a book about poetry should.

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God’s Sleuth!

You can get too much Sherlock Holmes. I once met the editor of a magazine called The Holmesian Observer. I read the Complete Sherlock Holmes while growing up, so I took an interest. Holmesian Observer? Looks good, I remarked innocently. The guy said, Actually it’s pronounced Holmeeesian. What are you, kidding me? I said. But that’s what it’s like among the Irregulars.

I’m sitting in the Conan Doyle, a pub with a view of the statue of Mr Sherlock Holmes in Picardy Place. That’s in Edinburgh. According to a Nicholson’s pub group leaflet, Holmes ‘stands in permanent contemplation of the death of his creator’. Pretty meta. It could be that it’s just a bronze statue of Sherlock Holmes … that’s a possibility, isn’t it? The figure is more Basil Rathbone than Jeremy Brett. Our man’s in a nice little piazza of smashed-up concrete, backed by a broken fence and some bushes with a lot of trash in them, so he’s not being treated any worse than most people in Edinburgh.

The pub features models of scenes from the Holmes stories, an old medical bag with Doyle’s name painted on it, and bound copies of the Lancet. There is a colour reproduction of a portrait of James Boswell – ‘born in Edinburgh in 1940’. Beyond that, nothing much mysterious going on at the moment. I decide to try Holmes’s methods on those here.

My Deductions:

  1. This is the closest bar to the bus station. Everyone’s so depressed, it has to be.
  2. Some meticulous character went to a lot of trouble to Sherlock this place up, probably for a sinister reason. Tourism?
  3. These eight women work at John Lewis. This is easy—they’re talking dress prices and all have those little cords attached to their spectacles.
  4. A bunch of extremely old people are going to eat a lot of chips today. I cannot answer for the consequences.
  5. A lady interrupts my cogitations by collapsing outside on the pavement, the devil take her. I then espy an elderly man with a curiously luxuriant moustache at the bar. He’s standing here in a strangely challenging way, as if he’s the only person in the Conan Doyle who is belligerently, self-consciously aware of its ‘heritage’. Could it have been he who dashed the poor woman to the ground?
  6. The beef and bone marrow pie is off.
    (It says so on the blackboard.)

In Arthur and Sherlock, the prolix American writer Michael Sims discusses the events leading up to the creation of Sherlock Holmes. It is not a biography, and ends just after the first Holmes stories appeared. There are titbits for those who have stamina. Not a lot of marrow.

Arthur Conan Doyle was born in Picardy Place in 1859. His father had a minor job in the Works office as a draughtsman. An alcoholic, he was unable to support the family; later he became completely demented. The Doyle children all went to work in one way or another and their mother took in lodgers. Arthur loved books and from an early age thought about writing. He used to tell stories to other children, for which he received apples.

But as a young man he needed a more reliable way to make a living, and went into the doctoring line. Studying at Edinburgh, Doyle came under the influence of Dr Joseph Bell, a pioneer of diagnostics considered something of a ‘magician’. It’s said that Bell could tell the trade of any man merely by looking at his hands. It was Bell whom Doyle was thinking of later when he created Sherlock Holmes; he said that Holmes was a ‘bastard between Joe Bell and Poe’s Monsieur Dupin (much diluted)’.
Doyle sounds a timid fellow who liked frightening himself by experimenting with drugs and poisons. He’s a recognisable type: a writer who lacks imagination but thinks it can be stimulated by stunts and adventures.

Doctors all want to write. What is it with them? But Doyle was no Rabelais or Chekhov or Céline. He was closer to Michael Crichton. When he began to send out articles, he had achieved a style that passed for factual: an American magazine took his short story on the mystery surrounding the ship Mary Celeste as straight reportage. After attempting one thing and another, he decided to slot himself into the growing field of detective fiction. The Doyle that emerges from Sims’s book is like Nigel Bruce’s Dr Watson: an indifferently-educated, bumbly fantasist.

Doyle could create a sense of adventure and place and sometimes slightly kinky mystery—‘as her beautiful head fell upon her chest, I saw the clear red weal of a whiplash across her neck’. But he was never really a good writer. Take ‘The Hound of the Baskervilles’. Please. The denouement (demonic hound revealed to be actual hound, starved, face painted with phosphorous) is clearly an afterthought. Who would actually bother to do that? And all the faffing around about Sir Charles’s missing boot pretty much gives the game away. Dr Mortimer is a total blabbermouth who almost ruins everything. He should be kicked in his nitpicking, meddlesome bottom. With a tan boot.

Still, there’s a kind of raw excitement about setting off on an adventure—in the late Victorian England of perfectly coordinated railway timetables and a lightning-fast, fully functioning post office. Think of it! There is, too, a stuffy comedy to the Holmes stories as narrated by Watson, the way all these men look each other over and sum each other up. It’s all about class, of course, but they accept each other as human. More or less. When there comes an interloper, he is readily identified as an urchin, a cabman, or a woman, and you don’t need to be a detective to do that.

You rarely fall over in admiration of one of Doyle’s paragraphs, but there is atmosphere: ‘Every minute that white woolly plain which covered one-half of the moor was drifting closer and closer to the house. Already the first thin wisps of it were curling across the golden square of the lighted window.’

Watson says that Holmes likes to ‘dominate’ people by keeping everything to himself until the last moment. But what that really means is that Doyle has to keep us hanging around until he’s invented an ending, the opposite of what Holmes’s methods are supposed to be. There’s a lot of sham logic, induction and deduction. Doyle liked to give the illusion of high-flown thinking. He once said of the Holmes stories that ‘people think them more ingenious than they are.’

* * *

But now let us muster our facts over a pipeful of Baker Street shag and talk about what a bad book this is. It has the tedious qualities of a kind of American non-fiction which is not much known here, at least not yet. It is not scholarship and it is not solid journalism, but just splashing about in the shallows of some subject. Each little chapter has its winsome title and epigram. Despite such gestures toward organisation, Sims hops around within a paragraph like a Mexican jumping bean. He’s incapable of forming a straightforward narrative. There is some suggestion in the publicity for this book that this is intellectually adroit. It isn’t.

On page seven, Sims portrays a patient at the Royal Infirmary describing his symptoms to Dr Bell ‘in a Scottish accent’. Well, what would you expect? Sims informs us that scholarship was revered in Edinburgh, but a little later he refers to ‘navel-gazing Scottish theologians’, a rather raspy remark on the capital’s intellectual history. He offers yet another American conception of what the ‘Scottish Enlightenment’ was, and then, amazingly, tells us what ‘bohemians’ were: ‘Arthur liked to think of himself as bohemian. The term derived not from inhabitants of the actual Kingdom of Bohemia – which, in 1867, had become part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire – but from bohémien, originally the French term for Romany people, often described in English with the word Gypsy.’

Sims explains at length what a deerstalker cap is. Then he explains what deer stalking is. It’s not hunting, he will have you know, but later he returns to the goddam hat to tell us where it could and couldn’t be worn. He seems to trust us to know what deer are. But if you don’t know what a deerstalker is, why on earth would you be reading this book?

When Doyle goes to Portsmouth to set up a medical practice, Sims says he arrived on a hot day carrying ‘only his ulster’, probably a tin box for the top hat that was de rigueur for a young professional man, and a bulky leather portmanteau. The bag was heavy with photographic equipment and brass plates, clothing, books and a large brass sign that he had had made in Plymouth—dr. conan doyle, surgeon.’ ‘Only?’

Sims’s descriptive writing is awful. What are ‘marble relief columns’? He says the Water of Leith ‘bisects’ Edinburgh. I think we would be very surprised if we awoke tomorrow and found that to be the case. And how many times would you like to be told who Burke and Hare were? Sims thinks everyone in the nineteenth century had three names. Thomas Babington Macaulay, among dozens of others, is always called that, just so you won’t confuse him with the other historian Thomas Macaulay. Or Macaulay. These names treble into an almost unbearable cacophony.

You would be more entertained and edified just to sit down and read Doyle. Michael Sims’s intimations about Sherlock Holmes are nothing less than the footprints of a gigantic bore.

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Do you Want to Know a Secret?

As epigraph to his poem ‘The Commonplace’, Brian Johnstone offers these words, translated from the Latin of Horace:

The jar will long retain the fragrance
Of what it was steeped in when new.

His memoir Double Exposure bears out, in its progression, its technique and in its highly controlled but not burnished diction, the veracity in his own case of these words. A careful poet, with a strong gift for packed but lucid utterance, Johnstone has the responsible schoolteacher’s resistance to obfuscation or anything whatever that might be designated pretentious (a weasel word if ever there was one; and more verminously carnivorous yet in this time of name-calling). His life has been generously led, both publicly, as primary schoolteacher, as poet, as performer of his poetry with or without musical accompaniment, as poetry administrator, enthusiast, proponent, exegete and representative, and as StAnza Festival co-founder, and privately, as declaredly devoted and longstanding husband (to the artist Jean Johnstone), and as son – and fond brother.

It is in this last role, as brother, that his whole life was steeped in something – in some things – far more than he knew, and that brings the title to this book, which is, he makes plain at its start “a baffled memoir, a perplexed memoir, a disconcerted memoir”.

