Monthly Archives: February 2018

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Mistress of Unease

Muriel Spark merits scrutiny both for her poetry and for her concern with poetry as a craft – not least given the number of admirers and commentators on her work apparently unaware of her poetic output, far less her continued commitment to it.

Her 1999 broadcast talk ‘The Art of Verse’ opens:

‘Verse is often considered an inferior form of poetry. Not so. It is a literary form by itself, a craft verging on art. At its best the practice of verse emerges as poetry … Poets who practise ‘free verse’ are seldom aware of what they are freed from. The study of verse is a sadly forgotten one. In my view, poets cannot work freely unless they are fully experienced in the makings of verse … and I am convinced any poet, or indeed anyone who writes prose, would bene- fit from a knowledge of what verse is.’

Stressing how she had ‘practised and studied all verse forms’ – triolets, sonnets, rondeaux, chants royal, you name it – she concludes:

‘I believe I owe to this… a sense of how to manipulate language and organize sentences and paragraphs (the stanzas of prose) to procure an effect. I have always claimed that I write as a poet, that my novels come under the cate- gory of poetics rather than fiction. If this is even partly so, I owe it to [that] early apprenticeship.’

I know of no-one more insistent on being a poet to their marrow: certainly no prose writer. Scott forsook poetry for the historical novel and Thomas Hardy, who saw it as his true vocation, published none in book form until he could afford to give up writing fiction. Whereas introducing her 2004 All the Poems, Spark writes: ‘Although most of my life has been devoted to fiction, I have always thought of myself as a poet.’ Reiterating that for creative writing of any sort ‘that early apprenticeship is a wonderful stimulant and start’.

She began early. Aged eleven, at James Gillespie’s School, she discovered ‘the delights of poetry and art through that wonderful teacher Christina Kay. There was a small writing-desk in my grandmother’s room for me to use while I was minding her … While my grandmother dozed, I did my homework, wrote my poems [and] read the books that I had brought home from the public library.’ She professed herself ‘deeply interested in rhythms and curious… what one could make them mean’. The spirited dactyls of ‘The Gallop’, appearing in the school magazine, reflected every school-girl’s dream:

Horses wild horses!
Alive as they gallop
In fury along!
As they gallop and gallop
and gallop along! …
Living and spirited
Beautiful horses!
Spirited, beautiful horses!

When she was twelve the magazine printed five more poems. Two years later she won a prize marking the centenary of Scott’s death, and was to her embarrassment crowned in a public ceremony. Helping to formulate her taste were Wordsworth, Tennyson, Browning, Swinburne and Blunden. She passionately admired John Masefield whom Miss Kay took her to hear read ‘like a true bard’, in a large hall in Edinburgh. Her last piece in the magazine echoed Yeats’s ‘The Scholars’. By this time, too, she was mesmerized by the Border ballads, memorizing many without noticing it: ‘their steel and bite, so remorseless and yet so lyrical, entered my literary bloodstream, never to depart’.

In 1937, aged 19, she sailed to join her prospective husband in Bulawayo, where she ‘never stopped writing poetry’; twice winning the Rhodesian poetry competition. In 1944, her unhappy marriage over – though neither it, nor the ferment of later relationships, infiltrated her work – she returned briefly to Edinburgh, then headed for London. After a spell at the Foreign Office she became embroiled with the Poetry Society, in whose Poetry Review she won a Love Lyric prize. Of her sonnet, the judge said: ‘It has an air about it. It is a lovely poem.’ Spark came clean: ‘Re-reading the poem I am sure it has an air about it, but certainly it was merely an old-fashioned exercise in what I thought would win that poetry prize.’

Nineteen fifty-two saw the publication of Dylan Thomas’s Collected Poems. Impending were A Vision of Beasts and Gods by George Barker, and WS Graham’s The Nightfishing. All three contain nominal ballads, but none with Spark’s tautness and hotline to their Border fastness. And she was out of kilter with much that was fashionable: metaphysical yes, but never a wild-eyed White Horsewoman of the Apocalypse, though the term appears in the title of one of her early stories.

The same year her zest for modernism, and passion for the Ballads, bore fruit in The Fanfarlo and Other Verse. The central characters of ‘The Ballad of the Fanfarlo’ are from Baudelaire’s fictionalised version of his affair with the singer-and-dancer Jeanne Duval. Spark saw it as her ‘central statement in verse, so far’. It is also by far the longest and I suspect most wilfully obscure. Its ‘tremorous metropolis’ mapping her state of mind, it subverts the basic ballad ingredients – numerals, emblematic colours, key words repeated like charms – and abounds in what could be pastiche, as in this dual nod to T.S. Eliot and Sir Patrick Spens:

Samuel Cramer lay on his loose bones Stared out of the window where there was The new moon like a pair of surgical foreceps
With the old moon in her jaws …

Later:

‘I see three ghosts’ cried Samuel Cramer,
‘And they have come too slow.
The one is Manuela de Monteverde,
The next is the Fanfarlo.
The third is a fiend that hovers behind, And he is no man that I know.’

The Ballad occupies 20 of the 125 pages in the misleadingly titled All the Poems. But the pamphlet, Spark’s biographer Martin Stannard records, ‘sank almost unnoticed and sales were negligible, the title poem [falling] on stony ground’. Though she noted amusedly, in her autobiography Curriculum Vitae, that ‘the publisher actually made a profit out of it, much later, when I had a name’. The poem’s complexity, and glorification of God, have been attributed partly to her teetering, at the time, on the brink of religious conversion. Either way, like Stannard, I find it ‘singularly difficult to interpret’.

I am also bemused by Spark’s declared mystification over the thrice-repeated – and concluding – phrase, ‘Heart of Midlothian, never mine’, in ‘Edinburgh Villanelle’, from the same period. ‘I have no idea what I meant by the words in the poem, never mine,’ she insists, introducing All the Poems, ‘and yet I meant them at the time. And I have let them rest as they are, among other unfathomable lines.’

Yet she was well aware of Edinburgh where she grew up having bred in her ‘the condition of exiledom’; and of her severance, all the more after her father’s death, from her working-class origins (identifiable with that heart-shape in the granite setts of the High Street?). On later visits she felt ‘an exile in heart and mind’; the city ‘hostile’ to her artistic vision … ‘a place where I could not hope to be understood’. Surely that ‘Heart of Midlothian, never mine’ reflects a sense of rejection of or by the city, or both, to which she is in denial – doubly painful given her lingering love for it. Unless she was simply a clandestine Hibs supporter. A companion-piece, ‘Edinburgh Villanelle’ empathizes with that other poète maudit Paul Verlaine, his ‘de la musique avant toute chose’ reflecting her ‘Whether in prose or verse, all creative writing is mysteriously connected with music’. It ends:

Therefore I see the sky and spend
An hour of lyrical reproof,
Like poor Verlaine, whom God defend, And write my book till summer’s end.

London, not Edinburgh, the place for creativity. But the poems which most appeal to me are those which reveal her a mistress of unease. These are often on the writing process, as when ‘Authors’ Ghosts’ creep uncannily back to ‘haunt the sleeping shelves…’; the poem’s closing reference to pages ‘added, re-written, revised’ tremulously relaying the frailty of memory:

Oh yes, it has been tampered with.
No doubt about it.
The author’s very touch is here, there and there,
Where it wasn’t before, and
What’s more, something’s missing – I could have sworn . . .

* * *

IN December 1950 Muriel Spark first visited John Masefield in Berkshire, to propose a book on him, despite his clear injunction: ‘Print not my life and letters, put them by. / When I am dead, let memory of me die.’ The then 72-year-old Poet Laureate appeared to her ‘a lovely-looking old man. Rosy cheeks, white skin, pure-white hair and moustache and blue, blue eyes. A charming voice which carefully enunciates all vowels and speaks boldly.’ She recalled that while ‘his house [was] rather cold – we each had a small paraffin stove by our chair at lunch – and there was no alcoholic drink, it was one of the happiest days of my life’.

Her study of him came out in 1953. Though admiring and in the main positive she didn’t pull her punches at what she felt sentimental or banal: a section of one work was ‘irredeemably bad, if not nauseating’; another ‘positively bad verse, really unconsciously comical’. Yet dissociating him from the Georgians, and applauding the vigorous sweep of his language, she saw his role of story-teller as similar to her own. ‘Although I now write nov- els, and only occasional poems’ she says in the (revised) 1991 edition, ‘I still think of myself as a narrative poet’. Again in her autobiography, the mantra: ‘My novels are not verse, they are not poetic in the flowery sense. But I claim a poetic perception, a poet’s way of looking at the world, a synoptic vision.’

* * *

ON my first visit to Rome, in the early 70s, I stayed in the suburb of Monte Mario. My host, Ettore, collected paintings. In his studio was a Bassano landscape he was restoring. By my bed hung a portrait once ascribed to Leonardo, purportedly of the girl who modelled for the Virgin of the Rocks. The front door had an array of locks, bolts and burglar alarms such as I’d never seen. In 2000, with Spark and Penelope Jardine away, San Giovanni, their home in Tuscany, was burgled. Spark’s poem ‘The Empty Space’ touchingly mourns one particularly hurtful loss: that of a painting by Jardine:

A square space on the wall marks the memory of that picture painted at night, stolen at night, worked on at night, in Rome, from the artist’s window …

and ends with the bleak summing-up: ‘The thieves came by night’.

The menacing dark cocooning Castel St. Angelo I find reminiscent of scenes and moments in her prose … not least that conjured up in the radio version of one of my favourites among her novels: ‘The lion howls, and the devil prowls, in the streets of Peckham Rye.’ Elsewhere her sleight-of-ear can be jaunty yet wistful, with traces of Auden, and of Stevie Smith whose Not Waving but Drowning she reviewed approvingly. In ‘Hats’, Spark has her bag stolen from the table, in a square in Venice. where she had been sitting having coffee, and drafting a poem. The ending makes no bones about her priorities:

What was in the bag? said
the policeman.
Some money, a passport
and a poem.

How did it go, that poem?

I wish I could remember.

‘Created and Abandoned’ compares the fictional creations of the writer whose drama is completed with those of a dreamer awakening … their lives similarly, and summarily, cut off. Again confirming how spot-on was her sobriquet ‘Spooky Spark’. In one of her best-known poems, ‘Going up to Sotheby’s’, the fictive author is himself defunct. After a fierce fight to get into print he puts his original typescript away, in a trunk. In due course he makes his reputation. The years pass. He and his wife are dead.

