Monthly Archives: February 2018


The Debatable Land

When I was a school boy in the Scottish Border town of Galashiels, the block of flats next door to us was reserved for members of the local police force. There were six flats in total, a generous allotment for a smallish town with a low crime rate. I could almost count the minutes before an officer appeared to warn me about hitting golf balls across Victoria Park in defiance of a sign that expressly prohibited the practice.

In retrospect, the routine nature of the Gala beat may explain why some of our neighbours had interesting extra-constabulary duties. An occupant of the ‘police flats’, for instance, used his spare time to keep a watching brief over the land south of his home town of Newcastleton. On one occasion, his son and I joined him on his perambulation. We eventually came to a fence traversed by a stile and he told us that if we stood on either side of it we would have one foot in Scotland and the other in England.

In 2010, historian Graham Robb could have done something similar about ten miles from Newcastleton when he moved into a house ‘on the very edge of England’, though it would have required a paddle in the Liddel Water. The Liddel eventually marks the southern edge of the Debatable Land, once an independent territory between Scotland and England and controlled for three centuries by local clans like the Armstrongs, Grahams, Elliots and Nixons. From the fourteenth century, these ‘Border reivers’ were policed, if that’s the word, by the wardens of what became the Border shires of West, Middle and East March.

The house that Robb acquired previously belonged to Nicholas Ridley or Baron Ridley of Liddesdale, the cabinet minister responsible for the introduction of the poll tax. Ridley was not the only person to torment the Scots from a house at the country’s edge. On the other side of the border, Hugh Trevor-Roper bought Chiefswood near Melrose which, perhaps not coincidentally, was built by Sir Walter Scott. From there Lord Dacre concluded that ‘Scotland’ could be reduced to a series of overlapping myths and that the kilt was not an ancient garb but a modern English invention. Ridley, as we know, unleashed a maelstrom while ‘invention’ in all its profound simplicity was gleefully embraced by the Telegraph and the Spectator. Robb also has an agenda that might irritate some Scots though it is not immediately obvious. We’ll return to that.

In the meantime, Robb’s primary quest gets underway in Carlisle where he casts an eye over the locals and visits an exhibition on the Border reivers. Initially he seems in danger of treating the inlanders of Carlisle in the same way that Paul Theroux did England’s coastal inhabitants. In The Kingdom by the Sea, Theroux denied ‘breezy condescension’ while indulging it to the full and, like him, Robb views the locals as a species that he hadn’t previously encountered. He is surprised, for instance, that they speak to strangers in the street, wear t-shirts in the winter and apply spray tans with such alacrity. He interprets local drunken brawling as the playing-out of ancient rivalries rather than adopting the more obvious explanation: that it’s common to just about any British town centre beyond the London/Oxford vacuum that he had previously inhabited.

This is all a bit of a worry but the main reason he is in Carlisle is to view an exhibition on the Border reivers. There he picks up a worksheet for children called ‘Nasty Nixon’s Reivers Trail’. It lists murder, kidnap, theft of cattle and possessions, and blackmail as Nasty’s predilections. It could, perhaps, have added ‘dirty tricks’ in memory of a famous descendent. This vision of the reivers worked in tandem with a film that portrayed the Debatable Land as ‘the blackest, goriest, region of the Borders’.

As in previous books, including his Ondaatje prize-winning The Discovery of France, these stereotypes inspire Robb to get on his bike to uncover the truth about the reivers and the land that they occupied. Initially, his cycling tour of the Debatable Land and the area abutting it allows him to meet some rural eccentrics, in whose company he seems more comfortable than the urbanites of Carlisle. Pedalling to Newcastleton, for instance, he runs in to Wattie Blakey ‘the master mole catcher with more than seventy years experience of ridding farmers’ fields of the inexorable “mouldywarp” or “mouldy” … The fruits and proof of his labour can be seen hooked by the snout onto barbed-wire fences, like sacrifices to a local god.’ He had previously spotted Wattie on the meandering 127 bus, the longest-lasting bus-replacement service in history. It was established when the Waverley Line closed in 1969 and runs on the route of the old North British railway. Wattie doesn’t drive but covers a large area by using the bus and seven old bicycles which he planks in various places. The mole man is held up as evidence to support Robb’s previously expressed view that Borderers judge each other more by social function than by class which, at the very least, is debatable.