For into his life that reads as almost implausibly ordered unless one had resided in the Edinburgh of the time (he was born in 1950) and into such a family as his (hardworking and almost, he – correctly – senses, wilfully conventional) there irrupted, many years apart, two secrets, symmetrical almost to the point of implausibility, secrets so astounding, yet, it may be speculated, far from unprecedented beneath the suppressing lid of ‘respectability’ of the time, that they leave the reader raw with distress for all they may have occasioned in terms of retrospective pain and uncertainty, and all that they appeared to necessitate for those who kept them, as well as those who discovered them. We are left almost hankering, indeed, for messier times, when such secrets might have been offered the warmth and light of common day.

For these are, no mistake, living secrets. And once they are exposed they make moral sense not only of certain attributes of Johnstone’s parents’ conduct, but also of his artistic decision to forge a prose-style, in Double Exposure, that is quite without delinquency or flourish, to the point of stifled breath, which strikes the reader of his, far freer, poetry, with its capacity to look into the mouth of the lion, or on occasion to offer what Nabokov called ‘aesthetic bliss’, as rather peculiar and exceedingly Edinburgh, where that proper noun is used as an absolutely superlatively proper, nay stifling, adjective.

Johnstone is a dedicated photographer, photography being an art close to poetry in its capacity to draw a response from its viewer or reader with the developed attention to a moment that may have gone, but that has left its trace and so may be recreated once more in the apprehension of another person than the one who has caught it, in light and shadow or in words, should sufficient shaping consciousness be present. Johnstone possesses this consciousness in a fashion that is reliable and strongly fettled. Drawn to images of building and making in his poems, he has the dry-stone-wall builder’s appreciation of each word’s shape and weight, its provenance and of the spacing wherein it must be set to hold and brace with conviction, and of how to lean words together so that they give strength to one another without risk of falling to incoherence. He is good too at edges and hedges and sings the richness of dust and weed.

Johnstone writes in the book’s short introduction: ‘If this memoir is anything, it is an attempt to “fix” and then “stop” this story – and the people involved – in time’. An impossible task then, which is surely the only decent way to approach or to understand one’s own impulse to make a memoir.

No Scot of feeling and with the sickness for reading will not prick up their ears at the delicious, promising, word ‘Double’. It’s not a greed for second helpings or bigger portions, it’s what the recently late Scots novelist Emma Tennant in an interview called ‘the Caledonian malady, seeing doubles everywhere’. The also unhappily late Karl Miller wrote a masterpiece called, simply, Doubles. It is a commonplace that Edinburgh, birthplace of Johnstone, is itself a doubled city split at the spine, at once high-heaped and secretive in the Old Town and commodious and silverily-ordered in the New Town, the streets haunted by doubly-led lives, Deacon Brodie and Jekyll and Hyde merely the celebrity avatars.

How to write an autobiography that casts a shadow the author may control and that will add to the deepening understanding in the reader’s mind? We each ‘have a little shadow’ as in RLS’s nursery poem. There are the coarse approaches of the pompous public man or the self-deceived star, leaving out all bruising or shading such that the effect is flat, bleached-out and unsatisfying. It’s not an intelligent approach and bears little relation to conscience, consciousness or art.

There is the approach taken by Muriel Spark in her Curriculum Vitae, which had the inestimable advantage that her readers were accustomed already by her fiction to her grand dissociative trapdoors and the understanding that truths may arrive from differently carpentered untruths and destabilising shocks, that are no more ‘untrue’ than anything else in all fiction, anywhere. She can also indulge in a self-satirical hyper-realism whose effects are distraction and dislocation, and that discourages us from reposing trust – that can so soon degenerate into passivity – in any apparently stated authorial intent. We must, as her readers, listen carefully, keep up at the back, and do some of the work ourselves. Moreover, next time we read the book, we shall find new work to do. We may not rely upon those structures, necessarily artificial, that console us in more conventional or sentimental work. We are alone and we are fragmented; there is no smooth single story.

An author remains separate from that which he or she is writing should he or she be any good, in order best to express thought to the mind of another and to make something enduring from fleet matter. The author is controlling the means whereby information is offered and the style by which it is disclosed, but cannot altogether be trusted not to elide or doctor ‘versions’ when it comes to autobiography. There are also the matters of the unconscious, and of the protection of the living, and, no less importantly, of the dead. Spark sets out to confute untruths that she believes are already loosed in the world when it comes to the subject of her own life, untruths that are jumping about ‘like fleas’.

Matters lie very differently for Johnstone. Because he is a realist and possessed of a responsible nature, he tells in unfanciful detail of the routines and prohibitions around which the orderly days of his own and his brother’s boyhoods were woven, by a tightly controlled house-proud mother and a decent very hard-working salesman father, each of them separately shaken up by the recent world war. He recounts a social order hirpling towards … something unforeseeable, at a time when the vocabulary of introspection was unpermitted to those attempting to conduct a life of perceived normality (nosey parkers everywhere), and the expression of affection was strictly encrypted, even amid so devoted a family as ‘the four of us’, Johnstone, his brother and their mother and father, understood themselves to be.

In my own Edinburgh childhood, that commenced five years after Johnstone’s own and in circumstances less secure and more ‘Bohemian’, there was considerable flurry around an individual I found glamorous on account of his wearing not a coat in the street but a paint-spattered fisherman’s jersey. My parents moved in what were called left-wing circles; among more conventional citizens however, this jersey was taken for irrefutable proof of its wearer’s Communism. Karl Miller records, in his memoir Rebecca’s Vest, encountering ‘the Communist intelligentsia, in the persons of an Edinburgh University lecturer and his wife’. Classification was everywhere.

The ostensible protecting safeties of convention at this time, cleaved to by the parents of Brian Johnstone, should not be sneered at. The continent was only just recovering from chaos and war. There is particular tender ruefulness to Brian Johnstone’s account of his own and his brother’s rebellion against their parents’ seemingly smug ways; he sees smugness’s boot on the other foot, now that he is in possession of the two secrets his parents worked separately and together to keep from their two sons. For, in one case, a secret was carried unconfided to a spouse in a fashion vividly reminiscent of John Lanchester’s memoir Family Romance, in which he comes to realize that his mother, once a nun, had lifelong falsified her age, making his own birth, if not miraculous, something quite blessed. Retrospect not merely horizontal, but dizzyingly vertiginous.

On first reading, this book’s pursed style seemed to be unnecessarily withheld by a man with such verbal acuity as its author demonstrates in his poetry. On a second, it seemed like good mimetic housekeeping and a form of tribute to two parents recognised posthumously in more dimensions than their managed living days had offered to their son, who has done them, and the contained secrets, fine respect in his quiet telling of what was doubly unexposed, and his tactful summoning of the fragrance of lost days, even if the jar be broken, in which he was actually steeped.

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Her Bloody Project

In Dilys Rose’s graceful and elliptical fiction, the mundane reality of everyday life is often a kind of spiritual and intellectual prison. Mothers and children, wives and husbands, drifters who never go anywhere – all her disparate characters are united by a sense that real life is happening elsewhere, and not in the stifling domesticity of home.

At the same time, Rose is cautious enough not to offer any of these characters the condolence of a cheap epiphany, always the get-out clause for the less talented author who wants to graft some easy profundity onto the closing statements of their fiction.

Hovering like a mirage in the background of her work, sometimes revealing itself to be the more substantial structure, is the presence of ‘abroad’, the world outside and over the sea, where some of her characters manage to escape and yet are unsurprised to discover that their sense of blankness or vague disappointment has followed them too. In Rose’s 2014 novel Pelmanism, a superb collage of self-contained vignettes moving backwards and forwards over the course of Gala Price’s tangled relationship with her eccentric father, Gala escapes her drab middle-class life for the bohemian underworld of 1970s Edinburgh and then the wilder shores of New York and Mexico, drifting from bar work to a stint on a fishing trawler. Returning home only after her father’s final mental breakdown, it’s clear that travel has in no way liberated or satisfied her, and that to all intents and purposes there is no real escape from who you are and where you come from. For Muriel, the Filipino immigrant who works with the main character in Rose’s first novel Pest Maiden, ‘abroad’ takes on a different complexion, when to travel from your home country is to escape not mild ennui or boredom but political oppression and the threat of violent death.

The past of course is the ultimate foreign country, and they do things differently there. Rose’s latest novel, Unspeakable, is atypical in that it avoids her usual contemporary setting and because, at least on the surface, it deals with a specific event that has enormous resonance in Scottish history: the trial and execution of Thomas Aikenhead for blasphemy in 1697. Using the same rough structure as Pelmanism, Rose presents Thomas’s life as a series of enclosed present-tense narratives, following him from his childhood in Edinburgh’s High Street to his matriculation as a student at Edinburgh University and the chain of events that lead to his arrest and trial.

The son of an impoverished apothecary, Thomas stoically accepts the death of his parents and is philanthropically adopted by local landowner Sir Patrick Aikenhead. Intelligent and personable, a product of Scotland’s egalitarian education system, Thomas’s fatal combination of swagger and sincerity eventually condemns him in the eyes of the authorities after a few ill-advised comments to his student friends are turned against him. Thomas, ‘eager to impress’, declaims with undergraduate bravado that ‘the doctrine o theology is a rhapsody of feigned and ill-invented nonsense … patched up pairtly o the moral doctrine o philosophers, and pairtly o poetical fictions and extravagant chimeras’. When he is a child his mother cautions him, ‘There’s a time tae talk and a time to haud yir tongue’, but it’s a lesson Thomas never seems to have learned. Unaware that some of his fellow students are more cowed by the intellectual climate of the day, he is denounced to the authorities, arrested, and tried for blasphemy in a case that even at the time was seen as extreme. More extreme than the trial is the verdict; ‘brimful of regret’, Thomas is marched down to the Gallowlee and hanged.