And now the grandchildren are selling the manuscript.
Bound and proud, documented and glossed
by scholars of the land, smoothed out and precious, these leaves of paper are going up to Sotheby’s. The wine-stained, stew-stained and mould-smelly papers are
going up to Sotheby’s. They occupy the front seat
of the Renault, beside the driver.
They are a national event. They are going up
to make their fortune at last,
which once were so humble, tattered, and so truly working class.

* * *

SPARK’S use of the term ‘form’ as previously quoted has applied to the arrangement of the poem – formal or informal – on the page, the regularity or irregularity of its verse-patterns, its line-lengths and rhyme-schemes: all technical matters. Beyond that Spark believes it is through experimenting with such methods and devices that the poet determines the appropriate ‘form’ for his or her theme … and that it is how this poetic as against verse form develops which makes one poet distinguishable from any other.

Calling on the Ballads, ‘for all their length and repetitiveness, models of narrative economy … with no dissipation of imagery … no digression’, she further contrasts Masefield’s episodic style with hers, ‘entirely involuntary and unforeseen’. Beyond that and while Masefield may manifest the linear development dear to editors and reviewers I’d find it hard, beyond an easing of rhyme schemes and possibly an increase in clarity, to detect in what order her poems were written, or trace in them any maturing ‘voice’.

There are no Yeatsian transitions, defining phases, or linguistic realignments as in some of her Scottish contemporaries. A poetic perception and precision decreeing the cadences of her prose, the poetry determinedly pursues its own course. As AL Kennedy crisply put it in a radio feature The Bright Spark: ‘Poetry was the door she walked through, into writ- ing, into that universe of possibility – and the paying job.’ Hand in hand with this went a residual undercurrent of vulnerability countered by voracity – about which she makes no bones in her short poem ‘The Goose’:

Do you want to know why I am alive today?
I will tell you.
Early on, during the food shortage, Some of us were miraculously presented Each with a goose that laid a golden egg. Myself, I killed the cackling thing and ate it.
Alas, many and many of the other recipients
Died of gold-dust poisoning.

Self-preservation … and survival. Spark’s poems flit from sombre to mischievous; grave to angelic; some smacking of anecdotes, nursery-rhymes, even conundrums … often conversational but never casual. Most telling, when not clashing symbols. And diminished if laid out other than precisely as she has them.

That insistence on preciseness – technical, typographical or as in her essay on Robert Frost, descriptive – was an enduring preoccupation as against any apparent concern with the sources of inspiration, or what function – or cost – poetry might have. Consistent with this goes a dispassionate (even icy) fixedness of gaze. Philip Larkin saw writing poems as a knife and fork partnership: the fork spears the emotion, lands it on the plate; the knife, more analytic, sorts it out, gives the poem its cutting edge. With her I’m more conscious of the knife. Not any old knife but from one of those fish-services, blades delicately engraved. In her hands, razor-sharp.

On that stay in Rome, I was taken to visit an artist-cum-jeweller, Zev, his apartment crammed with objets-d’art. Under glass, a set of slender silver and shell goblets. On the walls, oils so rich in pigment they seemed gem-encrusted. Zev was one-eighth Blackfoot Indian, his half-moon signature their tribal emblem. I understood he’d been commissioned to make a jewel-box for his friend Muriel Spark, then on holiday abroad. But I was later chided on this: jewellery, yes … but no jewel-box.

I’d like, recalling Zev’s studio as an Aladdin’s cave, to make amends by positing another, metaphorically housing Spark’s voluminous prose output … with in one corner, a small coffer containing not just the pile of necklacesopals and moonstones from her ‘’Rue du Cherche Midi’, but all her poems, intricately cut and polished, facets glinting in the light.

She is to me above all a rich source of images; often, in herself and in her work, self-distancing: the grande dame bestriding the literary scene … or as evoked by the words ‘Muriel Spark / Poeta’, inscribed on her tombstone. But superimposed on these, and imprinted indelibly in my mind, lingers that of the very lively ghost of a young girl, hunched at her grandmother’s writing desk … from which wild horses couldn’t tear her.

THIS IS A CONDENSED VERSION OF A TALK GIVEN IN THE SCOTTISH NATIONAL GALLERY’S HAWTHORNDEN LECTURE THEATRE ON 7TH FEBRUARY 2018. THE READER WAS GERDA STEVENSON.

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NEW POEMS

NO CAUSE FOR ALARM

O little clock you watch me
falling asleep.
O little clock you follow at a safe distance my night wanderings through the ruins.
O little clock you stare at me waking
with a glance as quizzical and bright as Venus.
Good morning to you too, little star.


SHIRT

Old shirt whose arms have enfolded mine on countless mornings
and whose tartan cloth has stretched to my beck and call
I know you have endured deaths by drown- ing and heat for me
only to wake in cool darkness at rest with your brothers.
Old friend who knows my body more inti- mately than most
I will add no codicil asking to be buried or burnt in you.
Far kinder surely the manumission of a char- ity shop rail
and getting used to the taste of some stranger’s poor bones.


AMATEURS

I sit still – life casts off from the shore
and I’m watching it grow smaller like any other
amateur painter of the time of day.
At every crossroads I’d favour the benign track,
the least shady of three, only to find that it too
bent to the colour of peat smoke drifting.
Days loose now as tobacco strands. Outside sheepdog winds are herding clouds.
I caught the Avernus ferry this afternoon and noticed that most of the younger passengers
seemed excited just to be headed somewhere.


WAKING LATE

Yesterday I woke to a sky
the colour of breast milk.
It must have been watching me sleep for the past hour or more
while I snuggled like a crocus bulb under the rowan tree
dreaming of the brighter shades
I used to be.
This morning the world reads
like a translated poem
that makes almost as much sense backwards as forwards.
The rowan stands with one foot poised on earth. Its phantom limb
that stepped off into thin air years ago now tries to pull the skinny tree awry.


FOR CHRISTIAN

Twisting the strands
of breath from her mouth on a January morning, what could you knit up by mid-afternoon
as darkness comes adding its leaves to the branches?
Not a scarf or soft hat nor even a lambswool vest for her body. Instead, a white remnant as supple and full
as milk being poured from its jug to a bowl.


THE LOST GLEN

One of these years
he might miss not only her birthday
but the date she died. Waking at five
to slap barefoot through the half-dark
and contemplate mist easing up the glen
to brush fleece and cattle rumps, the ponies grey-bearded now, stiff-legged
as he peered out for their shadows grazing – She came back to me last night
in the deep blue dress with hair adrift
across one shoulder as she always used to like to wear it with that dress. First light
falling across the dream. Outside
burn waters tsked and bustled
sweeping word after word away.

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In Her Own Words

THE COMFORTERS


They called him the Baron because he called himself Baron Stock. Caroline was not aware from what aristocracy he derived his title: nor had anyone inquired; she was sure it was not self-imposed as some sug gested. He came originally from the Belgian Congo, had travelled in the Near East, loitered in Europe, and finally settled in England, a naturalised British subject. That was fifteen years ago, and he was now near ing fifty. Caroline had always felt that the Baron had native African blood, without being able to locate its traces in any one fea ture. She had been in Africa and had a sense of these things. It was a matter of casual curiosity to her; but she had noticed, some years ago, when Africa’s racial problems were being discussed in company with the Baron, he had denounced the blacks with ferocious bitterness, out of all proportion to the occasion. This confirmed Caroline’s judgement; there was, too, an expression of pathos, which at times appeared on the Baron’s face, which she had seen in others of concealed mixed colour; and there was something about the whites of his eyes; what it was she did not know. And alto gether, having observed these things, she did not much care.

The Baron had set up a bookshop in Charing Cross Road, one of those which keep themselves exclusively intellectual. ‘Intelect-u-al,’ the Baron pronounced it. He would say, ‘Of course there are no intellec-tu-als in England.’

It had been the delight of Caroline and Laurence to recall the day when they looked in on the Baron at Charing Cross Road, to find him being accosted by a tiny woman with the request:
‘D’you have any railway books for children?’ The Baron reared high and thin on the central expanse of grey carpet and regarded her silently for half a second.
‘Railway books for children,’ she repeated.
‘Books with pictures of trains and railways.’ The Baron said: ‘Railway books for children, Madam? I do not think so, Madam. His arm indicated the shelves. ‘We have Histor-ay, Biograph-ay, Theolog-y, The osoph-ay, Psycholog-ay, Religio-n, Poetr-ay, but railway books for children…Try Foyles across the road, Madam.’

THE BALLAD OF PECKHAM RYE


Merle switched on the television and found a play far advanced. They watched the fragment of the play as they drank their coffee. Then they went into the bedroom and took off their clothes in a steady rhythm. Merle took off her cardigan and Mr Druce took off his coat. Merle went to the wardrobe and brought out a green quilted silk dress ing-gown. Mr Druce went to the wardrobe and found his blue dressing-gown with white spots. Merle took off her blouse and Mr Druce his waistcoat. Merle put the dressing-gown over her shoulders and, concealed by it, took off the rest of her clothes, with modest gestures. Mr Druce slid his braces and emerged from his trousers. These he folded carefully and, padding across the room to the window, laid them on a chair. He made another trip bearing his waistcoat and jacket which he placed over the back of the chair.

They stayed in bed for an hour, in the course of which Merle screamed twice because Mr Druce had once pinched her and once bit her. ‘I’m covered with marks as it is,’ she said.

Mr Druce rose first and put on his dress ing-gown. He went to wash and returned very soon, putting a wet irritable hand round the bedroom door. Merle said, ‘Oh, isn’t there a towel? and taking a towel from a drawer, placed it in his hand.

When he returned she was dressed. She went into the scullery and put on the
kettle while he put on his trousers and went home to his wife.

MEMENTO MORI


Percy Mannering, almost eighty, stood with his lean stoop as the coffin was borne up the aisle. Godfrey stared hard at the poet’s red-veined hatchet cheekbones and thin nose. He thought, ‘I bet he’s regretting the termination of his income. They’ve all bled poor Lisa white…’ The poet was, in fact, in a state of excitement. Lisa’s death had filled him with a thrilling awe, for though he knew the axiom that death was everyone’s lot, he could never realize the particular case; each new death gave him something fresh to feel. It came to him as the service began, that within a few minutes Lisa’s coffin would start sliding down into the furnace, and he saw as in a fiery vision her flame-tinted hair aglow as always, competing with the angry tresses of the fire below. He grinned like an elated wolf and shed tears of human grief as if he were half-beast, half-man, instead of half-poet, half-man. Godfrey watched him and thought, ‘He must be senile. He has probably lost his faculties.’

THE BACHELORS


‘New potatoes in the shops,’ Ronald said. ‘They’re always in the shops,’ said Martin, ‘these days. In season and out of season. It’s the same with everything: you can get new potatoes and new carrots all the year round now, and peas and spinach any time, and tomatoes in the spring even.’