He establishes a more solid principle when cycling near the boundary of the Debatable Land in search of an Armstrong peel tower. It is reputed to have a stone slab at its entrance covering the tomb of several clan members. Instead he finds a farmer who had attempted to put a new farmhouse door against the remaining stone footing of the tower. The farmer also found human remains and, promptly ‘harrowed them under’. Human carelessness with evidence of the past and the power of nature to sweep it away are recurring themes in Robb’s narrative though they are somewhat offset by ‘the great treasure of border history in the archives of the Scottish and English border officers’ which help him populate the empty landscapes with ‘identifiable individuals’.

Armed with his bicycle, some archival study and a first-person narrative, Robb sets out to recover the Debatable Land. He has few historical sites to work with and several myths and misapprehensions that need to be overcome. The first of these is the term Debatable Land itself which, he argues, is not necessarily associated with dispute but derives from ‘batable’ meaning ‘rich, fertile land on which livestock could be pastured and fattened up (or ‘battened’)’. Before its occupation by the reivers, the land was protected by a law stating that no building be erected within its boundaries and no animals pastured between sunrise and sunset. Using a 1552 map, Robb discovers that the term Debatable Land ‘is routinely misapplied to all of Liddesdale and the West Marches and even to any area in which the reivers were active’. As is his habit, he perambulates the ‘precise geographical location’ on roads and paths beside the rivers Liddel, Esk and Sark.

The reivers too have been the subject of considerable misunderstanding and are sometimes portrayed in the opposite way to the exhibition at Carlisle. They were the subject of border ballads, many written or adapted by Sir Walter Scott, which eulogised them or had them operating as Robin Hoods. Robb cuts through all this to pose some interesting questions about how the reivers went about their work. Why, for instance, did the population of the area actually increase despite their predations and how does one explain the absence of a catastrophic decline in the domestic animal population?

The power of the wardens was never enough to keep the reivers at bay. Eventually, it was the state that overcame them. James V of Scotland was a particularly formidable opponent and hanged a good number of Armstrongs pour encourager les autres. Robb is particularly interesting on the fate of the Grahams who were deported to the Netherlands and to Ireland. In Ireland they proved to be a hapless lot even though at home they maintained their half of the Debatable Land as productive pasture and reclaimed wasteland. The state killed or removed the reivers but it also absorbed them. Former sheep-stealer Archibald Armstrong became a jester in James’s court and later a land-owner and money lender. He felt confident enough to torment the Archbishop of Canterbury in verse: ‘Changes of Times surely cannot be small, / When Jesters rise and Archbishops fall’.

Robb eventually delves further into the past. He ingeniously stretches the grid on the British section of Ptolemy’s map of the world and subjects it to the resize function on Microsoft’s ‘Paint’ programme. From that he discovers that a ‘proto-Debatable Land’ lay near the intersection of the kingdoms of the Selgovae, Damnonii and Votadini and may have acted as a buffer zone in the manner of that between the Greeks and the Turks in Cypress. Later he investigates and reorientates the Arthur myth and concludes that there was a banding together of the kings of Britain to re-conquer the lands they had lost to the Romans.

Here his secondary agenda becomes apparent. There were hints of it in the early chapters with the seemingly unnecessary but repeated observation that Scots and English get along well. They are ‘indifferent to nationality’ whether travelling together on the 127 bus or working together in the First World War cordite factory that stretched from Longtown in England to Eastrigggs in Scotland. Despite his Scottish antecedents and a house that’s a literal stone throw from Scotland, Robb is not enfranchised in the Scottish independence referendum and when he considers the poll everything that made this a great book – innovative methodology, rejection of mythology, precise expression and so on – falls away and leaves something like the opposite. Robb outlines the referendum in the most simplistic terms. Yes is for passion ‘redefined as loudness and intransigence’; Nationalism doesn’t come in varieties but is a thing of base urges. There’s no consideration of those who voted yes to bring power closer to home and put it at the service of social justice. Nor of those who did so while denying being nationalists by any definition. There is no examination of Border demographics in 2014 or, indeed, any serious investigation as to why the Scottish Borders voted No. Instead, Robb places his nuanced historiography at the service of one side of a binary question and is reduced to this:

‘The future of the United Kingdom was about to be decided by one-twelfth of its population and the Debatable Land might be partitioned once again. No one knew exactly what the consequences would be and although mass deportations were unlikely, the people of the Anglo-Scottish borders, like their sixteenth century ancestors, felt the state’s impending weight, its enormous powers of interference.’

