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.