‘At a price,’ said Ronald.

‘At a price,’ Martin said. ‘What bacon do you get?’
‘I make do with streaky. I grudge breakfasts,’ said Ronald.
‘Same here.’

THE PRIME OF MISS JEAN BRODIE


These girls [the Brodie set] were discovered to have heard of the Buchmanites and Mussolini, the Italian renaissance painters, the advantages to the skin of cleansing cream and witch-hazel over honest soap and water, and the word ‘menarche’; the interior decoration of the London house of the author of Winnie the Pooh had been described to them, as had the love lives of Charlotte Brontë and of Miss Brodie herself. They were aware of the existence of Einstein and the arguments of those who considered the Bible to be untrue. They knew the rudiments of astrology but not the date of the Battle of Flodden or the capital of Finland. All of the Brodie set, save one, counted on its fingers, as had Miss Brodie, with accurate results more or less.

THE GIRLS OF SLENDER MEANS


Inspired by a brain-wave, Jane’s first approach to a writer had been, ‘What is your raison d’être?’ It had worked marvellously. She had tried it on Nicholas Farringdon when he had called to the office about his manuscript one day when George was ‘at a meeting’, which was to say, hiding in the back office. ‘What is your raison d’être, Mr Farringdon?’

He frowned at her in an abstract sort of way, as if she were a speaking machine that had gone wrong.

‘THE DESECRATION OF ART’


We all know that there is a lot inferior literature about as there are inferior and boring examples of any other art. It is easy to say bad things must go. The critics, in every field of art, are never done denouncing what they feel to be bad art. They rightly prune and cultivate, they attempt to practise good husbandry. And as we become more articulate, itinerant, knowledgeable, we are more and more agreed on what is bad. And everyone knows we have to give up what is bad – it is a banal moral precept. What is wrong, what is bad, must go.

But I suggest now that we have to give up some of the good manifestations of art. Good things, when they begin no longer to apply, also must go. They must go before they turn bad on us. There is no more beautiful action than the sacrifice of good things at the intelligent season and by intelligent methods.

A FAR CRY FROM KENSINGTON


‘Books don’t wriggle. Authors do,’ was one of Colin Shoe’s remarks. ‘They take everything personally,’ Colin Shoe would say. ‘There isn’t an author who doesn’t take their books personally.’ I felt this was obviously a virtue on the author’s part; but, at the same time, these airily expressed prejudices gave us of the firm a coterie sensation which, amoral as it was, I shouldn’t have liked but rather did.

‘I hope you’re not argumentative,’ he said. ‘An argumentative woman is like water coming through the roof; it says so in the Holy Scriptures, either Proverbs or Ecclesiastes, I forget which.’

LOITERING WITH INTENT


I have never known an artist who at some time in his life has not come into conflict with pure evil, realized as it may have been under the form of disease, injustice, fear, oppression or any other ill element that can afflict living creatures. The reverse doesn’t hold: that is to say, it isn’t only the artist who suffers, or who perceives evil, But I think it true that no artist has lived who has not experienced and then recognized something at first too incredibly evil to seem real, then so undoubtedly real as to be undoubtedly true.

‘MY MADELEINE’


Proust’s Madeleine fetish is well known. He dipped a small cake in a cup of tea; he put it to his lips; and the past came flooding back. He experienced the same effect when he tripped over the cobblestone in a courtyard…

My Madeleine is an empty notebook. A friend who accompanied me at one time into a stationer’s shop remarked: ‘You examine a notebook like a housewife in the market examining a fish.’ As soon as I see one (and I acquire many and many), I desire to fill it. Whenever I am stuck for a new subject or something to write I go to my stock of note books and select a new one.

THE ONLY PROBLEM


HARVEY was a rich man; he was in his mid-thirties. He had started writing a monograph about the Book of Job and the problem it deals with. For he could not face that a benevolent Creator, one whose charming and delicious light descended and spread over the world, and being powerful everywhere, could condone the unspeakable sufferings of the world; that God did permit all suffering and was therefore by logic of his omnipotence, the actual author of it, he was at a loss how to square with the existence of God, given the premise that God is good.

‘It is the only problem,’ Harvey had always said. Now, Harvey believed in God, and this was what tormented him. ‘It’s the only problem, in fact, worth discussing.’

‘CELEBRATING SCOTLAND’


In the field of literature with which I am mainly concerned I would like to see more, far more, writing about Scotland in general and Scottish domestic life in particular. I see no point in a dialect that the average intelligent reader in Essex or Worcestershire cannot understand. I see no point in offer ing Scots dialects (which in any case are not regionally constant) to the intelligent read ers in the United States or Australia. The object of art is to diffuse pleasure, which includes the appreciation of tragedy as well as comedy. (In the case of a work written naturally in Gaelic or a specifically Scottish tongue that is different: it should be offered for translation abroad.)

SYMPOSIUM


Magnus was the only imaginative factor that had ever occurred in the Murchies’ family, but unfortunately he was mad, and had to spend his days in the Jeffrey King hospital, a mental clinic in Perthshire from where he was fetched, early on most Sunday mornings, to spend the day at Blackie House. Magnus was beyond cure, but modern medicine had done a great deal to mitigate his condition. He had a mad look. He was large and ate voraciously. There had been a time when he was too violent to have at home, but thanks to the pills they gave him he was violent no more. He had always had periods of comparative lucidity, hours and hours of clarity, even days of it. Then, at any moment, he might go off on his ravings.

Many families have at least one fairly mad member, whether in or out of an institution. But the families do not normally consult the mad people even if they have lucid periods; the families do not go to them for advice. The Murchies were different.

THE FINISHING SCHOOL


‘YOU begin,’ he said, ‘by setting the scene. You have to see your scene, either in reality or in imagination. For instance, from here you can see across the lake. But on a day like this you can’t see across the lake. It’s too misty. You can’t see the other side of the lake.’ Rowland took off his reading glasses to stare at his creative writing class whose parents’ money was being thus spent: two boys and three girls around sixteen to seventeen years of age, some more, some a little less. ‘So,’ he said, ‘you must just write, when you set your scene, “the other side of the lake was hidden in mist.” Or if you want to exercise imagination, on a day like to-day, you can write, “The other side of the lake was just visible.” But as you are setting the scene, don’t make any emphasis as yet. It’s too soon, for instance, for you to write, “the other side of the lake was hidden in the fucking mist.” That will come later.’

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Volume 13 Issue 1 Editorial

MURIEL Spark, the centenary of whose birth we celebrate in this special issue of the Scottish Review of Books, left her native heath in 1937 not knowing when, if ever, she was likely to return. She was still a teenager and eager to see what lay beyond Edinburgh’s vertiginous tenements, greasy, gleaming cobbles and glowering castle.

Having impetuously agreed to marry a man much older than herself, she set off for what was then known as Rhodesia. She could hardly have made worse choices. The man, Sydney Oswald Spark, turned out to be mentally unstable and potentially violent, while Rhodesia was notable for its male chauvinism, bullish racism and philistinism.

All of this, however, as Spark later conceded, was grist to a neophyte writer’s mill. In Africa, she came to realize she was alone and that if she was to make something of herself she must rely on her own resourcefulness, talent and fortitude. In short, she had to be prepared to stand up for herself. She had been taught as much at her school, James Gillespie’s, where, under the inspired instruction of Miss Christina Kay, she learned never to tolerate bullies and to be prepared to argue for her rights. For instance, in her dealings with publishers, she would always drive a hard bargain. There was no question of Muriel Spark ever being paid less for the same work as a man. Unsurprisingly, this led often to her being labelled ‘difficult’ by those who expected her gratefully to accept whatever offer was tabled. Some things never change.

Having divorced her husband, she returned to war-torn London in 1943. It is a period brilliantly evoked in The Girls of Slender Means, whose opening page describes the devastation caused by the Luftwaffe. But rather than wallow in it, the novel’s narrator tells us, ‘There was absolutely no point in feeling depressed about the scene, it would have been like feeling depressed about the Grand Canyon or some event of the earth outside everybody’s scope.’ This, surely, reflected Spark’s own perspective, which was not to retreat into self pity but to seize the day and see what could best be made of it. It was advice she never ceased to heed. Even when beset by debilitating illness, her first thought was to keep writing which she did almost until the day she died in 2006, at the age of 88.

Hers was a long and incredibly productive life. She began writing at school where she was known as its ‘Poet and Dreamer’ and where her poems appeared in clusters in the school magazine. Poetry was her passion and, with the confidence of youth, she would take poems by established poets and strive to improve them. It is worth reminding ourselves that she was around ten at the time. She did not go to university, in part because her parents could not afford to send her but also because she couldn’t see the point of it. Fellow pupils at Gillespie’s who had gone to Edinburgh University were writing essays on John Donne, she reflected, but she could already do that. To become a writer, she needed to live, to experience places and peoples and cultures beyond Edinburgh and Scotland. Like her beloved Stevenson, she had to escape to achieve her goal.

None of this was easy for a woman in the middle decades of the last century. Even in the 1950s, female writers were rarely given their proper due. Literary historians tell us that this was the decade of the Angry Young Men, of the Johns Braine and Wain and Osborne, of Kingsley Amis, Alan Sillitoe, Keith Waterhouse and others. Yet it was the female novelists, such as Iris Murdoch, Doris Lessing, Elizabeth Taylor, Nadine Gordimer and Muriel Spark who were truly innovative and exciting, and expanded the bounds of the form. Spark’s first novel, The Comforters, was published in 1957, when she was 39. If this was a relatively late start, she quickly made up for it. Five more novels were produced in as many years, some, like The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie, written in a matter of weeks.

We have no hesitation in declaring The Prime as the greatest Scottish novel of the twentieth century. It was its author’s ‘milch cow’, whose phenomenal success allowed her the freedom to live and work as and where she pleased. In the 1960s she moved from London to New York and from there to Rome and, finally, to Tuscany, where in a rambling and dilapidated former rectory she lived until she died in 2006. Her valedictory novel, aptly-titled The Finishing School, appeared two years earlier. It is situated in Switzerland in a school where the offspring of wealthy parents are taking a course in creative writing. Its tutor has a ‘Book of Observations’ which includes the following: ‘Once you have written The End to a book it is yours, not only until death do you part but for all eternity. Translators and adaptors come and go, but they can’t lay claim to the authorship of a work that is yours. Remember this if you ever take up the literary profession, as you all seem very keen to do.’

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Memento Mori

One of the many delights of a Muriel Spark novel is the way in which the ground shifts so delicately under the reader’s feet. Memento Mori begins as a mystery: who is victimising elderly people by making anonymous phone calls suggesting that they remember they must die? A detective is consulted, and duly tries to identify the culprit; or culprits, as there is little consensus on precisely what kind of voice is at the end of the line.