It’s sad that such a wonderful book ends with dangerous havers about partition and deportation and some arrant nonsense about the influence of an ancestry shared by relatively few contemporary Borderers. One kenspeckle Scottish historian has a habit of saying ‘the future is not my period’. If Robb had taken a similar attitude to the present, this would have been an early contender for book of the year. It would also, incidentally, have saved him scrambling at the last minute to explain the different Brexit vote on the English and Scottish sides of the border which left Borderers facing ‘in opposite directions’. The best he can offer is that ‘Scottish voters had been sensitized to the benefits of European membership by the campaign for Scottish independence’. Perhaps so, but I suspect there was a lot more to it than that.

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The Bachelors

The air of the city in The Bachelors is reminiscent of the atmosphere encountered in Graham Greene’s ‘entertainments’, particularly those set in London and written before and during the war. In The Confidential Agent, The Ministry of Fear and other light novels, Greene seems determined to draw attention to the mundane particulars of existence, and Muriel Spark, having absorbed much else from her mentor, is happy to follow.

In Ronald Bridges’s bachelor flat, ‘a heap of . . . unwashed laundry lay on the carpet’, and when Ronald’s friend Matthew Finch arrives, ‘he stumbled over the laundry, put on his damp shoes, then went off to the lavatory’. Not everybody did, in novels of the time. It’s perhaps no wonder. ‘We had outdoor sanitation,’ another character declares, in an effort to stress his working-class credentials, ‘which we shared with two other families.’ Life had its dreary side in the 1950s. It was F. Scott Fitzgerald who pronounced Sunday ‘not a day, but rather a gap between two other days’, and Spark catches the mood. ‘Sunday morning, Sunday afternoon and the long jaded evening – the very clocks seeming to yawn – occurred all over London.’ Especially, she adds, ‘in Kensington, Chelsea, and Hampstead’, the principal locations of the bed-sitting rooms where ‘the bachelors stirred between their sheets’ as daylight peeped through the curtains.

Spark began writing The Bachelors in Wales in the summer of 1959, and it was published by Macmillan in October 1960, one of two novels by her to come out that year (The Ballad of Peckham Rye was published in March). It appeared at a time when, in the words of her biographer Martin Stannard, she ‘sensed the possibility of a radical change in the direction of her career – towards the theatre’. Her next book, Voices at Play, was to be a collection of short stories and ‘ear-pieces’, which is to say brief radio plays originally broadcast on the BBC’s Third Programme. In a prefatory note, Spark acknowledged that her producer, Rayner Heppenstall, ‘sometimes . . . clamoured for more visual bits to be written in’, whereas her inclination was to entrust exposition and understanding to the voice alone. She was already at work on a full-length stage play, Doctors of Philosophy, which would be produced in London in 1962.

The theatrical infatuation cooled down, but The Bachelors bears its mark. It is a novel written largely in dialogue, inhabited by people fated to reveal themselves by what they say. The ‘visual bits’ – city streets and the journeys through them, drinking clubs and shivery bedsits – are sketched in to provide background to a tale that proceeds mostly by talk. Few other novelists would evoke seven separate London districts in the opening three sentences, without pausing to delineate their varied outlines. Spark was not a writer of ‘scenery’. She happily admitted she didn’t much care for it. Her narrative threads seldom lead her out of the city towards the banks and braes, unless by way of philosophy or a verse from a Border ballad, as in The Only Problem and Symposium. In an amusing story in Voices at Play, ‘A Member of the Family’, written at the same time as The Bachelors and originally published in Vogue, she gives her character Trudy a similar view. Arriving at an Austrian Alpine resort for the first time in her life (as her creator had, shortly before writing the story), Trudy suggests to the hostess, who is taken aback, that it is ‘all rather like Wales’. Indoors, Spark was apt to disregard the furnishings in order to attend to the silent manoeuvrings of her characters’ spiritual well-being (or ill-being). As Alan Taylor states in his memoir, Appointment in Arezzo, the kitchen was not her habitat. It was voices – inward voices as well as outward ones – which she paid attention to. ‘Ever since I can remember,’ she said in a radio talk in the year The Bachelors was published, ‘I’ve had the habit of going over conversations which I have overheard, or in which I have taken part, recasting them in neater form.’ The habit turned out to be just the thing for the writing of a novel.