Edinburgh is in many ways the main character of the novel, a rough and ready city of staggering poverty and high learning, where the nature of its geography and a less restrictive social hierarchy means the classes live cheek by jowl in the tenements of what is now the Old Town. With considerable artistry and skill, Rose avoids presenting the old city in its clichéd garb as just a brooding presence of tangled wynds, and instead makes it seem a living and breathing presence of taverns and coffee houses, booksellers and printers, where the religious, philosophical and constitutional questions of the age are part of the common currency of everyday speech. It is also a city of deep suspicion and surveillance, where the Kirk promises fire and brimstone from the pulpits and keenly monitors the actions of its parishioners. Taking her children to the old healing well at the Water of Leith on May Day, for example, where the revellers are spied on by affronted elders of the Church, Thomas’s mother knows that ‘in the eyes of the clergy, being at the healing well constitutes a transgression. But Mayday offers something other than what the Kirk can provide’. The Church though, as Thomas learns, is always listening.

Historical fiction, seen by many as exchanging the supposed hard truths of contemporary life for the comforts of nostalgia, is one of the most aesthetically and morally fraught modes a writer can employ, where the risks of seeming judgemental or patronising are as important as any slip-ups over anachronism or inaccuracy. For serious contemporary authors such as Hilary Mantel, the past is not just the present in quaint clothing but is a wholly foreign place with an entirely different morality, mentality and political outlook. In practical terms, writing about the past means uncoupling the imagination from any default ideas of liberal democracy and acknowledging that everything we take for granted today in the west (sexual equality, human rights, the electoral franchise) is not an inalienable right but is actually purely contingent and based on very specific historical processes.

In Unspeakable, the nature of the story and the main character means that by necessity the moral world of seventeenth-century Edinburgh is going to have to be questioned, but it’s an extremely delicate balancing act to embed those questions in the mentality of the times rather than in the mentality of our own.

For the most part Rose succeeds. Thomas’s naive theological questioning as a child feels authentic rather than something grafted on from the present day: ‘The Lord takes bairns for Himself’, he thinks, as he considers his dead baby sisters, ‘but why does he need so many?’ Similarly, a social system that sees his family under the brutal threat of eviction for his dead father’s debts isn’t cried to the rooftops as a gross injustice, but accepted by society at large as just the way things are; the poor suffer while the rich prosper. The heads on spikes at the Tolbooth jail are as much a part of the city’s mise en scène as the black-clad clergy gathering for the General Assembly, and although the fastidious reader can reel back from the page at the portrait of a city awash with mud and excrement, for the characters who inhabit it it’s nothing out of the ordinary.

Rose’s study of Thomas’s character and of the world in which he lives has no major flaws, and is an undoubted success as a recreation of a particular time and place. From Edinburgh’s ‘crush of towering, close-packed buildings which block out the sun and the narrow, stinking wynds’ to ‘the wits and the wags, the sceptics and the freethinkers’ who half-cautiously discuss the new thinking that will come to define Scotland’s Enlightenment in the eighteenth century, Rose presents a version of the late 1600s that feels convincing and real. If it succeeds in tone and narrative texture though, the novel’s real problems are to do with structure, and those problems are exacerbated by a misleading descriptive emphasis on Thomas’s trial as the focal point of the book.

It’s always unfair to blame a novel for what it isn’t rather than what it is, but if Rose is providing an extended mood-piece here, a recreation of the themes and beliefs of a particular time and place, then she has perhaps missed her mark if you consider the value of the material at hand. The publisher declares the book ‘An account of the case against the criminal Thomas Aikenhead’, but it’s nothing of the sort; the trial and the execution take up only a handful of pages. Rather than being beholden to strict realism, Rose could have honoured the spirit of the event far more if she had focused on the Kafkaesque nightmare of a benighted city suffering under the malign surveillance of a resurgent Church, and the sheer paranoia of living in a world where the most innocuous phrases can condemn you to death. If the madness of the trial, arising from the general religious and constitutional crises of the seventeenth century as a whole, had been the centrepiece of the book rather than an add-on at the end, the novel could have been all the more powerful.

Rose’s publisher presents Unspeakable as a companion piece to Graeme Macrae Burnet’s Booker-shortlisted novel, His Bloody Project, but although an admirable piece of work in its own right, it suffers by comparison. Burnet’s book has a Dostoevskian, existential intensity that gives it more universal resonance, as well as being more formally inventive. Rose’s novel is far more specific and grounded in a particular literary culture (especially in its extensive use of Scots for the characters’ speech), and is more conventionally concerned with the recreation of a vanished world that, in its topography as much as anything, still haunts our own. Unspeakable is a valuable novel, well-researched and well-written, and scrupulous in its presentation of the past. It is hard to shake the sense, however, that it could have been far more than the sum of its parts.

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Happy Days

I seem to remember that this originally came out as ‘the uncensored memoirs of John Calder’. New readers shouldn’t be concerned that the paperback second edition has been toned down in any way.

There’s still plenty of action. Pursuit perhaps belongs to the same tradition of intellectual libertinism as Casanova or Frank Harris, and Calder himself very nearly – a publisher’s life is full of very nearlies – published the infamous Black Diaries of Sir Roger Casement, who was hanged for treason in August 1916. Calder had entered into negotiations, as he often did, knowing that the heavy hand of the law might land on his shoulder should he go ahead. As it sometimes did, along with the even heavier hand of puritanical disapproval. Calder’s association with the British publication of Hubert Selby Jr’s bitumen-black masterpiece Last Exit to Brooklyn (in which he was joined by erstwhile business partner Marion Boyars) was a later and less dramatic obscenity trial than the gentle comedy of manners that was the Lady Chatterley’s Lover trial, but it was in most respects a more rugged confrontation between avant-garde and establishment, and a more thoughtful examination of where unflinching realism reaches the boundaries of literary significance, or relevance, or even taste. Calder was also responsible for publishing William Burroughs in the UK, again having to negotiate the minefield of copyright, as he often did with fellow mavericks Barney Rosset of Grove Press and Maurice Girodias of Olympia. He is perhaps even better known as the British publisher (eventually) of Samuel Beckett and as the driving force behind the extraordinary Writers’ Conference that dominated the Edinburgh Festival in 1962 and which is the direct inspiration and forerunner of the present Edinburgh International Book Festival, though that now established event seldom these days seems inclined to learn from Calder’s imaginative example.

The word for publisher in Percy Grainger’s quixotic dictionary of ‘blue-eyed English’ is ‘put-er around’ and Calder has now being putting it about, one way and another, for nearly sixty years. His first venture into Calder Publishing, astonishingly, goes back to 1949, when he was still involved in a family timber business, but not yet the heir to the lairdship of Ledlanet, where he ran his own micro-festival for ten happy years. Calder’s sexual adventures are narrated plainly and without prurient detail. He admits to a few failures, too, as when he proved unable to rise to the occasion with Sonia Orwell. One might say this probably represented a lucky escape, like declining the offer of a ride from the central character of Michel Faber’s Under the Skin. Sonia put it about that Calder was gay, but they still got along and she was a significant player in the Writers’ Conference, at least when she was upright. Since intellectual or artistic libertinism is a somewhat more elevated avocation than the unvarnished variety, it should be said that Calder pursued books – the title Pursuit means both chase and avocation – with the same spirit as he pursued women, and with the same wise recognition that absence of conventional beauty was not to be an obstacle to aesthetic worth.

‘Sonia Orwell put it about that Calder was gay, but they still got along and she was a significant player in the Writers’ Conference, at least when she was upright’

He doggedly backed authors who even now seem chewy in the extreme, once touring England with Alain Robbe-Grillet, Nathalie Sarraute and Marguerite Duras and in doing so creating an improbable new constituency for the nouveau roman. Does anyone still read Robbe-Grillet? I occasionally watch the video of Trans-Europ-Express, but to be honest, only for the girl at the end. Still, fair play to Calder for having brought fabulation and dogmatic realism to the Anglo-Saxons.

Avant-garde figures seem to fall into two sorts. There is one group that appears to embrace modernity in innovation not only in their own field, but in every other. And there are those who, despite eye-watering commitment to the cutting edge in theirs, retain distinctly old-fashioned tastes in every other regard. Calder doesn’t quite fall into either group. His great, arguably his greatest, passion in life is opera, and he has kept track of every production he has seen since student days, often in great detail. Even without his journal, he has a phenomenal memory for singers and stagings. One senses that the appeal comes from opera’s claims to Gesamtkunstwerk, the totalising, all-embracing work of art that addresses ears, eyes and sensitivities all at once. He probably also recognises that imaginative publishing is operatic, full of outsize figures, noisy self-promotion, improbable intrigue and occasional catastrophe. The suicide of a former lover and friend, first mentioned in his acknowledgements almost as an act of penance – he was brought up Catholic, after all – is part of a bass measure of darkness and guilt that runs through Pursuit. It’s a narrative that is full of leitmotifs, returning characters, odd breaks and outwardly inexplicable extensions. It is far from consecutive or even complete.