In a sense the novel fulfils the criteria of a who- dunit, but the answer to the mystery of the phone calls turns out to be the most obvious, if least expected one. As another of Spark’s characters, the Abbess of Crewe, states, scenarios ‘need not be plausible, only hypnotic, like all good art’. Reading the novel, we might think of the memento mori grave-stones of the seventeenth century and their elegantly carved reminders that death does not care how rich, celebrated or healthy we are. He – or she – will come for us all one day, and so we ought to recognise that the wormy clay awaits. In an interview to mark the publication of the book in 1959, Spark said: ‘The prospect of death is what gives life the whole of its piquancy. Life would be so much more pointless if there were no feeling that it must end.’

Her first lesson in mortality came early. When Spark was around nine years old, her grandmother Adelaide came to live in Edinburgh and was installed in Spark’s own bedroom. Adelaide’s past was somewhat mysterious, but she was feisty and fun. A former suffragette and an excellent story- teller, she styled herself as a ‘Gentile Jewess’, an identity Spark would later claim, as well as using it in the title of one of her most famous short stories. After a couple of years, two strokes and a cerebral haemorrhage, Adelaide required care. The young Muriel helped provide it, realising in the process how vulnerable old people can be, as well as how fascinating she found both Adelaide’s aphasic peregrinations of memory and language and the implication that the Grim Reaper might be just around the corner. In her memoir, Curriculum Vitae, Spark notes that ‘my experiences in minding and watch- ing my grandmother formed a starting-point for my future novel, Memento Mori, in which the characters are all elderly people’. John Masefield once told her that ‘all experience is good for an artist’, and she was always refreshingly pragmatic about the matter of life offering up material. Little surprise that readers tend to find particular fictions, ‘The Gentile Jewesses’ amongst them, more amenable to an autobiographical reading than the ostensible autobiography.

A novel peopled by well-to-do elderly folk and set in the 1950s cannot help but have a veneer of cosiness. Many of Spark’s novels written or set in this period do, whether she is writing about girls of slender means, genteel proponents of auto- biography, plump publishing assistants, or eccentric old ladies and their one-time companion maids. Veneer it is though, and what lies under the grain in Memento Mori is what matters. Jean Taylor, former maid to the once-famous novelist Charmian Colston (née Piper) and now incarcerated with eleven other ‘(aged people, female)’ in the Maud Long Medical Ward, says to a visitor that ‘Being over seventy is like being engaged in a war. All our friends are going or gone and we survive amongst the dead and dying as on a battlefield.’

Real life is different. In real life, for Charmian, and perhaps for Spark too, ‘Everything is in the
Providence of God’

Few members of the coterie of characters centring on Jean and eighty-five-year-old Charmian are so clear-sighted. The ability to acknowledge one’s own mortality with- out dismay is reserved for those who are Catholic; both women are, like Spark herself, converts. When, at the beginning of the novel, Charmian’s eighty-seven-year- old husband Godfrey hears that his sister Lettie has once more been victimised by the anonymous caller exhorting her to ‘Remember you must die’, he surmises: ‘He must be a maniac.’ Dame Lettie herself con- siders it ‘a great pity that flogging has been abolished’. Godfrey is much concerned with ‘faculties’ and their retention, and scornful of his wife’s erratically failing memory. Always ‘perfectly sensible’ when discussing her books, Charmian retains her novelist’s insight. She realises that her dementia has been the excuse Godfrey needed to take his revenge: ‘It was an instinctive reaction to the years of being a talented, celebrated woman’s husband, knowing himself to be reaping continually in her a harvest which he had not sown.’ As interest in her novels revives, Charmian’s brain sharpens and her physical health improves. ‘Godfrey, after all, was not a clever man,’ she muses, while plotting her escape from her husband and his bullying new housekeeper, Mrs Pettigrew, who wish to exert upon her ‘a firm hand’. Trust and betrayal are key themes here, as they would be in The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie, published just two years later.

Spark’s novels often feature a character who is a writer or publisher, somebody who seems to occupy a Spark-shaped space in the text. Charmian is a much more veiled example than, say, Fleur Talbot in Loitering with Intent, but retrospective autobiographical readings do present themselves: the jealous lover, the disappointing son. (Although, at the time of writing, she remained friendly with her ex-lover Derek Stanford, and was immensely proud of her son Robin.) More pertinent is Charmian’s belief that ‘the art of fiction is very like the practice of deception’, an idea that Spark circled around throughout her writing life. In these current days of insisting that the truth be found in art, it is interesting to read a portrait of an author firm in her belief that fiction is not in itself true, but offers instead an image of the truth. Real life is different. In real life, for Charmian, and perhaps for Spark too, ‘Everything is in the Providence of God’.

Whereas we’re told that many of Charmian’s novels consisted of people saying ‘touché’ to each other, Spark is known for the sharpness of her style. The narrator of Memento Mori is rovingly omniscient and wonderfully tough, a voice capable of observing Godfrey Colston standing there ‘arms dangling and legs apart, like a stage rustic’ as well as noting the way a visitor to Jean Taylor looks carefully at her eyes to determine ‘a continuing intelligence amongst the ruins’. Old age is full of indignities, and Spark’s characters are spared none of them. Jean Taylor, a woman ‘practised in restraint’, embraces the ‘desolate humiliation’ of the microcosm that is the Maud Long Ward as God’s will. She ‘did not hesitate, on one occasion when the nurse was dilatory, to wet the bed as the other grannies did so frequently’. The true horror to be feared is loss of control, and the loss of one’s identity that accompanies it. For the poet Guy Leet, this lies in the prospect of the physical incapacity to write. Looking ‘reproachfully’ at his hands, he decides they might be ‘good for perhaps another year’ in spite of the twisted fingers. ‘How primitive, Guy thought, life becomes in old age, when one may be surrounded by familiar comforts and yet more vulnerable to the action of nature than any young explorer at the Pole.’ The triumph of the writing is that Spark creates just enough space (and no more) for the dawning of empathy. The physical jeopardy of old age creates palpable tension, the young’s lack of comprehension or active contempt for the old is lacerating, and when actual violence comes, it shocks us to our core.

To say Spark is an incisive writer is true, but her technique is perhaps more akin to selecting a specimen with a pair of tweezers and splaying it on a petri dish for examination under a microscope. All flaws are magnified, any moral core identified or found wanting. If circumstances dictate, the specimen may then be discarded, like poor Mary McGregor in The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie, who would die running ‘back and forth along the corridors’ in a hotel fire. Sometimes Spark’s protagonists survive their novels and sometimes they don’t. It is giving little away to say that the body count in Memento Mori is high.

A novel about ageing and dying might be rather bleak, but Memento Mori sparkles with a constant, satisfying humour. There is a farcical funeral, the internecine fighting of the literati is recognisable and hilarious, and the black humour as dark as it comes. Jean Taylor recalls being in her fifties and taking a sudden turn into the woods while walking with her ex-lover Alec Warner. She reassures herself with the thought: ‘Were they not usually young women who were strangled in woods by sexual maniacs?’ On realising that the path is in fact an innocent short- cut, and ‘he was not contemplating murder with indecent assault’, Jean relaxes. ‘How things do, she thought, come and go through a woman’s mind.’ Uncomfortable tangles of sex and violence are a Spark trademark, and we can see in this a foreshadowing of Lise’s fate in The Driver’s Seat. The scene between Jean and Alec points to more fundamental concerns though. He takes Jean walking to pose one of the biggest questions to be grappled with: ‘Do you think, Jean, that other people exist?’ The evidence Jean offers fits perfectly with the novel’s title and themes. On coming to a graveyard, she says, ‘Why bother to bury people if they don’t exist?’

Alec’s existential considerations develop into a fervent amateur gerontology. As we might expect, his attempts to study old age into submission come to naught. A fire destroys his meticulous research, and although he himself is spared, the only comfort he is left with is to follow Cardinal Newman’s suggestion and associate himself with the illnesses and decline of his friends (as opposed to ‘the great Confessor Saints’): ‘What were they sick, what did they die of?’ The novel’s ending is masterful, exemplifying one of the greatest literary tricks that Spark employs: the ability to write in a way that can be called postmodern, or experimental, while never losing sight of the humanity at the core of the work. Within two brief paragraphs, our cast is reduced to a list of its ailments, its flesh sublimated into the wormy clay, and we are offered a striking and poignant metaphysical note on which to meditate as we close the book. The characters may have failed, but it is right that we should exercise our compassion towards them. Memento Mori is one of Spark’s best novels precisely because of how much is held in perfect balance: play and seriousness, entertainment and challenge, readable plot and postmodern derailment.

When the novel first appeared, it marked a pivotal point in Spark’s career. Her admirers Graham Greene and Evelyn Waugh loved it. It remained Greene’s favourite of all her novels, and Waugh thought it ‘singularly gruesome’. Tremendous critical success followed, in the UK at least. (The US took slightly longer to warm to her talents.) V.S. Naipaul reviewed it as ‘brilliant, startling and original’. Not bad for a work that Macmillan refused to contract until the manuscript was complete, and a vindication of Spark’s insistence that she would not welcome editorial input. She was forty-one years old, and at last earning enough from her writing to survive comfortably (and, indeed, to buy herself a diamond ring). She had published three novels within three years, and the advance for her next, The Ballad of Peckham Rye, doubled. It would soon be time to think of matters such as public image and the ideal conditions for the continued production of art.

Across such a glittering oeuvre as Spark’s, Memento Mori continues to stand out for the contemporary reader. Its structure and tone are pitch-perfect, and it has an uncanny knack for making us laugh while making us think. The two central female characters are wise, loveable and deeply memorable, if that is we are to be allowed to retain our memories. At the same time as being absolutely specific and of its period, it is universal. For what could be more timeless, more perennially disruptive to our psyches and more consoling than the counsel given by the anonymous caller throughout Memento Mori? And how would each of us answer, if we took the call and were told to remember we must die?

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SRB DIARY: On Fowles and Fowl

Something happened, a little before Christmas, that made me re-read, for the first time in forty years, John Fowles’s Daniel Martin. I didn’t entirely appreciate it first time round. The novel’s grown-upness lies in wait for you.

What I did remember, apart from Fowles’s brilliant manipulation of narrative persons, first and third, was his description of the Devon house, remembered from childhood, that Dan buys as a rural bolthole. That, and his use of ideas taken from Monsieur Nicholas, a fantastical multi-volume ‘autobiography’ by Restif de la Bretonne, one of those books that everyone should pretend at least once to have read. I got as far, before giving up, as Restif ’s description of la bonne vaux, an ideal place which seems like the outward projection of a peaceful and contented soul.