The London of The Bachelors, set in the autumn of 1959, is depicted with minimal brush strokes. The odour of ration books and clothing coupons still clings to the surroundings. Not even Trudy would say that it is ‘all rather like’ this place or that one. At the time she wrote the novel, aged forty-one, Spark was familiar with just one other city in the world: Edinburgh. In Rhodesia, where she passed the unhappy interlude of her only marriage, she and her husband had lived in provincial small towns. Spark’s visit to the Welsh-seeming Alps, where she went at the invitation of the novelist Christine Brooke-Rose, was her maiden voyage in what people still called ‘Continental Europe’. I mention this because the sense of confinement is discernible behind the scenes of The Bachelors, in which little of the conversation is suggestive of the wider world. Few members of the cast, one might guess, have ever been to Europe, a common limitation among lower-middle-class people at the time. As much as they are marooned in unproductive bachelordom, of both male and female kinds, they are stranded in a metropolis with small-town features.

Is there no escape? Actually, yes, there is. Not to the enchanted land of ‘abroad’, but to another realm altogether. Spark once said that it was her ambition to make ‘the supernatural’ world seem part of the natural one. The supernatural was already a well-represented feature of her fiction. In The Bachelors, in which ‘fraudulent conversion’ – theft, in a word – is proposed as the MacGuffin of the story, the otherworldly part is given to spiritualism. Adherents of the ‘Wider Infinity’ sit round a table while a dubious medium lapses into a trance, conveying messages from a better place in which departed husbands continue to wear Harris Tweed suits and play golf. Memorable holidays are recalled from the hereafter, and even the enjoyable meals consumed on them. It can only be Harry getting in touch from the other side, Marlene Cooper insists. Who else could know about that lovely omelette they were served at the inn?

Ethnic variety in the London through which readers pass here is provided by Matthew Finch, correspondent of the Irish Echo, and the Scottish policeman, Detective-Inspector Fergusson. Resentment of foreigners is unlikely to go further than Ronald Bridges saying tactlessly to Matthew, ‘I can’t bear the Irish’. In addition to Mr Fergusson’s presence, the novel contains a minor Scottish ingredient – always a pleasure to encounter in a work by Spark. Marlene is on the sleeper heading out of King’s Cross, hoping to evade the responsibility of testifying in court against the feckless but strangely charismatic medium, Patrick Seton.

The train to Dundee was a rocky one. She stood up in her bunk and tried to adjust the air-conditioning equipment of the sleeping compartment, but failed. She pressed the bell. No one came. She wondered if Patrick might have some spiritual power over her, even in Scotland.

Surely granite-steady D.I. Fergusson will be up to the task of dealing with Patrick Seton (which half-rhymes with ‘Satan’)? The appearance of the policeman reminds me of one of my favourite Sparkisms, which need not be explained to Mr Fergusson’s compatriots: ‘It’s better to be Scottish. Morally better, somehow.’ It is often noted that The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie is Spark’s only Scottish novel, but small northern dramas of the spirit realm turn up in others, notably The Ballad of Peckham Rye and Symposium. They usually involve a tussle between good and evil: not a soul wrestling with a haunting torment in the deep of the night, but a rehearsal of the contest fought by God and the Devil – good and bad, if you prefer – in the thick of everyday life, where it is most likely to be encountered.

Such a tussle is at the heart of The Bachelors. There is only one thoroughly bad person in the novel. For the others, it is a matter of choice. You can choose to be good, up to a point. In the absence of good, evil spies an opportunity. This is the central plank of the novel’s theology, which Spark shared with Greene and others. Towards the end of The Devil Finds Work (for idle hands, needless to say), a book-length essay on film by James Baldwin published in 1976, the author leaves a cinema in the company of a friend, after a screening of The Exorcist. ‘So we must be careful,’ Baldwin’s friend remarks, ‘lest we lose our faith – and become possessed.’ I can’t say if Spark read Baldwin, or whether Baldwin knew The Bachelors or any other Spark novel, but the two are connected by a fundamentally religious, not to say Christian, outlook on life. Some members of the London circle at the seances held in The Bachelors are terrified of losing faith in what Patrick Seton relays from the other side, and of facing the unknown without a familiar figure for company, golf clubs, Harris Tweed suit and all. That’s where the conman Seton (Satan was a conman too, remember) sees his chance.

It is easy to forget that Spark was approaching forty when her first novel, The Comforters, was published in 1957, and that she was already an experienced woman of letters. She had edited the Poetry Review, published poems of her own – The Fanfarlo and Other Verse (1952) – and co-written, with Derek Stanford, biographical studies of Emily Brontë and Mary Shelley, among others. By the time she came to write The Bachelors, in that miraculous feat of creativity that produced eight books between 1957 and 1961, the year of The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie, she was fully in command of a style that, notwithstanding its debts to Greene and Evelyn Waugh, was hers alone. Many writers envy the fluency of their own letters. Spark absorbed this lesson at the beginning of her fiction-writing life, and set it out as primary advice: Write as if settling down to compose a letter to a friend, using as few words as possible.