Duff Cooper called his memoir Old Men Forget and it’s worth remembering that. Particularly in the early chapters, Calder admits more often than not that he has little or no recollection of childhood scenes, which were divided between Canada, where he was born, and Scotland. The only telling anecdote from schooldays is the admission that following the usual public school bullying by teachers he formed the habit of shouting for the visiting team on sports days. Calder has been shouting for the other side ever since. And getting pelters for it. His political views appear to be libertarian. It’s probably impossible for a laird, born to some money, to give himself entirely to socialism, so Calder ended up where all well-intentioned libertarians used to end up, in the old Liberal Party, in whose interest he stood in 1970 for Kinross and West Perthshire, and came fourth. He also spoke out for reform of the law governing homosexual acts, a favourite Liberal cause, and spent a year touring Rotary clubs, reminding respectably suited family men that they once (surely?) felt a mild crush for the captain of rugby or head boy. They heard him out, these burghers, and told him he was brave, and it’s hard to argue with that.

There are moments when his recollection of events seems wonky or possibly just misdated, and only when he can calibrate a moment in his publishing life with a particularly memorable Lohengrin or Idomeneo in his opera journal can he be absolutely sure of his dateline. But as a master narrator he can weave an aria even out of forgetfulness. Some of the more elaborate stories read almost as if they have been improvised or dictated on the spot, pieced together out of remembered details and stock routines. Because old men forget, there are more than a few errors of detail, perhaps more than one might want to see in a second edition. And yet in a curiously engaging way, the more often one picks up Calder on a lapse of fact, or even spelling, the more we’re drawn to him, as if he were sitting in a club chair in front of us, spinning story and story out of his life, uninterruptable, incorrigible and incorruptible. He talks about going to the Brussels Expo in 1958 – a key moment in post-war cultural consolidation – and seeing the ‘Skylon’. In point of fact, the Skylon was a feature of the 1951 Festival of Britain, where it dominated the South Bank the way the London Eye does now. The keynote structure of Expo 1958 was called the Atomium. He’s a little cavalier about names and places, too. He describes the inconvenience of having to drive back to Ledlanet via the ‘Kinkardine’ Bridge and he has ‘Bristol’ Street for Bristo Street in Edinburgh. And he makes one delightful reference to ‘Fleur Forsyth’ as if the heroine of the Forsyte Saga were some apple-cheeked Perthshire girl he once seduced while reeling in Perthshire. On the face of it, it’s very hard to imagine Calder reading, or enjoying, Galsworthy, which makes the error all the more pleasing and revealing.

For this is the joy of the book. Calder’s bluff charm and unsinkable optimism come out in every chapter and the entire party is carried along for 600 tightly printed pages. Perhaps the only downside of this, and of the easy mixing of erotic anecdote and literary striving, is that romantic immodesty flips into its opposite; Calder makes no substantial claims for his own literary achievement, which was in fact transformative. He doesn’t suffer from false modesty, but the loose and associative form of his memoir means that there’s no real attempt to sum up and take stock. For the record, he took a hidebound and largely parochial publishing world by the horns, exposed British readers to bold new writing from Europe (including the hitherto unexplored literature of the Balkans) and America, and in the process used his imprint to put out books by Alger Hiss (though subsequent research has shown that the most celebrated ‘victim’ of McCarthyism may not have been untainted) and about the war in Algeria, one of the dirtiest and most vicious in modern history. He put his weight behind such unmarketable talents as Ann Quin, author of Berg, and Aidan Higgins, author of Langrishe, Go Down, which was boosted to international success via one of Calder’s bravura performances at the drearily huckstering Frankfurt Book Fair. If any of these names is unfamiliar, I’d recommend a search for Higgins and Quin on Amazon; Robbe-Grillet, too, if you’re feeling hardy. Or Sidney Goodsir Smith’s Collected Poems, one of the treasures of the Calder catalogue. And I say Amazon because it’s increasingly unlikely that you have a genuinely imaginative bookshop, or one at all, at the bottom of your street; vanishingly unlikely that you’ll find anything as seductive (the term is used advisedly) as Jim Haynes’s The Paperback, a pioneering store/hub in Edinburgh’s Charles Street. Calder makes it clear that book-publishing is as nothing without imaginative bookselling, and one of Pursuit’s most engaging stock characters is the small provincial bookseller who will take multiple copies of obscure French romans, dark Irish narratives like the Beckett trilogy, which Calder put out together as the author wished, or scouring political exposés, simply because he’s in it for the love of books, not profit or corporate laddering. It’s a lost, but not quite forgotten, world.

The most significant addition – in the sense of looking forward – to this update of Pursuit is a short afterword by Alessandro Gallenzi whose Oneworld Classics ten years ago began negotiations to take over the Calder imprint and bookshop and to transfer one of the most important literary lists in English to a new steward. The revamped list begins to appear this summer. Pursuit offers a grand overture.

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Elizabeth Burns: Five Poems

The Recovery Room

is where they wheel you afterwards; a kind of limbo
– place between earth and heaven where the body lies
before ascending – where you drift from sleep to waking.

There’s a quiet, end-of-the-day feel, the nurses talking softly.
One brings you water, another helps you to your feet
and asks you how you like your tea. You put on slowly

your own clothes, totter over to the sofa,
the table set with magazines, a tin of biscuits. And this
seems all you’d ever need: the peaceful room,

the plate of processed cheese and crackers,
a few words with another patient, a glance
at the National Geographic, your tea replenished.

But someone says, Your husband’s here, and he’s standing
in the open doorway, wearing the clothes of the outer world,
his hat and scarf and coat on this November evening

and you are borne away on his arm, along corridors,
lightheaded with sedation and relief – the tests are clear –
ascending into cold fresh air, the winter on your skin.


How Music Travels

How ordinary this is and how peculiar:
that in a car on a motorway in England
at the end of the first day of the year
I am listening to people in Japan
singing music that was first sung
in Germany on a new year’s day
almost three hundred years ago.
How ordinary because all I need to do
is touch a button and this music
fills the car: and how peculiar,
how miraculous, that singing
in Japan is trapped inside a silvery disc
and someone in London sets it free
and it travels through the winter air
and is inside this moving car.
And here are other miracles:
that a tune can be written down
in lines and circles, as this one was;
that the paper with these marks on
was not lost; that people can look at it
and bring the music back to life;
that although it was written
for one particular new year’s day,
this cantata flew around the world
and into a future that no one
singing in an icy church in Leipzig
on the first day of 1724
could begin to imagine;
and that somehow it can lodge itself
inside the singers and the players
and the listeners and be carried
with them wherever they go –


Wildflower Hunt

The hunt begins in the spring of your eightieth year
as the land thaws and plants start to quicken

The equinox, and that luscious rush of early summer
its flourish of green, and lit petals, light evenings

All through the long summer months, your keen eyes
are noticing, searching, and each new flower you spot

is a gift, an achievement, sometimes expected
sometimes a surprise – discoveries and rarities

You hunt on the shore, on dune slacks and marshland
in the city, the town, on pavements and walls

You hunt by the railway, the roadside, a churchyard,
roundabouts, carparks, landfill, canal bank

You hunt at quarries and bings, woodlands and wasteground,
by rubbish dumps and sewage works, a stagnant pond

There are wildflowers everywhere – here, amongst heather tufts,
by a puddle on a wet track, on a tangled grassy slope

And now as the year turns to winter – leaves fallen
flowers faded – and all that you’ve found is hidden again

the hunt is over, your treasure gathered in
Yet there’s nothing to hold in your hands –

all of it conjured, imagined, remembered
in your list of names and places, photographs, descriptions

The hunt is over, and this place you live in is richer
than you’d ever dreamed: such an abundance of wildflowers

The hunt is over and here’s the treasure trove: your knowledge
flying out like windblown seeds, and taking root in all of us

who’ve watched you exploring and observing and recording
bearing witness to what’s growing all around us.


The field

This summer I’ve taken to leaving the park by the other gate,
the one further up the road, so I can walk past the part of the field they’ve stopped mowing, letting the grasses and the wildflowers grow so they sway and waver in the breeze; and sometimes when the weather’s dry and the ground isn’t flooded and muddy, I stand here on what once was moorland, looking at the view, or walk among the buttercups and clover and the sorrel, the pinks and whites and yellows of the new-made meadow where grammar school boys from down the hill were brought to see Catholics disembowelled, the hangings from the gallows.


Midsummer sundial

Your body’s the marker – put your feet on the date
and the line of your shadow will lie on the hour,
somewhere between three and four o’clock,
a stripe of light travelling, falling through you

telling the time. Everywhere you look
are verticals that could be sundials
with a circle of hours drawn round them –
across the bay, wind turbines, the mountains;

closer up, pylons on the estuary, cooling towers,
highrise flats, leafy trees, the spire of the cathedral,
even these buttercup stalks around the sundial;
each thing laying down its map of shadow

on the earth, its record of where sunlight was
on the afternoon of the longest day, the widest day,
full of the sky and the bay, the warm breath of summer,
and so many hours of daylight still to come.

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The Ghost Writer

Ashland & Vine is the tenth book of fiction by John Burnside, and Still Life with Feeding Snake his fifteenth collection of poetry. An impressive body of work by any standards, and then there are the three memoirs, and the columns for the New Statesman.

‘Writing is what I steal from the usual flow of things,’ Burnside wrote recently in the Guardian, describing working through the enforced wakefulness of sleep-disordered nights. Goodness knows how much he would produce if his writing life was perfect. I wonder though if it’s the sense of liminality in his practice – the hours clawed back in railway stations, the three a.m. poems written over valerian tea, and the temporary fellowships on Jura or in Berlin – that contribute to one of the greatest qualities of his writing. Whatever his genre, there is always a powerful sense of Burnside capturing the thinning of the boundaries between our world and others.