Daniel Martin’s Thorncombe is a little like the lost but recoverable domaine in Alain-Fournier’s Le Grand Meaulnes, or Samuel Palmer’s happy valley in Kent, or, with different emphasis, the sacred grove of Nemi in Muriel Spark’s The Takeover. Such places obsess me. I once contributed very happily to Rosemary Goring’s Larousse Dictionary of Literary Characters, and asked her, idly, if there was any hope of a gazetteer of imaginary places. There wasn’t, but I have my own hand-drawn version, collected over many years, glimpsed portals in real places of something ideal and strange and beyond the merely topographical. One was in Ireland, one was in rural Norfolk, one near Pluscarden, two in Argyll, where I grew up and still live.

Fowles gives his own version of Restif ’s bonne vaux, a place ‘outside the normal world, intensely private and enclosed, intensely green and fertile, numinous, haunted and haunting, dominated by a sense of magic that is also a sense of a mysterious yet profound parity in all existence’. The last part is, of course, as important as the more obvious first. What he means by parity is hard to pin down but absolutely of the essence, a recognition that such places obey a logic that simultaneously attracts and repels human presence and intervention. You can farm them, graze them, coppice them, fell them and photograph them, but they always escape you. They are not consecrated artworks like Ian Hamilton Finlay’s Little Sparta; they have nothing to do with ‘earth art’; they swallow up the human with disconcerting speed.

* * *

I live in a narrow glen, near the southern tip of Kintyre, though emphatically nowhere near ‘the Mull’, a term that has widened in usage to mean anything south of Tarbert. A few miles to the north is the cluster of farms owned by Paul McCartney. To the south, an island once owned by another bass player and singer, Jack Bruce. There are standing stones – the closest one now recumbent after a tractor skirmish that has brought the farmer nothing but ill luck – Iron Age sites and frequent reminders of Colum Cille’s military/missionary settlement. The nearest town has shrunk with the retreat of its traditional industries but south Kintyre is still an industrial landscape, scarred by monoculture forestry. It may be to blame for what happened.

At the north end of our house, a farm cottage which for a time was home and anchor to three Black Hermits and still bears a monastic name, there is a weedy field, stuck between a fierce slope and a fast-moving burn. At the end, the water pauses for a moment on a long, slow turn and the alders and ashes droop protectively over a tiny space – my happy valleys have steadily reduced in size and ambition over time – that seems separated from the outside world by an almost palpable barrier.

The air at its fringes seems to quake as you step through it. In season, the ground glows with oxalis and stitchwort or pale heather. It houses more nesting birds than would seem plausible according to any familiar territorial logic: chiffchaffs, grey wagtails, coal and long-tailed tits; its presiding deity a permanently vexed merlin who eyed visitors for a long second before dematerialising among the stems. It never seemed a holy space – there is a consecrated room by the house for that – nor does it seem fertile in any useable way. It simply is. Or rather was, for just before Christmas something took it all away, leaving nothing but a greasy hollow of red earth and roots, like an unearthed massacre site.

There were no crawler tracks around. What had happened was purely natural, a conspiracy between the clear-felled slopes above, which now let water flow unchecked, and a river that has been steadily swollen by steady winter rain. To see it gone, the little combe, was a shock and brought an immediate sense of loss. Fowles, though his book comes to something of a conclusion amid the monuments of Egypt and the ruins (even more ruined now) of Palmyra, offers nothing by way of consolation. His Thorncombe, in sometimes drab but always benign weather, is a place of settled continuity. This is confirmed by its incised dates, nearby graves and gentle modernisation. We know that it will not be torn away from Dan.

This is maybe where the gazetteer of imaginary places gives place again to the dictionary of fictional characters, for it becomes clear that Thorncombe is simply the anchor (in the other sense, as well) that holds Daniel Martin’s various selves together. The reference book in question makes no named mention of the various women in his life, wife, lover/ sister-in-law, daughter, lost mother, mistress, beneficent twins, which is perhaps a miscall since the book proposes that the self – which doesn’t need qualifications like ‘fictional’ or ‘authorial’ – only exists in contact with others, and not really at all with places.

Maybe that’s the lesson of the lost bonne vaux, a reminder that there is a certain ongoing injunction to turn back towards the human. It explains the colour of the burn as it passes the house like tired blood.

* * *

The day after the landslip, or at least the day after it was discovered, a young cormorant took up residence in the garden. It seems unfazed by finding itself so far from the sea, which is a mile away on three sides, or any other stretch of open water. It sits on our footbridge, on pathstones and sometimes on the roof, which explains the long white streaks that mark all three like travellers’ chalksigns. It is willing to have its photograph taken, but announces an end to posing with a yard-long jet of watery shit and a fractious yelp. We see it flying overhead, arrow-straight and determined, apparently disinclined to return to sea.

There’s no convincing help in folklore. Cormorants are either good luck symbols or heralds of the dead. Satan takes the form of one in Paradise Lost. A kinder bird hands Odysseus a buoyancy aid after his mast breaks. In Norway, the dead are allowed to visit their old homes, but only in the form of a cormorant.

How to read its presence? Whatever else, it adds to a certain Durrellish air around the place. Visitors who think they’re glimpsing an idyll are soon aware that the underlying reality is of a chaotic husbandry and an equilibrium maintained only by chainsaw and the frantic digging of field drains and soakaways. The newly arrived sometimes think they’ve landed on a Disney set or an out-take from Ace Ventura: Pet Detective. The old dog was buried just before Christmas, with sorrow and relief and an end-of-era atmosphere. But despite mink and fox attacks and a steady demand for chicken stock, the avian population seems to increase. Much imaginative effort goes into naming our domestic birds. There are four penned cockerels called Renton, Spud, Sick Boy and Begbie (you don’t **** around with Begbie), a gander and goose called Sid and Nancy (after Sid Vicious and Nancy Spungen), and most recent arrivals a ‘mixed’ flock of young birds that turns out to be distressingly unmixed and mostly male. For reasons that needn’t be spelled out in a family literary journal, they’re all named after notorious sex pests: so there’s a Rolf, a Harvey, a Travis, a Clinton . . . there was an undiscriminating Saville, but he was taken by a discriminating mink.

* * *

The birds in Daniel Martin tend to be singers, hidden away in the Devon vegetation, or else exotic specimens that seem to have taken flight from an Egyptian frieze. Fowles, a nicely deterministic name for an ornithologist, can never be accused of wearing his knowledgeability – or his reading – lightly. The novel bristles with references that one feels ought to be followed up, if only there were time. Yet its underlying message is that time moves both scarily faster and infinitely slower than we think, and leaves us bobbing in its wash, wishing a cormorant would come along with a magic girdle or that we could take on black feathers and revisit the places that we once loved and lost. Or maybe, as Dan finds, return to love rather than factitious invention.

I still visit the ruined domaine every day. It still gives out an air of wrecked magic, but its privacy – or mine – has been ripped away and washed downstream, leaving behind an echo of mystery but also, more important, a sense of ‘parity in all existence’.

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Endangered Species

The essay is an attractive option for addressing a huge range of subjects in a kind of prose that may be casual and simple, or scientific, ornate or allusive. It has no rules. It is demotic or rhetorical, compact or discursive, or all of these. Its only requirement is, as the word suggests – from the French essayer, to try or attempt – that it might take risks, experiment, have a go.

Despite the attractions of this most supple literary form, until recently the fashion for writing essays had dwindled. Regardless of the ongoing popularity of the form in the United States, arguably begun as a way of examining what it was to be a citizen of a brand new world, it wasn’t picked up and used here as a mirror to show the nature of a country and its inhabitants in a way that might have been useful. While the New Yorker and the Atlantic magazines offered essays alongside fiction and poetry, journalism and reportage, thus contributing to national debate and understanding, in Scotland, despite, one might think, the need for that kind of writing, we’ve been slow to pick up the essay as a way of probing who we are.

The situation is changing, though. The Scottish editor and writer Dan Gunn, based in Paris, has created ‘The Cahiers Series’ which champions a kind of writing that is free-falling, open-ended and as go-anywhere in mood as the essay’s founder, Michel de Montaigne, loved to be. Closer to home, the Saltire Society has generated its own support for essays through their regular printing as separate, easily available publications, though more linked to a national agenda than Gunn’s. In England, Notting Hill Editions, set up with the single purpose of publishing essays, offers contemporary work by British and international writers, promotes a biennial international prize, and rehabilitates essays that have fallen out of print with introductions by well-known writers and critics.

Here, we may not have a publishing house dedicated solely to essays, but we do have a writer, internationally acclaimed, who writes essays and essays alone. Chris Arthur has been describing himself as an essayist since the publication of his first collection of meditations and reflections on landscape and identity, Irish Nocturnes, in 1999. Since then he has brought out four further volumes of work featuring his particular take on the world. To understand what he means by the large questions that underpin each of his forays into the unknown – about mortality, time, the significance of individual lives, the links in the chain of family and shared human inheritance – Arthur breaks each theme into parts. In ‘Mistletoe’ in his last volume, Words of the Grey Wind, he wrote about his mother by writing about the swing she used to play on as a girl. ‘Looking back, I can see her dappled with light as the sunshine falls upon her through the leaves. The weight of her body, and the backwards and forwards motion of the swing, send tremors through the tree.’ In turn he places her childhood within the frame of old age as he also sees the way the shaking branches shower petals upon her dark hair that seem to turn it white.

Reading Life, like the earlier work, zigzags from recent experiences to return to old subjects, letting ideas occur to him as he goes. Arthur doesn’t limit himself, as do so many writers of non-fiction, to what might be fashionable or relevant or shocking or entertaining. He follows the line of his own pen, and in so doing releases them into a universal perspective. So, glimpsing smashed fuchsia blossom on wet tarmac becomes ‘a glimpse of alternative destinies’, flinging him back, not only to the memory of a past love affair but into a world ‘changed’ by flowers, as he researches the work of fellow essayist Loren Eiseley and his work on the colonization of flora, ‘the weight’, as he puts it, ‘of a petal’. Arthur may seem to be being diverted in his various wanderings that come under headings like ‘Memory Sticks’ and ‘Breath’, as he picks up fresh insights and veers off into detail, but ‘seem’ is the key word here. Beneath the fizz and dance of memory and imagination that play so beautifully across his pages, is the single idea which is at heart, a devotional one. Pay attention, the essays say. Be still. This life all around us is larger, more mysterious than we are. Let us take our place within it.