It is tempting to say that the London of The Bachelors no longer exists; but it does. Not so much in Kensington, Chelsea and Hampstead, as in the suburbs to the distant south and east of the city, some of the names of which are foreign even to other Londoners. In dimmed rooms, solemnity is imposed and seances are held; widows and widowers receive consoling messages; gurus, mediums and priests like Father Socket in this novel are believed in – often they believe in themselves. ‘Fraudulent conversion’ takes place in a variety of forms. The voices which Spark overheard and recast in neater form are all around, funny and grave at the same time.

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Madame Scotia

Helene Witcher’s first book lovingly excavates the life of her aunt, Heloise Russell-Fergusson, a prominent but little remembered Celtic cultural connector. Born in 1896 into Glasgow’s industrial bourgeoisie, Russell-Fergusson died a solitary figure in 1970, having lived out her final years in insalubrious Oban hotel rooms.

Witcher’s account delicately balances the overwhelming detail afforded by Russell-Fergusson’s extensive archive with the speculation necessary to fill in the private blanks of her life whilst confronting the irretrievable loss of Heloise from family memory. Recalling only one meeting with her aunt, Witcher retrieves her story from a trolley-full of treasures deposited by Russell-Ferguson in Glasgow’s Mitchell Library, a box of personal memorabilia and the scant memories of the last people to know her.

A key figure in the inter-war Celtic Revival, Russell-Fergusson became a world-renowned clarsach player, composer and collector, performing and interpreting Gaelic music and song. Invested as a Bardess of the Grand Festival Celtique et Gorsedd de Bardes at Roscoff in Brittany in 1934, she was heavily involved in the inter-war Pan-Celtic movement touring her brand of Hebridean music and song across Europe, the United States, Africa, the Far East, New Zealand and Australia. Defying the sedate image of the lady clarsach player, a lone traveller, her off-track explorations stimulated a life-long interest in what is now called roots or world music. Composer and performer of original song-tales, including Tir Na Nog which ran at the Edinburgh International Festival in 1950, Russell-Fergusson was an innovative but commercially unsuccessful recording artist in her later years. A regular traveller around the Scottish Highlands and islands her self-taught Gaelic was spoken through her own posher tones. A keen historian, she completed The Russell-Fergusson Collection of Harps, a nineteen-volume illustrated world history of harps which, between 1955-1964, she donated to the Mitchell. Three months before she died she made her final recordings on two small battery tape recorders set up in her car parked at Ganavan Sands outside Oban. The twenty-three recordings with notes for ‘would-be enthusiasts…’ were posted to the library where they lay unheard for over forty years.

Where did her interest in Gaelic music and culture come from and why the clarsach? With grandparents on her mother’s and father’s side partners in The Saracen Iron Foundry and Barclay Curle and Co. shipbuilders respectively, Heloise was the oldest of Helene and William Russell-Fergusson’s four children. The double barrelling projected the substantial pedigree of an extended family whose wealth was created in the industrial epicentre of Victorian Glasgow. In the imperial heyday of the Empire’s Second City, iron, shipbuilding and engineering dominated the city’s industrial output, soaked up workers and made Glasgow one of the most overcrowded, deprived and insanitary cities in the country. By what alchemy was Russell-Fergusson transformed from a direct beneficiary of Glasgow’s aggressive industrial capitalism into an enthusiastic devotee of fanciful Celtic romanticism? How did she escape from her debutante destiny, buy a secondhand clarsach in Washington DC and discover her life’s passion?

Witcher speculates on four key influences: early exposure to the Gaelic language, to rural living in Argyll, Christian Science and piano lessons. The chatter of Mary and Rebecca, the Russell-Fergusson’s two Gaelic-speaking servant girls, may have laid down early linguistic memories. Heloise’s parents both had strong Argyllshire roots: Helene grew up on the Isle of Bute, the daughter of Thomas Russell the local MP. Heloise’s father’s family, the Fergusons, originally came to Glasgow from Strachur. The Russell-Fergussons bought Ardtur, an estate in Port Appin, Argyll, following an outbreak of plague in the Glasgow in 1900. As a child Heloise was introduced to Christian Science by her mother. Its key text, Science and Health, advocated the power of faith and prayer for overcoming physical illness with Christ’s healing powers within the grasp of anyone. In its organization and theology, the church was, unusually, led by a woman, had no gendered hierarchy and advocated gender equality and independence. A combination of Christian Science’s self-reliant theology, wealth, piano lessons and family connections took Russell-Fergusson to the Royal Academy of Music in London in 1916 to study classical piano. Her first job as a music teacher was in Washington DC where she spied a clarsach in a shop window. Renamed ‘Harplet’, it was to change the direction of her life.