At the beginning of Ashland & Vine, Kate Lambert acknowledges a need to break out of the boredom of her routine: ‘Get drunk, sober up, get paranoid, get drunk again.’ Her film-maker boyfriend Laurits – or at least, they share an apartment, get drunk, and sometimes make love ‘though I’m not sure making love is the right term’ – sends her out to collect stories for an anthropology project. We are nudged very gently into resetting our narrative expectations when we’re told that for Laurits, ‘a story was just the string on which the real pearls were threaded’. Hungover and ‘all too ready to believe in phantoms’, Kate goes to a house, tucked away in trees on Audubon Road, that isn’t on her list. The noise of wood being chopped makes her think of her father, who was part Native American: ‘After the funeral, I kept thinking he would come back. Not alive, like Lazarus, but as a ghost, coming into the house at night from the darkness of the woods, where he had joined the many ghosts of his people.’

Instead of a ghost she finds Jean Culver, a self-confessed old person, who soon strikes a bargain with her. She will tell Kate her story, if Kate promises to stop drinking for five days. The structure of the novel is established; Jean will speak, and Kate will listen. When Jean makes an apparently throwaway comment comparing herself to Melville’s Ishmael, we guess that she might have her own reasons for talking as well. Jean’s success as Scheherazade will be judged by Kate’s sobriety, and after their first meeting, the younger woman leaves feeling as if she is ‘carrying away something more than the promise of a story’. The success of the novel depends on whether the reader feels the same way. I’m drawn to atmosphere and affect over plot twists and turns, and Ashland & Vine met my craving for the former without entirely neglecting the latter; indeed, the final instalment of Jean’s story is the most moving of all.

The realms Burnside conjures for us tend to be strange and sometimes frightening places, whether he is writing about the Arctic Circle or Cowdenbeath. This is his first novel set in America, but if there was any doubt that Ashland & Vine is located firmly in Burnside-World it is dispelled by the appearance of Christina Vogel, a mysterious, childlike young woman who likes to spend the night in Jean Culver’s wooded yard watching the birds. One of the most consistent motifs in the novel is that of haunting, and of haunted houses. Kate recalls finding a house in the woods ‘that became part of my mind, a piece of my imagination, the place where, in stoned reveries and deep, frightening dreams, I sometimes find myself going from room to room, listening for something.’ For Jean, the address that lends its title to the novel is that of the house outside which her father was shot: ‘Ashland and Vine, Ashland and Vine, Ashland and Vine. The words sing in my head, constantly. Like a curse.’

In a larger sense, America itself is haunted. The stories Jean tells of her family traverse histories of the twentieth century – of the atom bomb, and Vietnam, and homegrown, white terrorism – histories that might well be forgotten in a time when people may be unclear about whether JFK was real and assassinated, or a character from a movie. Legitimised atrocity sits alongside personal, sometimes almost invisible, devastation.

Haunting is a hair’s breadth from grief, and the various griefs of the book are beautifully evoked; measured, one might say, as in the Emily Dickinson poem that Kate hears herself recite in one of Laurits’s films. There is a great warmth at the centre of Ashland & Vine, a forgiving domesticity in which friendships can be forged and fried apple pies made. The whisky bottle and kitchen knife do not need to lie within reach. Darkness is present, of course, but it is of a different order to that found ‘at the dark end of the fair’, the alluring but dangerous realm Burnside wrote about in his most recent memoir, I Put a Spell on You. Against it, the pearls threaded along the story of the novel shine and gleam. The joy of reading is akin to the joy of listening. Kate remembers her father lifting her up, as a child, at the edge of the woods, and exhorting her to ‘Listen!’: ‘What he wanted me to listen to was exactly the world I could hear any time, the world I could hear but never attended to.’

If Ashland & Vine is about the attention of listening, the poetry collection Still Life with Feeding Snake dwells on the process of looking. The title poem arrives with an epigraph from Goethe, suggesting that if we can consider a phenomenon in itself, ‘neither desiring nor disliking it’, we may ‘in quiet attentiveness be able to form a clear concept of it, its part, and its relations’. The narrator of the poem, a painter, is told by his wife that ‘somewhere below, / in the crawl space / under his feet’ a snake is swallowing a bird. Sure enough:

it lay, the bird
half-gorged, in spasm, not quite
dead, perhaps, but not quite
living, either.

Between worlds, in a sense. The realisation is that ‘There was nothing to do here, / nothing to rescue, or kill.’ Objectivity slips away, along with the still life he was working on; looking can bring guilt, or the recognition of suffering. The painter’s role, and perhaps the poet’s, is to keep on looking in a world where ‘anything can be / demoted’ and fall through to what lies below the quotidian:

to some dry pit, beneath the world it loves,
where something darker
than the usual dust
makes good on every tender thing it finds.

There is haunting here too, of various kinds. The first poem, ‘The Beauties of Nature and the Wonders of the World We Live In’, begins with the lines: ‘I’m haunted by the story of a man / who, blind since birth, / was gifted with new sight’. What is inside the man’s head is, one story says, better than the new world he sees. ‘Self Portrait as Blue Baby’ introduces the poet’s brother, who did not return from the hospital as a baby, dying not long after birth. Instead, ‘he went drifting amongst stars / that no one else could see’, into an alternate reality that is delineated in ‘With the Discovery of Cosmic Background Radiation, My Brother Returns from the Hereafter as a Russian Cosmonaut’:

Now you are floating in space,
in your orange suit,
the barest trace of carbon on your skin,
your pockets lined with chalk and orange peel.

The thinning of boundaries is palpable throughout the collection. Lazarus reappears, ‘awake between two worlds’. In ‘To the Snow Queen’:

Children walk home from school in twos and threes
with mandarins and cloves and lengths of ribbon.
some call her name in the dark.
She will never choose them.

At points, the numinous arrives in the everyday. ‘Annunciation in Grey and Black’ describes ‘the silted airport gloom’ of a stalled journey ‘at the edge of the world’, a woman mopping the floor and half-singing to herself, believing she is alone until the moment when she turns to the narrator:

and sees me, sees me right down to the bone
of hurt and lust, a thousand miles from home.

The book ends on a virtuoso piece in three parts, ‘Poem on a Line of George Seferis’: ‘The houses I had they took away from me’. It weaves together different kinds of journey – migration through poverty, transience by desire, flight from war – and gathers many of the motifs of the collection under one roof:

The lives of others, waiting to be witnessed.
The soul as shadow, waiting to be fleshed.

A few years ago, Burnside wrote about Seamus Heaney’s New Selected Poems 1988-2013 in the New Statesman. In ‘Sandstone Keepsake’, the poet realises while strolling on the beach at Inishowen that he is under surveillance: ‘not about to set times wrong or right, / stooping along, one of the venerators’. Burnside argues against Auden’s claim that ‘poetry makes nothing happen’, suggesting that a body of work such as Heaney’s does more than simply witness. While a single poem might be ‘a moral drop in the ocean’, poetry makes compassion happen, and Heaney’s work encourages a form of resistance by dramatising the inner struggle of the poet and venerating the meaningfulness of the everyday. This final poem in Still Life with Feeding Snake reads very much as ‘a moral drop in the ocean’, and the two books taken together amount to rather more. Heaney was writing in the era of Thatcher and Reagan, and it’s an understatement to say that we are not in a better position today. Burnside’s novel and collection come as a timely reminder that to look and to listen is not to be passive. A ‘moral drop’ can at least make a tear trail through the grime.

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Money For Nothing

I’ve been moving house, for the second time in sixteen months. Bad enough once every two or three decades, and not to be recommended. Six containers arrived out of storage, and four men to unload and carry up to the top floor, with the remainder of the Stuff being directed into the tandem garage (one of the flat’s selling points, along with the secluded balcony and vistas of far hills and West Coast skies).

The next stage – unpacking the evidence of various lives already lived out of my nine. Reacquaintance with myselves has been a mixture of pleasure and upset. What might be lurking inside the next taped-up box?

Some of one’s history seems fated and inevitable, other parts of it wayward and chance. In certain respects the younger ‘I’ was clearer-headed, more confident, more astute. He wouldn’t have thought inexperience a handicap, and – if granted foresight – might have found this future self a stranger to be humoured, or to be sidled past.

My current languor, physical and mental, has been alleviated by increasingly lengthy escapes into Ron Butlin’s new novel. It so happens that Billionaires’ Banquet features a number of characters when young(ish) and idealistic (1985) and later (2005, with an Epilogue in 2016), when mature and seemingly fulfilled but in fact beset with personal doubts.

It’s Midsummer’s Eve 1985, and we follow our narrator…

‘Barclay Towers was a split-level flat, four storeys above the Edinburgh streets. Four wearying flights of hard stone steps. The tenement was well over a hundred years old and when northerly gales swept down from the Arctic, its floor timbers shook, its large windowpanes billowed in and out like sails and, like a crows’ nest lashed to the tallest mast, the whole top floor shuddered in the storm. That was in winter. Come summer the flat entered calmer waters.’

Hume is a philosopher (unemployed) with the whole world to order and put right. But ‘his ticket for a seat on the academic gravy train’ has thus far failed to turn up. His paper ‘The Appearance of Reality and the Reality of Appearance’ has, alas, not whetted the curiosity of readers of the journal Thought; meanwhile piecemeal (beneath-the-radar) teaching to the unreceptive in assorted local crammers just about keeps body and soul together. ‘Being paid cash-in-hand supplemented his Supplementary Benefit.’ Hume is the book’s lead. His catchy catchphrase is ‘A modern ethics for modern times’.