In each of these pieces we hear that note sounding – like a prayer – along with the writer’s own voice, catching a sensibility that is measured and particular, self conscious and wry and… decent. There’s nothing here that doesn’t claim Arthur’s attention, get any more or less of his concentration, than any other. Whether looking at footsteps in the snow in ‘Tracks’ to a consideration of Nobel Laureate Seamus Heaney in ‘Coincidences, Graces, Gift…’, each essay is granted the same level of active scrutiny. And there’s always a surprise. In ‘Sonatina for Oboe and Bayonet’ we have the unexpected consideration of a terrible weapon kept in a bottom drawer that he pulls out to show his daughter while she in reading All Quiet on the Western Front for school. ‘What’s a bayonet, Dad?’ his daughter has asked him, and after describing it in words, ‘It’s a long knife fitted to the end of a rifle’, he shows her ‘how to draw the blade and slide it back into its metal scabbard.’ This is the kind of prose that moves from words to things with a modernist’s understanding of form that creates its own time-scale for a subject, that is not afraid to pose questions that may go unanswered, that is knowing about the risks it takes. Why don’t more of us know more about this particular, extraordinary writer?

Certainly they know about him in America. There, where the yearly collections Best American Essays and Pushcart Prize for Essays are accompanied by much literary attention, and where great essay editors such as Philip Lopate and Robert Atwan have championed the form as of equal importance to American public life as the so-called American novel, Arthur’s work has been fêted. He’s been twice nominated for the Pushcart, and is continuously included in those shortlisted collections, as well as all the best magazines. Here, however, he continues to have to seek out publishers. Perhaps that is about to change, because Reading Life is a showcase of an essayist at the top of his game. Though each of his pieces is highly crafted and finished, they have a tentative, contingent quality to them that leaves them hanging in the air long after our reading. ‘Fragments are interesting precisely because of where they might fit in,’ Arthur writes, prompting us to look again at the moment, the detail, the now, to place the texts of what we know against the grand erratic pattern of things. In a haiku by Kobayashi Issa that he returns to throughout this volume, he quotes, ‘What a strange thing/To be thus alive/Beneath the cherry blossoms!’ Reading Life in its very title suggests the same relationship of the self to nature – obvious and surprising at the same time.

Taken together, the collection reads as though freshly put down in the moment of thinking. Yet upon closer examination it has all the features of that innate patterning Arthur sees underlying our human experience and the natural world. The final essay alludes to an unborn child, engaged in a kind of ‘aboriginal’ reading that happens in the womb, beginning a ‘thirst for reading deep-salted in our veins’. It’s an image that speaks to the very first piece in the book that also alludes to the child’s journey through life, youth and age a theme that plays out in various registers across all the essays here. By the time we come to the end we have not only read our way through a series of reflections of a particular life and ‘those wonderful and surprising insights that come only from an inspired divided attention’ as Atwan puts it, we are also in another world of our own, where, as Arthur has written, the ‘fractions of existence that happen to catch my interest’ have caught ours as well.

There are times, however, when we want him to risk a bit more of that particularity. Go back to that bayonet, for example, and ask why it is is that he might own such a thing, would keep in a bottom drawer to bring out to show a child? It’s dangerous, the something lurking here, but not quite dangerous enough. ‘How close might oboe and bayonet sometimes be.’ he writes, regarding the steel blade and what it’s been used for, while classical music plays in the background – and we find ourselves wanting him to let his writing style, discursive and open in so many ways, go off track a bit more here, instead of being tied back to an original question about the nature of his daughter’s reading and the emergent themes of good and evil in the world. We see his young daughter hold it, ‘as long as her arm held straight form wrist to shoulder’, and it’s a marvellous moment of hesitation and horror, of revelation along with restraint – a kind of deeply Protestant management of the syzygies of good and evil, right and wrong, the split-selving that hounds the sensibility of post-reformation Scotland and Northern Ireland, where Arthur was born. ‘I suspect we harbour all manner of disturbing contiguities within us,’ he finishes, seeming to hold the two in balance. But can he, really? Can we?

Essays are great for allowing ambivalence, of course. Though the term has become associated all too often with the grim exigencies of exams and assessment, the reality of the form is that it means the opposite of pass or fail. Essays aren’t really about results, as such, at all. When Tom Kremer, founder of Notting Hill Editions, decided he wanted to publish essays only, he did so because ‘the essay has no obligation to have the last word’. The flexibility, the uncertainty of outcome, entwined with a kind of writing that is fine-grained in texture, that gives itself time and space to develop and expand on the page – this might be described as true creative writing. And who better to draw upon for expertise and advice in this shifting, beautifully amorphous form? To read life, as Reading Life suggests we might learn to do, we need first to wait, listen, watch. Only then can we write.

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Doctors of Philosophy

The opening of Muriel Spark’s only play, Doctors of Philosophy, is sufficiently and deceptively familiar to mislead readers and spectators, but it quickly swerves away to transport them into the distinctive landscape and mindscape inhabited by Spark’s characters, a territory where nothing is quite straightforward and where the dialogue has resonances deeper than the actual statements.

The setting is precise. The stage directions inform us that ‘the Delfonts live in a house overlooking the Regent’s Canal’, and further that ‘the whole play takes place in the living room and on the adjoining terrace’. Nothing seemingly challenging, uncomfortable, exotic or avant-garde there. The audience can relax in the expectation of an undemanding comedy of manners, for this seems quintessentially bourgeois territory. The structure is the conventional three-play format, neatly divided into scenes, and people on stage are members of the extended Delfont family, locked into each others’ company. They talk and talk, entertainingly enough, sometimes woundingly, sometimes bafflingly, but there is on the surface little to threaten any disturbance. Works by Noel Coward or Terence Rattigan could well be being acted out in neighbouring property on the same street, an impression heightened when a woman called Catherine ‘enters from the terrace, through the French windows’. It would be easy to anticipate her asking ‘Anyone for tennis?’ or ‘Time for tiffin?’

Catherine, of course, says no such thing. She is looking for her cousin, Leonora, a Noel Cowardish sort of name, and while she initially declares that she wants no more than to invite her ‘to come and look at the canal’, her aims are more superficially bizarre and more profoundly idiosyncratic. Catherine thinks that Leonora should look at the water ‘as it isn’t term time’. She explains herself: ‘I quite see that during term a thing like the Regent’s Canal would be an idea to Leonora, it would be a geo graphical and historical and sociological idea, but during vacation I do think Leon ora ought to take a look at reality.’ Catherine is convinced that her husband, Charlie, who is seated at his desk engrossed in some academic research, has not been paying heed, so she makes him repeat her words, which he more or less does. ‘Leonora ought to look at reality,’ he dutifully intones, but Catherine insists on the qualifying time frame, ‘during the vacation’.

These words are warning blasts to let the audience know they have passed through the looking-glass. This is not after all the drawing room as Coward or Rattigan knew it, and the reality under observation is more evanescent and disembodied. The attitudes, the discussions, the questions tossed about in conversation are of a different order from those discussed in bourgeois comedy, but the play is in fact a comedy whose humour and wit are sharper, more brittle, more chic and smart than anything in Coward, who was under a cloud in 1962 when Spark’s play received its only performance in London. There are various tides in theatre, but no ebb or flow at that time could have carried Doctors of Philosophy with it. Coward was out because John Osborne was still in. The bitter rawness expected of theatre had been established in 1956 with Look Back in Anger. In 1962 Osborne’s Luther moved to the West End, Arnold Wesker’s Chips with Everything was staged at the Royal Court while Edward Bond’s Saved was given a one-night reading. These were strange bed fellows for Spark’s work, which aroused the enthusiasm of Grahame Greene, Evelyn Waugh and Doris Lessing. That should have been enough to override the tepid indifference of the official reviewers, although here too there were exceptions carried in the blurb of the published edition (Macmillan, 1963). The Financial Times expressed the hope that ‘if she wishes to, Miss Spark (could) become the begetter of a style of high comedy in the modern manner’.

She wrote no other plays in any style, modern or other, although some of her novels, most notably The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie, have effortlessly transferred to the stage or screen. The crispness of her dialogue, the complexity of the intrigue, the mysteriousness of her characters, the depiction of moral dilemmas make adaptation desirable and feasible, and she displays these qualities in her play, which is very much in the intellectual and spiritual style which is distinctively Spark’s. How should one look at reality, and is it different in term time or in vacation time, as the question is put in the opening exchanges? Do humans view things differently in different phases, and what is reality anyway? Do we create it by the way we observe it? Alan Bold, in his perceptive study of the writer, notes a resemblance to the philosophical world view of Luigi Pirandello, and indeed the convergence with, if not the influence of, a Pirandellian notion of elusive truth, of shifting personality, of the uncertain boundaries between appearance and reality is unmissable.

These characters here have found their author, and Spark will not let them forget that they are in a drama. In Spark’s first novel The Comforters, Caroline Rose has the disconcerting feeling of being a character in a fiction, not an autonomous human being. She may of course be unbalanced, since the dividing line between sanity and insanity is as fragile as it is in Pirandello, but she believes she hears a typewriter beating out the words she is about to speak or has just spoken. In Doctors of Philosophy the characters are intermittently aware of their status as players on a set, and an unstable one at that. They have to help construct the scenery before the second scene of Act 11 can get under way, and later Annie, Leonora’s cousin, congratulates her on a decision to ‘stage her climax on the terrace’ since that is safer than the canal. Leonora will have none of it. She shakes a tall pillar and the terrace wall which both move, and tells Annie that this instability ‘blows all (her) theories to hell’. She goes on to announce that ‘the scenery is unreliable. Some people know that by instinct, they take it for granted’. The author may know it by instinct, or may have learned it when she became a Catholic, but she is out to question the reliability of things.

The reality topic recurs in the conversation between the people who are the drama. ‘Reality is very alarming at first, and then it becomes interesting,’ says Leonora, turning to the charwoman, to enquire ‘are you interested in the nature of reality, Mrs S?’ Mrs S. replies, ‘Very, I’m trying to give it a polish as you can see,’ a reply which is comic but not because of the waspish common sense of the down-to-earth Englishwoman who will not stand airy-fairy intellectual non sense. Mrs S. is a striking comic creation because she overturns what is expected of her class, and can be as intellectual as her upper-crust employers. She knows the years of the editions of Yeats’ poetry and can reprimand her employers if they fail to meet her expectations, as they frequently do. ‘Poor Leonora don’t get away with much, she can’t sit around all morning looking like the Caliph of Bagdad’s favourite Christian,’ she remarks.