Her passion for the clarsach and the music of the Hebrides was ignited in America. She studied with Mildred Dilling, an American harpist and devout Christian Scientist, and met the photographer and Gaelic song collector, Margaret Fay Shaw, who was a kindred spirit. Moreover, she was inspired by the work of folklorist Marjory Kennedy-Fraser who, in the 1920s, was causing quite a stir in New York concert circles with her performances of Gaelic music and song. Back in Scotland Russell-Fergusson toured the west coast and islands, practised playing the clarsach and mined local communities for Gaelic music and song. She was also making her name as a concert pianist and toured with John Barbirolli and Malcolm Sargent among others. Instrumental in reviving popular interest in the clarsach, she is credited with stimulating its revival in Brittany and inspiring Arnold Dolmetch to make his first clarsach in 1932. Witcher traces a clear line between Russell-Fergusson and Breton harpist Alan Stivell. A key figure in the Breton folk revival of the 1960s and 1970s, Stivell sustained the close links between the Scottish and Breton folk traditions. Sufficiently confident in her harp playing and singing, Russell-Fergusson developed her Hebridean repertoire and began touring the world.

Wider questions about her endeavours to reinterpret and promote Gaelic and Hebridean culture in the inter-war period place her squarely in the maelstrom of contemporary debates about class, culture and national identity. Should she be aligned with Kennedy-Fraser and the many other classically trained musicians and folklorists whose infatuation with all things Hebridean saw them going a bit ‘native’? Were these middle-class aficionados preserving or expropriating a Gaelic oral culture from which they had carefully excluded the ‘folk’ themselves – opportunists in evening dress conjuring up an anglicised, fantasy Gaeldom for polite society? By the early twentieth century, the rebellious menace of eighteenth-century Highland language and culture had been ‘Balmoralised’ into a de-politicised heedrum-ho cultural artefact later described by Tom Nairn as ‘The Great Tartan Monster’ and typified by Harry Lauder’s ersatz Scotsman who so infuriated Hugh MacDiarmid. Russell-Fergusson appears to have been largely oblivious to the wider political context and meaning of her endeavours to promote that which her own class had been rather successful in destroying. She was extolling the delights of an indigenous culture whose prospects of survival hung in the balance.

She became firmly identified with the Celtic cultural revival, rebooted at the Breton Celtic Congress in 1917. Since the late nineteen century this movement aimed to leap the distance between modern sensibilities and the brutalities of industrialisation and urbanisation by re-imagining a medieval Celtic golden age. While harbouring romantic notions of an ancient pan-Celtic identity in Wales, Ireland, Scotland, Isle of Man, Cornwall and Brittany their valorisation of the affiliations between Celtic languages, music and cultures contrasted with the political realities of European nation states and their aggressive imperialisms. By the 1920s, and following the slaughter of WWI, the tensions of Versailles, the failed Easter Rising and the Irish Civil War, the search for a transcendent European unity based on pan-Celtic connections once again created a desire to evoke more peaceful times. Some, riding high on this European cultural tide, such as the Breton nationalist Taldir ab Hernin, the Grand Druid who invested Russell-Fergusson in the Breton Gorstedd of 1934, got their Celtic nationalist wires crossed with nastier European versions. With the distinctions between linguistic and ethnic nationalism now blurred by the horrors of the Second World War, ab Hernin was imprisoned for his involvement in Breton nationalism and for collaborating with Vichy France.

Russell-Fergusson appears to have sidestepped these and the contemporary debates raging among the men involved in the national identity wars of the Scottish Renaissance, and sailed on in her characteristically pragmatic way. She branded her stage persona, arrangements and interpretations of Gaelic music and song with a carefully blended pan-Celtic syncretism. It is easy to see the appeal of Madame Scotia in her long, embroidered pseudo-medieval Celtic frock – copied from a trending Irish Arts and Crafts style – to audiences at home and abroad eager to escape into music evoking an imagined village where the ‘folk’ lived in more stable, feudally stratified times. The Madame Scotia brand was a critical and commercial success.
Russell-Fergusson continued to run alongside the Scottish contemporary cultural scene of the 1950s and 1960s. Avoiding the highly politicised stance emerging during the early Scottish folk revival, she carried on composing song-tales, collecting and compiling her grand history of harps and recording and making her own records. It was around this time that she dropped ‘Madame Scotia’ and began using first Russell-Fergusson, then R.F in correspondence and publicity materials. Through a strange process of retro-self-redaction she struck her name from older concert programmes and other publicity memorabilia settling finally on ‘Jane’. Whether this reveals a class/gender/national identity crisis is anyone’s guess.