One of Butlin’s achievements is to allow his characters the fourth dimension of their hopes for themselves. ‘Last class finished, he decided to treat himself: he’d take a bus for once, and get home sooner. Sitting in the upper deck front seat, he looked down at the wet street with its even wetter pedestrians being blown round corners, battling with umbrellas, sheltering in doorways – but saw nobody, nothing. For him, there was no wind, no rain, no city-centre at all. Instead, there was a lectureship at Edinburgh University that further along Princes Street became a professorship at Oxford. By Woolworth’s at the top of Lothian Road, this turned into a specially created Chair at Berkeley, UCLA. Between times, he was appointed to head a government think-tank, host a TV show and, as they turned right at the Tollcross clock, discovered he was under consideration by the Nobel Prize committee. He was still drafting his acceptance speech when he got off the bus. The Barclay Towers stairs were taken at a run, every step bringing him closer to the letter that was going to change his life.

Key in the door.

No post on the mat. On the kitchen table, maybe?’

Brilliant! The placing of that final comma – hesitant nervous – confirms that our man is hopelessly deluded. This is someone whose accommodation in the flat – ‘low-rent low maintenance’ – is a claustrophobic cupboard space beneath the stairs.

Fellow tenant the Cat is a little younger; a gifted mathematician, she is easier with abstractions – at which she’s a wiz – than with the messy complexities of human relationships, especially hers with Hume.

Who else occupies the flat? A Catholic seminarian drop-out, nicknamed St Francis, is being slowly sucked into neurosis when not tackling his Mammoth Book of Crossword Puzzles. Electric Boy (born into the world ‘fully wired’) and girlfriend the Coconut are a peripheral couple, making music overhead as the thump of bass attests. There’s a wild card, named Diana (how 80s can one get?) but known as DD, an accidental guest who shows up at the Midsummer’s Eve hash cake party out on the roof-top leads; a not-quite rich girl she has landed on her feet nevertheless, playing Chopin on the piano for a well-heeled elderly matron ensconced in the genteel quarter of the Grange, who has granted her protégée a grace-and-favour live-in summerhouse of her own.

Working with these dramatis personae and an Edinburgh background, Butlin constructs a suavely compelling, ceaselessly inventive entertainment, which is to make light of nothing less contemporary and parlous to human survival than ‘global chaos’.

I spent last summer, when I was (temporarily) hankering after country life in the Highlands, trawling through home reports which, without exception, referred to dampness in its various degrees: from occasional/ historic to all-too-actual/dire. I can’t recall a Scottish novel so imbued with weather as Billionaires’ Banquet. In large part it’s rain and hail and ‘razor-edged’ winds, although the summer – when it comes – is all the better appreciated for the reprieve it offers from the familiar.

‘A grim autumn afternoon, Scottish-grim. Darkness falling. Grey sky and sagging clouds. Heavy, heavy rain. A cutting east wind. A rawness in the air, a chillness that threatened sleet. Dirty rainwater was puddled in the dips and cracks of the uneven pavement; oily-looking sludge oozed blackly up from between the loose-fitting slabs. Scrunched-up chip-papers and pizza cartons blew the length of the street.’

Meteorological conditions colour the characters’ thinking and their actions, as decisively as any philosophical argument or mathematical proof. The default greyness in this novel matches an accumulating – no, not fatalism – equivocalness in the characters, as they fail to settle for definite moral stances: they’re having to duck and weave their way in a world which has surrendered to capitalist values, where Big Money in very few hands calls all the shots.

Edinburgh and Scotland are no mere political backwater, at any rate not in 2005, nor during the never-to-be-forgotten few days when Gleneagles Hotel played host to the G8 Summit. Butlin gleefully, mischievously, recreates the mayhem in the streets of Edinburgh and up the motorway to Auchterarder, when the Lord of Misrule held court – George W. Bush arriving with his private army, and hordes of protestors disguised as clowns and fairies determined to outwit the marshalled ranks of armed police.

Twenty years on, Hume is a bona fide entrepreneur with a public profile, on the back of a notion hatched way back in Barclay Towers – Executive Service, butler- and domestics-hire (party organisers, in effect). Why not? Stranger things have happened. Hume, a Thatcher’s child, had had the nous to identify a gap in the market, and well and truly plugged it. New-New Town Edinburgh was only waiting.

The second half of the novel follows the personal transformations of our characters. It’s reviewers’ protocol not to give away the story, nor to provide SRB readers with Spoiler Alerts. Suffice to say, you won’t be disappointed.

The book’s title? Events build to this occasion. Against the background of the G8 shindig and Make History demos and heavy-handed police responses, and in front of the world’s TV cameras, Hume has plotted his own shamelessly self-promoting apotheosis. The Billionaries’ Banquet – well, forget protocol, I’ll tell you anyway – involves Edinburgh’s seriously rich; they have each paid £1,000 to either (a) win one of ten places in a lottery and to dine up on stage like kings and queens or (b) to gamely shrug off that missed chance and accept instead a ration of rice and water, such as countless millions will have to sustain them to another day. An outrageous conceit, yes, but in the author’s accomplished hands it’s delivered with delirious aplomb. Butlin is both a master farceur and a merciless satirist. Corporate philanthropy is exposed for what it truly is. Then, back to Hume. The man’s success has involved some maladroit past liaisons, and one of these is now more threatening even than the Banquet’s ramifications.

While Butlin sticks to his clever counterpointing – a ‘loud’ scene, then a ‘quiet’ – the action now moves as rapidly as it should in a model thriller. The book concludes with another jump in time. It’s 2016. The chameleon Hume has made another adjustment, he’s inside the same skin but that skin now has a year-round sun tan. The world is an even more dangerous place than it was; the global pot is stirred, and all the wrong hands to do it. Can philosophy help? ‘Kant’s concept of Perpetual Peace? Not a chance. All it takes is the profits of perpetual war. All it takes is hatred, a state of mind so very, very easy to manufacture.’ Even so, the final mood is hardly despairing. To the end, in Butlin’s fictional universe, unpalatable general truths are presented with an engagingly human frame to them. Why else would you wish for a book not to end?

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Strange Meeting

In most histories of the First World War Edinburgh rarely rates a mention. Nor is this surprising.  A local lad, Douglas Haig, may have commanded the British Expeditionary Force on the Western Front, but the city of his birth was a bit player in the drama that unfolded in continental Europe.

However, the War Collection at Napier University’s Craiglockhart Campus presents a case for Edinburgh’s importance in this period, not as a zone of conflict but as a centre of literary and medical innovation. Here, protected under glass, are memorabilia typical of the time: fragments of shells, medals, and sepia snaps of unsmiling men in khaki. But interesting as they are, they take second place to the rare editions of poetry books and a handwritten register of patients’ names, which evoke events a century earlier that continue to influence the way we think about war and its effect on those who wage it, on mental health and even our notion of masculinity.

In 1917, Craiglockhart was a military hospital, not treating physical wounds but ‘neurasthenic’, or shell-shocked, officers. The work undertaken here between 1916 and 1919 by doctors such as W.H.R. Rivers and Arthur Brock was pioneering and would help overturn the idea that shell-shocked men were cowards. It was in this capacity that it provided the venue for the encounter that secured its place in literary history. In August 1917 the war poets Wilfred Owen and Siegfried Sassoon met inside its walls.
Neither men’s first impressions of the place were favourable. The building opened in 1880 as Craiglockhart Hydropathic, a spa where wealthy Victorians could undergo a modish ‘water cure’. By the second decade of the twentieth century, the hydro had fallen into disuse. In 1916, the War Office requisitioned the building, transforming it into a hospital. Although it is described as ‘a giant Italianate villa’, Owen and Sassoon saw it more in terms of a gothic pile. On his arrival in June 1917, Owen wrote home that he was staying in ‘a decayed Hydro, far too full of officers, some of whom I know’. As Sassoon wrote in his memoirs, ‘It was a gloomy cavernous place even on a fine July afternoon.’

Something of that sombre atmosphere survives. The War Collection is shadowed, its blinds half-drawn. A sign on the wall informs visitors that of the 1801 officers treated at Craiglockhart, 735 were discharged as medically unfit, 167 were passed for light duties, 141 required social medical treatment at other hospitals, and 758 were returned to active service. Owen was judged fit by a Medical Board and returned to the Western Front, where he died one year after leaving Edinburgh. It was in the final twelve months of his life that he wrote the poems for which he is remembered today, but he never would have written them if he hadn’t spent the summer and autumn of 1917 in Scotland.

* * *

Wilfred Owen was born at Oswestry, Shropshire, on 18 March 1893, the eldest of four children raised by Tom and Susan Owen. Owen’s closest friend was his mother, with whom he shared a devotion to religion (Church of England) and poetry. His relationship with Tom, a railway clerk, was more distant. Wilfred’s early years were marked by his parents’ struggle to remain in the ranks of the middle class. While Susan’s family had had money in their past, when her father died in 1897, he left his daughter less than had been hoped for. Wilfred wanted to go to public school and then Oxford, but had to settle for the Technical School in Shrewsbury. In the summer of 1911, he worked as an unpaid assistant to the Vicar of Dunsden, near Reading, in return for tuition. But he began to drift from his faith, and a year later quit after telling the divine he thought religion was at odds with science and poetry. Suffering a collapse, he went home to be looked after by his mother. In the summer, he took and failed a scholarship exam. By the autumn of 1913, he was teaching English at a language school in Bordeaux.