Questions of reliability and reality are raised by the central incident of the plot which may have actually taken place in the drawing room, or may be merely a dream. Leonora dismays the family circle by coming up to Charlie late at night and whispering to him, ‘Charlie, give me a child, before it’s too late.’ There is no adulterous triangle emerging. Leonora is not Lady Chatterley nor is Charlie a Casanova. His response is English embarrassment and he rushes to inform his wife, Catherine, while Leonora denies the tale and says Charlie must have been dreaming. Dream or reality? She is not a liar, neither is he. Reality is fluid or unknowable. There is a tape recording, which plays back both voices, but evidence is useless for resolving problems of that depth.

The family are caricature academics, a caste of human being which notoriously inhabits a dimension remote from material reality. Old Charlie, so called to distinguish him from the other two Charlies who appear, is an economist who churns out articles which will remain unread and unappreciated outside his own circle but which are sufficiently highly esteemed inside it to guarantee his promotion. He is also a miser of a type recognizable from traditions of comedy in any language. Leonora also has a PhD and has just completed a two-year research project on Assyrian paleography, only to be told by her cousin Annie that new archaeological discoveries, reported in that day’s press, have blown her research to hell. Leonora is not as disconcerted by the ruin of her work as others assumed she would be.

Catherine, Old Charlie’s wife, feels excluded. She too has a PhD and Leon ora had usurped her with her research into ancient Assyrian culture, for this had been Catherine’s field before she settled for married life and a job teaching in a mere grammar school, not a university. She keenly feels the absence of something both her cousins have, ‘a dramatic sense of myself ’, but she is too honest to cultivate it. ‘It’s stark reality for me, every time,’ she moans, to which Leonora makes the retort, ‘What kind of reality? Everyday life?’ What Leonora has is ‘a definite sense of being watched, of being observed and listened to by an audience, an invisible audience.’ Daphne, the Delfonts’ daughter, intervenes to tell Leonora that this might be ‘the beginning of something like religious mania. There’s a type of religious mania where the patients are beset by a terrible sense of being watched.’

The question at one level debated is whether the sense of being observed is a neurosis or a symptom of the sense of the numinous. Muriel Spark’s work is imbued with precisely that Catholic consciousness of the transcendent, the belief that external reality is flimsy – another of Leonora’s bon mots – and that there is another dimension to life. The more sensitive, or the more neurotic, of the Delfonts grope towards that sense. They articulate their views inadequately, because this is a comedy and maybe life is a comedy. The characters are comic, their speech is humorous, their attitudes often grotesque, their behaviour odd, and they inhabit a fallen, post-edenic world. One of the writers who most influenced Spark was Cardinal Newman, who saw the world in those terms.

Other dilemmas have to be acted out, in every sense of the word. Daphne has formed with young Charlie a relationship which is rendered awkward by the fact that he is a nuclear physicist engaged on some top secret project while she is a ban-the-bomber who is proud of being arrested in the company of Bertrand Russell. When she finds she is pregnant, she refuses to marry him, until her mother devises a ruse which has him seemingly attempt to take his own life by drowning in the canal, only to be saved by the third Charlie, a lorry driver who had been brought into the group, and who carries in the dripping but still breathing body of young Charlie. But had he thrown himself into the water, or was this a dramatic ruse operated by Catherine to bring Daphne and young Charlie back together?
Of course everything in this play is contrived, and that is the point, but if it is always intriguing it requires an unusual level of suspension of disbelief. Perhaps that is the only way to arrive at belief, real belief.

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For Those In Peril

You have almost certainly never heard of the Tuscania. Nor another liner, the Otranto. I certainly had not. Yet, in 1918 and as the Great War wound up to its denouement, both these British troopships – laden with hundreds of American conscript soldiers – went down, and with great loss of life; even more eerily, and but months apart, they sank off the west coast of Islay, where the compounded tragedy is still grimly recalled.

Between them, at least seven hundred men were drowned and the Tuscania casualties were, in fact, the very first American losses in the First World War, linking – often for the rest of their lives – grieving families, the breadth of the United States, with appalled crofters on the ‘Queen of the Hebrides,’ for Islay – further south than Edinburgh and nearer Ireland than Glasgow – is the most fertile of them all.

Her people come out best in Les Wilson’s narrative – a gripping page-turner of an account, unsparing in the horrors of these catastrophes and the author’s exhaustive research most evident on every page. Islay in 1918 was home to some 6,000 people – twice her population today – eighty-percent of whom were Gaelic-speaking and the mass of them in a hardscrabble subsistence economy. Yet her men, youths and even some young women went, in the aftermath of both disasters, to heroic lengths in hauling terrified young men from the sea. They gave up their homes, their beds, all the food and drink at their disposal and in not a few instances the very clothes they wore for their distraught guests. And, when it came to the first mass-burials in temporary graveyards overlooking the breakers of tragedy, a squad of Islay women stayed up till two in the morning, having scoured the island for fabric of the necessary colours and consulted an encyclopaedia for the detail, sewing a flag of the United States so that the lost – most of them very young – could be borne to their rest by its dignity. Meanwhile, several of their men toiled all night long to make coffins.

Particular honour must be paid to the island’s only police sergeant, Malcolm MacNeil, who with his three constables, and without motor-transport or telephone and on both occasions, ‘had to organise the rescues, the handling of survivors, the recovery and cataloguing of the dead, the recording of events and the communications from and to the legions of top brass who eventually descended on the scenes of those disasters…’

Wilson is at his best in his set-piece descriptions of both horrors. The Tuscania was a direct casualty of war, torpedoed by UB-77 – under the command of Wilhelm Meyer – on 5th February 1918 as the liner’s convoy entered the fraught ‘North Channel,’ between Rathlin Island off the Antrim coast and the Mull of Oa and where U-boats were wont to lurk. The Otranto, by contrast, was lost by blunder – accidentally rammed by another troopship, the Kashmir, on Sunday 6 October, so close to the Rhinns of Islay that sheep and cattle could be clearly seen grazing ashore – and which the Otranto’s officers, quite disorientated by hurricane conditions, fatefully mistook for the Irish coast while her master was off the bridge.

Though many aboard the Otranto were able to leap to the safety of a doughty destroyer, HMS Mounsey, under the intrepid command of Lieutenant Francis W Craven – almost six hundred men, including future Holywood star Buster Keaton – dozens more were killed in the trying; and, of the six hundred or so still aboard the Otranto when she finally disintegrated on an Islay reef, only seventeen would survive. Such waste of life on account of incompetent navigators is bad enough; but it is hard not to agree with Wilson that many were lost with the Tuscania who might readily have been saved. The blasted ship, after all, somehow stayed afloat for nearly three hours and destroyers were soon on hand to effect rescue.

Furious American officers blamed her British crew, many of whom did not attend their assigned life-boat launching stations and too many of whom cut stays in a panic, tumbling laden boat after laden boat into the sea and leaving their davits thereafter useless. Unfortunately, the mass of evidence supports the American account, though Wilson does rightly point out that by February 1918 the Merchant Navy had been through much and the nerves of many Tuscania crew (not a few of them the survivors of earlier U-Boat sinkings) were shot to ribbons. But, as one survivor noted, no advantage had been taken by the Americans of a day’s lay-over at Halifax, Nova Scotia, to conduct a lifeboat drill, nor had men been given any training in the provisions and equipment of a life-boat, how to ignite distress-flares and so on.

The American Red Cross, at least, learned much from its stumbles in the aftermath of the calamity, greatly improved its British Isles organisation and, as Wilson details, met the needs of Otranto survivors with extraordinary speed and abundant stores of provender, cigarettes and dry clothing. Wilson’s detailed description of each disaster is masterful and at times most raw. ‘The Kashmir’s bow had gouged its way into the sick bay,’ he writes laconically of the damned Otranto, ‘killing many patients outright. US Army doctor Captain Charles Dixon recalled: “One of our soldiers had his right foot mashed clear off at the ankle, and three non-commissioned officers in a state room were killed…”’

Outwith such drama, Wilson’s prose has at times its longueurs. In describing the broader meta-narrative of the Great War, he relies too much on the dated and largely discredited 1930 analysis of Basil Liddell-Hart.The modern scholarship of Gary Sheffield, Gordon Corrigan and Dan Todman in allaying assorted and barnacled First World War myths the author appears not to have read. The Drowned and the Saved seems not to have enjoyed professional edit – certainly, no one is credited for one – and there is some windy repetition and the odd careless mistake. Vera Brittan, in 1918, was not ‘the mother of the politician Baroness Shirley Williams’. On page 4 we are assured that Islay ‘wasn’t connected to mainland electricity until 1965’, but later, on page 76, are then blithely told ‘Islay did not have mains electricity until 1949’.

George Robertson, sometime estimable Scottish Labour politician and a grandson of Sergeant Malcolm MacNeill, could have been vividly interviewed in the body of the book; instead, he has been made to contribute a ponderous foreword, which reads rather, as all such forewords do, like a duke dropping in on his chauffeur’s wedding and is capped by a postscript of all his honours incongruous in this solemn context.

The peer is besides described on the cover as ‘Lord George Robertson of Port Ellen,’ which he is not, and which usage would have Debrett’s in conniptions; and the book’s sub-title, ‘When War came to the Hebrides’ seems a bit off when one remembers the thousands and thousands of islanders who rallied to the colours or the many graves, in Hebridean cemeteries, dedicated only to ‘A Sailor of the Great War – Known Unto God’.

The biggest problem in Wilson’s book is a lack of immediacy. It is not his fault that he came just too late to this story to meet any who could personally remember – as survivors of the sinkings, or residents of Islay – these frightful events. The Great War has, after all, now quite slid from living memory. But there is nothing to root his prose even in our own time, despite chances – such as his encounters with coastguards, RNLI men and other professional witnesses – vividly to do so: all are quoted in past, reported speech, without colour or setting.

The Drowned and the Saved is nevertheless full of heart, and with an eye for tart detail as to the priorities and prejudices of the age it describes. Of the 160 Otranto victims given burial on Islay, only her master and two American officers were afforded coffins. Until very recently, the headstone of one British casualty read – unacceptably – ‘Unknown Negro/SS TUSCANIA/5th February 1918/Known Unto God’. It has since properly been replaced with one making no reference to his race. And we even learn that Lieutenant Craven of the Mounsey – evidently unable, like so many highly-strung heroes, to handle peacetime life on Civvy Street – joined the infamous Auxiliary Division of the Royal Irish Constabulary and was gunned down, in a firefight with the IRA, in 1921.