While Helene Witcher restores Madame Scotia to her rightful place in Scotland’s cultural history and its controversies, the woman herself remains elusive. She never married and her biographer speculates that she may have been a lesbian. It may be, of course, that she remained single because she was of that generation whose chances of finding a husband were limited because of the carnage of the First World War. There can be no doubt, however, that she was a woman of independent means who defied convention and confidently followed her passion. A selective archivist, Heloise Russell-Fergusson controlled the story she left behind and chose to be remembered for her work. From this excellently detailed starting point, future re-assessments of its meaning and value can begin.

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The Prime Of Miss Jean Brodie

In 1960 Muriel Spark gave a talk for BBC radio entitled ‘How I Became a Novelist’. By then, aged forty-two, she was the author of five novels, but she still had difficulty, she confessed, in seeing herself as a novelist. Since childhood, she had known that she wanted to be a writer. She loved to read stories and to tell them and was soon putting pen to paper, ‘and forgetting everything except my subject-matter’.

Her parents, Bernard and Cissy Camberg, allowed her to read whatever took her fancy. She had the run, moreover, of Morningside Public Library, the largest branch library in Edinburgh and for a while the busiest of its kind in Britain. She was a constant visitor, appropriating the cards of her mother and father and older brother Philip to ensure she was never bereft of books. Situated less than a mile from the family flat, it was Spark’s second home and the introduction to countless other worlds, real and imagined.

She read as only a child can; voraciously, serendipitously, indiscriminately, from The Pilgrim’s Progress to bound volumes of Victorian ladies’ magazines which her mother, an unabashed romantic, had acquired second-hand. The reluctant novelist was particularly fond of adventure stories and had a special fondness for the tales of Robert Louis Stevenson, like her a native of Scotland’s precipitous and windy capital. ‘Sometimes,’ she recalled, ‘when I read a particularly impressive book, I used to extend the story in my imagination and make the characters live in my own world of invention.’

The young Spark was a listener as well as a reader. Cissy Camberg was a garrulous, gregarious woman who held court at home and in the street. This, too, was manna to the nascent novelist, who, squirrel-like, stored in her subconscious for future use snippets of conversations and overheard remarks. In the days of her youth – the late 1920s – Edinburgh’s thoroughfares were noisy and noisome. ‘Rags, bottles or bones’ was the mantra of the rag-and-bone man as he pushed his cart. Why, Muriel wondered, did he want to buy bones? ‘What bones? I thought. Whose bones?’ Even as a child she was conscious there was gold in the quotidian, that everyday life was an inextinguishable source of material to be moulded into art – what she would later refer to as ‘the transfiguration of the commonplace’, the subject of Sandy Stranger’s book in The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie.

All of which to a degree explains the wellspring of Spark’s fiction. How she became a novelist, though, was more a matter of chance and circumstance. Up until the mid 1950s, she had been forging a career as a writer and editor of books about writers she admired, such as the Brontës and Mary Shelley. She also wrote poetry, as she had at James Gillespie’s School for Girls, where she was known as its ‘Poet and Dreamer’. Indeed, she always saw herself as a poet and invariably had a poem ‘on the go’. It was because of her admiration for John Masefield, then Poet Laureate, and his narrative poems and stories, that she hankered to do likewise. As she described in ‘How I Became a Novelist’: ‘One day I wrote a short story – it was my first – for a competition announced in the Observer. It was a very peculiar kind of story and it puzzled a lot of people, but it won the prize. The story was about an angel that appeared on the Zambesi river. I do not know what gave me the idea for the story, but certainly I believe in angels and I had been up the Zambesi on a boat.’

Spark’s belief that ‘The Seraph and the Zambesi’, which was published in the newspaper in 1951, was a one-off is confirmed by papers in her voluminous archive in the National Library of Scotland. Writing to Her Majesty’s Inspector of Taxes, which was claiming part of her prize money, she insisted: ‘I am not a short-story writer. I am a critic and biographer. I doubt I shall ever have another short story published. The only creative writing I do is poetry.’ Who knows whether she actually believed this to be the case. What we do know is that by winning the competition she was now on the radar of publishers, one of whom, Macmillan, had the foresight to commission her to write a novel.