When the war began in August 1914, Owen was still in France. Photographs from the period show him moustached, bow-tied and dandyish. At first, he made no attempt to join up. By the following autumn, sensing he could no longer stay out of the conflict, he returned to Britain, and on 21 October, 1915, travelled to London to join the Artists’ Rifles; he was surprised to learn there were no actual artists in the unit. Owen was short (under five foot six), shy and self-effacing; not your typical ‘happy warrior’. His accent, as Sassoon – a quintessential Edwardian gentleman – later noted, was a regional one.

Owen spent the following year training. On 4 June, 1916, he was commissioned as a second lieutenant in the 5th Battalion in the Manchester Regiment. Near the end of 1916, he was finally sent to France, and at the beginning of 1917 he joined the 2nd Manchesters near Beaumont Hamel on the Somme. Here, he assumed control of a platoon. His men thought him an excellent officer. Soon after arrival, his platoon was gassed. In April, after leading his men through an artillery barrage, he was thrown into the air by a shell that exploded near him. In the aftermath, he lay beside the scattered body parts of a fellow officer. Returning to base, he was trembling, confused and stammering. It is possible his commanding officer called him a coward. He was diagnosed with ‘neurasthenia’ and taken to a hospital in Normandy, where the decision was made to send him to Scotland.

* * *

Nineteen seventeen was a year of opportunities and setbacks for the Allies. America’s entry into the war in April was balanced by Russia crashing out after its October revolution. At the start of June, the French army was afflicted by mutinies following the disastrous Second Battle of the Aisne. In July, T.E. Lawrence took Aqaba from the Ottoman Empire with a force comprising Arabian troops. During Owen’s time at Craiglockhart, Passchendaele, or the Third Battle of Ypres, was launched. Starting on July 31, the battle lasted three and a half months, during which time 370,000 men were wounded or killed; many drowned in the mud.

Edinburgh felt very distant from what was unfolding elsewhere. Owen travelled by sleeper on the morning of 26 June. Arriving at Waverley, he breakfasted at the North British Hotel then walked the length of Princes Street, admiring the Castle, which ‘looked more than ever a Hallucination, with the morning sun behind it’. He reached Craiglockhart in what the poet and future friend Robert Graves called ‘a very shaky condition’. He suffered nightmares about the Front, in which respect he was an unexceptional lodger.

Craiglockhart could house up to 174 patients, all of whom were officers said to be shell-shocked, which is defined as ‘psychological disturbance caused by prolonged exposure to active warfare, especially being under bombardment’. By the end of World War One, 80,000 British soldiers were treated for this condition, although it is thought this number is a gross underestimate. Symptoms included nervous tics, paralysis, blindness, disorientation, hysteria, withdrawal, nightmares, insomnia, loss of appetite, anxiety, tremors and nervous collapse. The first soldiers presenting symptoms appeared as early as September 1914. The earliest published reference to shell shock appears in The Lancet in 1915. As a new condition wrought by the heavy weaponry that dominated the war, effective treatment faced two hurdles. Firstly, medical professionals had no experience to refer to. Secondly, sections of the military, public and the medical establishment didn’t believe shell shock was a real phenomenon. Or as Sassoon put it: ‘Damage inflicted on the mind did not count as illness.’


Napier University’s Craiglockhart Campus: In 1917 it was a military hospital treating ‘neurasthenic’, or shell-shocked officers.

On his first morning at Craiglockhart, Owen was introduced to his doctor, Arthur Brock, whom he described as ‘a lean earnest man with deep-set eyes and a nose like an axe blade’. Over Brock’s desk there was an image of Antaeus, a figure from Greek mythology who drew his strength from the earth, struggling with Hercules, who defeated Antaeus by lifting him in the air, severing him from the source of his strength. Brock believed this image encapsulated shell-shock: the soldier who lost touch with what grounded him before the war faced destruction unless he reconnected with who he was. Brock argued that patients had to heal themselves by their own efforts. He encouraged the men to pursue interests through which they could express themselves. At Craiglockhart, there was a wide selection of activities on offer: golf, badminton, tennis, swimming; a debating society, language lessons, amateur dramatics, music.

Brock also argued that victims of ‘neurasthenia’ had to confront their dreams and what they represented. In that, he agreed with his colleague, W.H.R. Rivers, who treated Sassoon. The founder of the British Journal of Psychology, Rivers argued the men’s trauma arose from a conflict between fear and duty. He had read Freud, and while he didn’t believe that a sexual response was at the root of every neurosis, he developed Freud’s theories about repression. He upturned the general notion that men shouldn’t talk about the horrors they’d witnessed. Instead, Rivers insisted they do just that. His ‘talking cure’ – what he termed ‘autognosis’ – was slow and labour intensive, but in time his pioneering work overcame a great deal of the suspicion in the military that the officers at Craiglockhart were shirkers.

Owen and Brock became friends, to the extent he showed his doctor his poems. Even Owen’s most passionate admirers must concede the poems he wrote before meeting Sassoon are almost unreadable:

I only pause from reading
To scribble these few lines; or scarcely heeding
The dismal damp abroad, to mock the rain
Shooting its sleety balls at me in vain.
– Ho, thus methinks, hereafter, when the weak
Creations of a Mental Mist shall seek
To quench my soul, I’ll thwart them by the shield
Of crystal Hope!

Building on his experience of teaching in Bordeaux, he took up a part-time post at Tynecastle School in August, where he was popular with his class. He also worked on Craiglockhart’s magazine, The Hydra, a mix of poems and up-beat articles about whatever took the contributors’ fancy. The poems are not distinguished, but they give a sense of the sentiments of what was then considered war poetry. For example, the Kiplingesque ‘When’: ‘…while your wounds are dressed, and your soul finds rest, / And troubles pass you by; / Then glance no more on the strife beneath, / Tis time for you to die.’

At the back of each fortnightly issue were listed the officers who had left Craiglockhart and those who had arrived. In The Hydra’s eighth issue, dated August 4, under Arrivals, Owen would have found a name that leapt out, no matter that it was misspelt as ‘Seigfried Sassoon’.

* * *

In a letter to his mother dated 15 August, Owen wrote: ‘I have been reading Siegfried Sassoon, and am feeling at a very high pitch of emotion. Nothing like his trench life sketches has ever been written or ever will be written. Shakespeare reads vapid after these.’ Sassoon came to Craiglockhart under a shadow. On 6 July, he had written to the CO of the 3rd Royal Welsh Fusiliers, with whom he served, to inform him he would ‘refuse to perform any further military duties’; he intended not to return from a period of convalescent leave. Encouraged by pacifist friends Bertrand Russell and Lady Ottoline Morrell, Sassoon wrote ‘Finished with the War: A Soldier’s Declaration’ and sent it to the press. ‘I am making this statement as an act of wilful defiance of military authority,’ he wrote. ‘I believe that the war upon which I entered as a war of defence and liberation has now become a war of aggression and conquest.’


Siegfried Sassoon: His bravery bordered on the reckless.

Robert Graves was appalled at the risk Sassoon was taking. A court martial was a real possibility. Graves arranged for his friend to go before a Medical Board on 20 July in Liverpool, and submit to being sent to Craiglockhart as a way of defusing his declaration. Sassoon, however, was not mad, nor suffering from shell shock. Arriving on 23 July, he was a reluctant patient. He branded Craiglockhart ‘Dottyville’ and in a letter to Graves dated October 4, wrote of ‘this place of wash-outs and shattered heroes’.

Born in 1886, Sassoon spent his pre-war life hunting and playing cricket in Kent and Sussex. His family’s wealth meant he had no need to work. He also wrote poetry; like Owen, his pre-war poetry is not good. He was said to be snobbish, arrogant, but also generous and shy. He had enlisted on 5 August, 1914, the day after Britain entered the war and was commissioned in May 1915. His bravery bordered on the reckless; Graves called it suicidal. It won him a Military Cross but also earned him the nickname ‘Mad Jack’.

The death of his brother Hamo in 1915 during the Gallipoli Campaign is said to explain the savage turn Sassoon’s work took in 1916. His poems grew cynical, disillusioned, animated not by a hatred of Germans but that of the British public  whose complacency ensured the war continued. ‘Blighters’ imagines a theatre where the poet would like to see ‘a tank come down the stalls’ to kill a pro-war audience and performers. ‘Fight to the Finish’ pictures a victory parade where returning soldiers turn on a crowd of civilians:

Snapping their bayonets on to charge the mob,
Grim Fusiliers broke rank with a glint of steel,
At last the boys had found a cushy job.

* * *

The date on which Owen and Sassoon met is uncertain. Some say 16 August; others, 17 or 18. We have a better idea of how the meeting went. Sassoon was sitting on his bed, wearing his dressing gown, cleaning golf clubs, when Owen came to his room. The contrast between them would have been immediately obvious. Sassoon was taller, older, athletic and upper class. Where Owen failed to get a scholarship to Reading, Sassoon was educated at Marlborough and Cambridge. Owen may have felt he was suspected of cowardice; Sassoon was decorated. Owen was unpublished; Sassoon corresponded with H.G. Wells and Arnold Bennett. Their backgrounds weren’t such one would readily expect the two to become friends.

Owen arrived with a pile of copies of Sassoon’s recently published The Old Huntsman, which he wanted signed to send to friends and relatives. He was immediately deferential to Sassoon, who remembered, ‘He stood at my elbow, rather as though conferring with a superior officer.’ As he left the room, he mentioned that he wrote poetry too. Generously, Sassoon told Owen to show him what he’d written. ‘It amused me to remember that I wondered whether the poems were any good,’ Sassoon recalled.