Islay, of course, had sacrificed many of her own sons to the Great War for Freedom and Honour, and by the Armistice some 203 had paid with their lives. Ongoing grief in the community undoubtedly underpinned their sacrificial compassion for the chilled and sodden survivors of these disasters, as James Jeffers of the American Red Cross would leave on record in the wake of the Otranto foundering and the scant survivors making Islay landfall – ‘Mr MacPhee, though 68 years of age with his wife carried the men up the rough road to the little cottage over a mile away. They accomplished the journey with the men on their backs, and having taken them to the humble cottage did all they could to make our men comfortable, even turning out of their rooms and sleeping ten nights in a barn near their home…’

‘When we got to their cottage,’ one American, David Roberts, gratefully recalled, ‘they gave us dry clothing and put us to bed. It sure was fine, two pairs of woollen blankets. The people there could not have treated us any better.’ Sixty years later, in 1978, Mr Roberts made his last visit to Islay and – as well as paying his respects to the tall American Monument, high on the Mull of Oa – spent some silent minutes at the spot where he had come gasping ashore, and then more by the grave of his Hebridean hosts.

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Wooing Jimmy

A few years ago, when the Scottish National Party was still riding high in the polls, I was chatting to a thoughtful Nationalist about the party’s tendency to co-opt figures from the Labour movement. I mentioned the former Scottish Trades Union Congress president Campbell Christie, who had passed away in 2011. My companion didn’t contradict me, indeed he declared with some ferocity that SNP ought to be ‘raiding the tombs’ even more extensively.

There had been quite a bit of tomb raiding during the long 2012-14 referendum campaign, turbo-charged by the Yes campaign’s desire to win converts from Labour-voting Scots. At one point, the then First Minister Alex Salmond claimed Robert Burns as a Yesser, while there was a long-running spat over whether Sir Walter Scott was a Nationalist or Unionist. It was all a bit ridiculous, not to mention tasteless.

‘The tradition of all dead generations weighs like a nightmare on the brains of the living,’ proclaimed Karl Marx in The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte. ‘And… precisely in such epochs of revolutionary crisis they anxiously conjure up the spirits of the past to their service, borrowing from them names, battle slogans, and costumes in order to present this new scene in world history in time-honored disguise and borrowed language.’

The late Jimmy Reid would doubtless have been familiar with that quotation and, ironically, in this new biography by the former SNP politician Kenny MacAskill, it is his spirit that’s conjured up to bolster the contemporary independence movement. What the iconic trade unionist, Communist and journalist would have made of this we’ll never know, but that MacAskill thinks it important to try is worthy of examination. Subtitled ‘A Scottish Political Journey’, his biography makes much of Reid’s transition from the Communist Party of Great Britain in his youth to the Scottish National Party in the autumn of his years. So, while it has all the hallmarks of a conventional biography, indeed a perfectly readable account of his life and times, it also serves a political purpose. Its author, after all, was once a politician – most notably Scotland’s Justice Secretary – and this, therefore, is a deeply political book. MacAskill’s aim is to demonstrate that the SNP are the true heirs to Red Clydeside, the Independent Labour Party, Jimmy Reid himself, and that, furthermore, only an independent Scotland might achieve the socialism/social democracy/communism (it’s never entirely clear which) that the book’s subject desired.

Does MacAskill succeed? First, the book as biography. Reid is a good subject, a big man with, one assumes, a big story to tell, yet for some reason A Scottish Political Journey never quite rises to the occasion. As readers of the author’s occasional Herald column will be aware, he writes like he speaks, staccato-style and punctuated with often rather old-fashioned phraseology. This is fine for a tub-thumping political speech (and MacAskill, like Reid, was good at those) but on the page it quickly grates. Stories, MacAskill tells us, ‘abound’ as, alas, do clichés: political seeds are ‘sown’, feelings are ‘burned deep’ in his protagonist’s ‘soul’, by-elections (Hamilton, 1967) cause a ‘political earthquake’, ‘storm clouds’ gather (over, for example, British ship-building), while Reid’s famous Rectorial election makes ‘headlines both near and far’. Later, our hero stares ‘defeat in the face’. There’s lots of general history, padding (election results, for example, and potted biographies of socialist politicians Reid never met) and little indication of deep or original research. Chapter headings are overly literal while banal passages lumber virtually every page. ‘Despite the trenchant views he held and the robustness of debates he could participate in,’ writes MacAskill, ‘Jimmy always had time for ordinary people.’ The book is also repetitive. Several times (in a single chapter) we are told that Reid was, in the opinion of many, ‘the best MP Scotland never had’. Better editing might have helped: one paragraph even opens and closes with the unlovely phrase ‘openly sectarian and neo-fascist’. Having said all that, for those wanting a sympathetic outline of Reid’s multi-faceted career, it’s not a complete dud.

What, then, of the book’s political argument? Early on, MacAskill notes the presence of former SNP leader Alex Salmond at Reid’s funeral and, later, his role in persuading him to join the party. It has often been said that Salmond didn’t ‘do’ strategy, being a mere tactician, a bit of a gambler. Many things are true of him but that isn’t one of them: any detailed examination of his career reveals a willingness to take time over initiatives he considered important. His engagement, for example, with Scotland’s Asian and Catholic communities unfolded over more than a decade, as did his personal relationships. As SNP leader, Salmond worked on Jimmy Reid for years.

And he needed to, for as MacAskill explains, Reid had once been a ‘trenchant’ critic of the SNP, most strongly in the 1960s when he was ‘scathing’ about the party for denying any conflict between classes in Scotland. ‘Jimmy found the SNP position,’ he writes, ‘both unacceptable and unrealistic for the challenges of the age.’ At the time, adds MacAskill elsewhere, the party ‘sought to appeal to all classes and ignored the divide between the interests of capital and labour that Jimmy was rooted in’. At this point, Reid was unwilling to compromise either his socialism or his ‘unwavering’ support for a Scottish Parliament and indeed MacAskill appears to sympathize with him in this regard, casually describing Clement Attlee’s government ‘moving too far to the right’ in the late 1940s (in what way is left unexplained) while, in the following decade, we’re informed that the Soviet invasion of Hungary has ‘to be seen in context of the time’.

Reid remained suspicious of the allthings-to-all-men SNP right through the 1970s, which is understandable given the party’s ‘relentless’ attacks on him and his ‘communist background’ when he contested both the February and October 1974 general elections on behalf of the Labour Party. In the 1980s, meanwhile, Reid puts his faith in Neil Kinnock, but that doesn’t last very long, for Kinnock wasn’t very interested in devolution and that, in Reid’s view, was non-negotiable. And so, alongside his continuing media work (which MacAskill explores in one of his better chapters), Reid’s ‘journey on a Scottish road to socialism began’.

That assertion, it has to be said, assumes rather a lot, chiefly that devolution in itself was somehow going to lead to socialism in one country, and also that the SNP – the eventual end point of Reid’s ‘journey’ – was a socialist party. Both are highly problematic, yet MacAskill only rarely indulges in nuance or deeper analysis of these points. There is only black and white, no biographical shades of grey. Indeed, the chapter entitled ‘Steps on the Scottish Road’ sets out an orthodox Nationalist account of 1980s Scottish political history. The election of Mrs Thatcher in May 1979, naturally, represents a ‘bitter blow’ to Reid and ‘much of Scotland’ (except the near third who voted for the Scottish Conservatives). All the standard myths are recycled, including it ‘becoming evident that a Scottish Parliament was needed to protect Scottish society and its economy’ (despite any contemporary scheme excluding significant economic devolution), Thatcherism (despite its origins at St Andrews University) being ‘an alien political culture’ imposed on Scotland. And so on. MacAskill even claims the SNP was later perceived as ‘the party most associated with the restored Scottish Parliament’, an astonishing assertion given it had (along with the Scottish Tories) formally opposed the idea between 1979 and the 1997 referendum, only belated jumping on the devolutionary bandwagon.

But then the point of all these broadbrush strokes is obvious, for otherwise Reid’s eventual membership of the SNP looks rather odd. Unsurprisingly, Reid is later ‘disgusted’ by the direction taken by Tony Blair’s New Labour and ‘appalled by the Iraq War’. But despite attempts by the newly-formed Scottish Socialist Party to enlist Reid – and they’d have provided a more obvious home than the SNP – he’s instead ‘wooed’ by the ‘charming and charismatic’ Alex Salmond, with whom he bonded over a ‘shared love of politics and horse racing’. The ‘ever-audacious’ Salmond even sends Reid a party membership card on his seventieth birthday.

Here the essential weakness of MacAskill’s analysis becomes apparent. The ‘progressive stance’ of the SNP under Salmond, he writes, had begun to appeal to Reid, for ‘the party was a substantially different entity to the one that Jimmy had criticized so caustically in the past’. Really? Perhaps sensing he’s on shaky intellectual ground, MacAskill adds a caveat: ‘It may not have been the socialist party that he had hoped for in ruminations years before, but of the options available, it was the one to which he was becoming most sympathetic.’

Reid’s conversion to organized nationalism took place between 2004-05, the point at which Salmond made his dramatic comeback as SNP leader and at the height of what might be called his ‘neoliberal’ phase. In a series of lectures at Strathclyde University, Salmond had recently articulated his enthusiasm for the ‘Laffer Curve’ – the idea that tax cuts can increase revenue while dramatically reducing Corporation Tax – was the basis of his ‘economic case for independence’. This was socialism, but not as we know it. Therefore, Reid’s public statements to the effect that Salmond was ‘a man of the Left, a natural social democrat’ have to be taken with a large pinch of salt, more a testament to Salmond’s considerable gifts of persuasion than any deep ideological connection. With unintentional honesty, MacAskill writes that the SNP ‘were eager to parade their star new recruit’. Salmond gushed that Reid was ‘a man true to his principles and those of the labour movement’, ‘traditional Scottish values’ now upheld by the SNP.

‘His membership of the SNP was not a road-to-Damascus-conversion,’ observes MacAskill, ‘but simply the route that offered the best path to social and economic progress for Scottish people.’ He later repeats this assertion, describing independence as the ‘way to achieve a socialist society’. Then the dénouement: although Reid didn’t live to see the 2014 referendum, he would have supported it ‘vigorously had he still been alive’ (although elsewhere MacAskill seems less certain, saying he ‘would almost certainly have supported a Yes vote had he lived’).

A Scottish Political Journey ends with a blizzard of election results, mainly intended to shore up the argument that the SNP had supplanted Labour as Scotland’s natural party of government. Fleeting mention is made of Jeremy Corbyn and the 2017 general election, which rather undermines MacAskill’s point, although he tries to get around this by saying the Labour Party in Scotland still ‘seemed a much paler imitation of their London socialist colleagues’ (the book was published before the election of left-winger Richard Leonard).

‘Would Jimmy have been persuaded to return to his roots by the more socialist programme of Jeremy Corbyn’s Labour Party?’ asks MacAskill. ‘Or would he have stayed with the SNP’, despite it being ‘far from the red-blooded socialist party Jimmy sought’? It’s an interesting question, but one the author does not convincingly answer.

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