If the date of the first meeting is unclear, biographers agree the men met again on 21 August. Sassoon was unimpressed by the poems Owen arrived with. Owen struck Sassoon as ‘a rather ordinary young man, perceptibly provincial, though unobtrusively ardent in his responses to my lordly dictums about poetry’. For his part, Owen wrote in a letter to his cousin, Leslie Gunston, on 22 August, that Sassoon was ‘very tall and stately, with a fine firm chisel’d (how’s that?) head, ordinary short brown hair. The general expression of his face is one of boredom.’

In the same letter, Owen mentions he had written a poem ‘in Sassoon’s style’. ‘The Dead-Beat’ inaugurated Owen’s annus mirabilis:

He dropped, – more sullenly than wearily,
Lay stupid like a cod, heavy like meat,
And none of us could kick him to his feet;
– Just blinked at my revolver blearily;
– Didn’t appear to know a war was on,
Or see the blasted trench which he stared at.

The brutal, demotic conclusion to the poem may have been pure Sassoon – ‘Next day I heard the Doc’s well-whiskied laugh: / “That scum you sent me down last night soon died. Hooray!”’ – yet the poem still represented a great advance on his Keatsian reveries. Owen wrote that Sassoon ‘was struck with ‘The Dead-Beat’, but pointed out that the facetious bit was out of keeping with the first and last stanzas. Thus the piece as a whole is no good.’ If Sassoon was tough on Owen we can presume it was because he now saw promise; ‘The Dead Beat’ demanded a serious response. As Owen brought him more work, Sassoon grew more interested, advising the younger man, ‘Sweat your guts out writing poetry.’

Through their friendship, Owen secured for The Hydra new poems by Sassoon, starting with ‘Dreamers’, possibly the first poem he wrote at Craiglockhart: ‘Soldiers are dreamers; when the guns begin / They think of firelit homes, clean beds and wives.’ In contrast, the dreams of men at Craiglockhart were nightmares of the Front; the nights were rent by screams.

Two of the poems that were, eventually, to shape the public’s view of World War One, and war in general, were first written at Craiglockhart. Towards the end of September, Owen showed Sassoon a new poem, who suggested its title, ‘Anthem for Doomed Youth’.

What passing-bells for those who die as cattle?
– Only the monstrous anger of the guns,
Only the stuttering rifles’ rapid rattle
Can patter out their hasty orisons.

It was Owen’s first major poem, successfully integrating a Keatsian sensibility and language with what he had witnessed at the front. Whereas in his early verse he was content to luxuriate in Keats’s lush language, Owen now drew on Keats to register a sense of harmony violated. He takes a line from ‘To Autumn’ – ‘Then in a wailful choir the small gnats mourn’ – and transforms it: ‘nor any voice of mourning save the choirs, – / The shrill, demented choirs of wailing shells.’

‘Dulce Et Decorum Est’, Owen’s most famous poem, was drafted at Craiglockhart at the start of October. His experience of surviving a gas attack and his nightmares of war are evident:

Gas! GAS! Quick, boys!—An ecstasy of fumbling
Fitting the clumsy helmets just in time,
But someone still was yelling out and stumbling
And flound’ring like a man in fire or lime.—
Dim through the misty panes and thick green light,
As under a green sea, I saw him drowning.

The influence of Brock and Rivers, their insistence that the men had to confront the images that haunted them works its way into ‘Dulce Et Decorum Est’. That Owen was suffering ‘smothering dreams’ where he relived horrific events is starkly registered:

In all my dreams, before my helpless sight,
he plunges at me, guttering, choking, drowning.

The poet puts it to ‘My friend’ that if he or she experienced dreams like these, they could not defend sending men to their deaths ‘with such high zest’. Of course, with this poem, Owen did just that: he forced everyone who read it to dream his hellish dream, and in dreaming it, to wake up. And then in refuting the credo, ‘Dulce et decorum est/ Pro patria mori’, he gave anti-war campaigners of future generations the riposte to jingoism and war fever: ‘The old Lie’.

Soon, Owen and Sassoon were friends, although the bond appears to have meant a great deal more to the former. In a letter to his mother, dated 12 September, he writes that Sassoon ‘is intensely sympathetic with me about every vital question on the planet or off it…. There is no denying to myself that he is already a closer friend than, say, Leslie…’ It is a remarkable statement considering he had known his cousin Leslie Gunston his entire life.

They shared new work, but Sassoon was hard to impress. He wrote to Graves on October 19, ‘His work is very unequal’. Owen on the other hand was moved by what Sassoon was writing in Craiglockhart, poems such as ‘Does it Matter?’ and ‘Banishment’. In time, Sassoon would admit Owen had influenced his work too. ‘To remind people of [war’s] realities was still my main purpose, but I now preferred to depict it impersonally, and to be as much ‘above the battle’ as I could. Unconsciously, I was getting nearer to Owen’s method of approach.’

Sassoon did not mean he was removing himself or emotion from his poetry, but tempering the rage and brutal satire that drove his pre-Craiglockhart poems. Owen’s influence is apparent in ‘Banishment’, which he wrote near the end of his time in Edinburgh. In a more lyrical and tender mood, Sassoon wrote about being separated from the men who had been under his command. Anger is no longer the dominant mood; instead, it is comradeship:

I am banished from the patient men who fight.
They smote my heart to pity, built my pride.
Shoulder to aching shoulder, side by side,
They trudged away from life’s broad wealds of light.
Their wrongs were mine; and ever in my sight
They went arrayed in honour. But they died, –
Not one by one; and mutinous I cried
To those who sent them into the night.

His use of pity, the word perhaps most associated with Owen, is telling. (‘My subject is War, and the pity of War,’ Owen wrote. ‘The Poetry is in the pity.’)

At the end of October, Owen appeared before the Medical Board, where he was cleared to return to active duty; he was given three weeks’ leave before rejoining his unit, and wrote to his mother that he was ‘rather upset about it’ because he was ‘so happy with Sassoon’. Some have detected in Owen’s letters hints that he was in love with Sassoon. ‘I held you as Keats and Christ and Elijah and my Colonel and my father-confessor and Amenophis IV in profile,’ he wrote to him after leaving Craiglockhart. ‘I love you, dispassionately, so much, so very much, dear Fellow, that the blasting little smile you wear on reading this can’t hurt me in the least.’

Sassoon was homosexual, although it’s believed he had had no physical relationships with men by that point. It’s generally believed that Owen was gay too, although there is no evidence to substantiate this. Yet several commentators over the years have argued the men’s sexuality fed into their poems. In his book Lads: Love Poetry of the Trenches, for example, Martin Taylor writes that knowledge of Sassoon’s homosexuality ‘locates the emotional impulse behind his work’.

To mark the end of his stay, Sassoon invited Owen to dine with him at the Conservative Club on Princes Street.  Despite the sadness Owen felt, the meal was full of laughter. He caught the midnight train at Waverley, which makes the date of departure 4 November. Exactly a year later Owen died, machine-gunned at Sambre Canal in one of the last battles of the war. He was 25, the same age his beloved Keats was when he died.

On 26 November, 1917, Siegfried Sassoon went before a Medical Board and was cleared for duty. He left Craiglockhart shortly afterwards and, despite eventually returning to the Western Front and sustaining more injuries, he survived the war. When he received news of Owen’s death, he was devastated: ‘A blank miserable sense of deprivation has dulled my mind whenever I have thought of him… Recognition of his poetry has steadily increased; but the chasm in my private existence remains.’

After the war, Sassoon embarked upon a life as an editor and writer. His poetry was never as powerful again, but he was well regarded, especially as a memoirist. He also embarked upon a series of affairs with men. He died at the age of 80 in 1967, the year homosexuality between males over the age of 21 was decriminalized in England and Wales.

* * *

There are those who believe the influence of Owen and the war poets has gone too far, and has distorted the historical record. In 2014, as World War One’s centenary began to be marked, a group of historians and politicians, including Michael Gove, argued that the war poets, along with Blackadder and Oh! What a Lovely War, have warped the reputation of a conflict they believed a ‘just war’ provoked by German militarism. It is true that many soldiers who wrote poems remained in favour of the war right up until the Armistice; that during World War One, Sassoon was considered a minor poet who barely features in wartime anthologies; while Owen, whose poems only began to gain a large audience in the 1960s, had a mere five poems published before his death. Nevertheless, Owen continues to be described as ‘the greatest war poet’; his poems are taught in schools; novelists, dramatists, film directors and composers have created works around his life and words; and politicians quote him when it suits. On National Poetry Day in 2010, David Cameron claimed ‘Dulce Et Decorum Est’ was his favourite poem; in 2015, Jeremy Corbyn recited ‘Futility’ to constituents on Remembrance Sunday.

Owen and Sassoon; Brock and Rivers. Both sets of men were intent on giving soldiers whom war had silenced their voices back. In a sense, they were all engaged in a larger project which continued beyond November 1918: a reshaping of masculinity. The patients’ breakdowns were exacerbated by shame that their masculinity had slipped. Rivers’ and Brock’s task was to persuade their patients to share their experiences, to weep for the dead, and to acknowledge both that they had tender feelings for their comrades and that it wasn’t wrong. Owen’s and Sassoon’s poetry did all this, and much more.

* * *

Wilfred Owen’s Edinburgh 1917-2017 is a collection of literary organisations and military charities that are preparing a programme of events to mark the centenary of Owen’s time in Edinburgh. A full programme of events will be announced later in the year.

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