Strapped for cash as she was at the time, it was an offer she could not refuse. She rented a cottage in the English countryside and began to write The Comforters, which seemed to come to her as naturally as breathing. ‘I soon found that novel-writ ing was the easiest thing I had ever done,’ she told her BBC audience, ‘far easier than writing a short story or a poem or a piece of criticism. I found that the novel enabled me to express the comic side of my mind and at the same time work out some serious theme. But because it came so easily I was in some doubt about its value. I still have the decided feeling that anything worthwhile is done with difficulty.’

A tap having been turned on, there was no stopping its flow. Four more novels – Robinson, Memento Mori, The Ballad of Peckham Rye and The Bachelors – appeared in as many years. By 1960, Spark was a novelist of some renown. But it was her next novel, her sixth, which would make her famous and well off enough to determine where and how she wanted to live, and the books she would write. The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie is near perfect in its design and execution. It is at once traditional and experimental. Rich in period detail, it is nevertheless as spare and taut as one of Simenon’s thrillers and as light as a soufflé. It is the dialogue in particular that makes it sing; as Spark remarked in ‘How I Became a Novelist’, she hoped to make what her characters say seem authentic. ‘What I like doing is to make the characters in my novels say as nearly as possible what they ought to say, one remark thus provoking another. I enjoy making a foolish character say a very silly thing, and a clever character say something really intelligent.’

When Spark wrote these words she was already thinking about The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie and had made a tentative beginning. To immerse herself in it, however, she knew she had to return to Edinburgh, to reacquaint herself at first-hand with its atmosphere and architecture, to feel the snell wind and smell the yeasty tang from its many breweries, and, most of all, to transport her back three decades to her childhood. In her memory, Edinburgh was a place where the palette was sooty and sombre. It was winter when she visited, cold and wet, perfect con ditions in which to write. She based herself in the family flat where her parents and son Robin – in his twenties – still lived. Because her old bedroom at the rear of the tenement was now occupied by Robin she took the spare room at the front, facing on to the busy street. Beyond was the green expanse of Bruntsfield Links across which she used to walk daily on her way to school.

Physically, she couldn’t have been closer to her subject matter. The novel’s manuscript confirms that she wrote at a lick, in her loop ing, generous hand, with few afterthoughts. It took her little more than four weeks to compose its forty thousand and so words. Edinburgh, Scott’s Heart of Midlothian, with its haars – bone-chilling mists – and air of dis approval is to Spark what Dublin is to Joyce’s Ulysses; the tour Miss Brodie takes her ‘set’ on is a model history lesson and exercise in social commentary. Edinburgh is a series of villages, each entire of itself. In the odiferous Grassmarket, where public executions were once held, Miss Brodie talks of John Knox, the hellfire-and-damnation preacher who from the pulpit in St Giles’ Cathedral dared to denounce Mary, Queen of Scots. Knox, Miss Brodie tells the girls, was an embittered man. ‘He could never be at ease with the gay French Queen. We of Edinburgh owe a lot to the French. We are Europeans.’

This is one aspect of the city, but there are, as Sandy Stranger, Miss Brodie’s neme sis, recognises, as many Edinburghs as there are Edinburghers. Miss Brodie’s Edinburgh – and Muriel Spark’s for that matter – is at once beautiful and appalling, a clichéd city of contrasts where there is apartheid between rich and poor, and where religion is the numbing opiate of the masses. Miss Brodie is religious in the broadest sense of the word. She believes in God and in His Word, and is happy to let anyone know it. She is an eclectic churchgoer but one who is loyal to no church, which adds another element to her slipperiness, her unknowableness. On Sundays, when everyone else in Edinburgh trooped loyally to services in their local church, Miss Brodie would travel the length and breadth of the somnambulant city to sample what other denominations and sects might have to offer. Only the Church of Rome is beyond the pale, her disapproval of which ‘was based on her assertions that it was a church of superstition, and that only people who did not want to think for them selves were Roman Catholics’.

One can see Spark, as a relatively recent convert to Roman Catholicism, smiling as she wrote these words. Her irony extended to herself as much as it did the characters she invented. Miss Brodie – ‘an Edinburgh Festival all on her own’ – is the personification of irony. Everything she says and does can be read from an alternative point of view. Writing to Spark some years after the publication of The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie, her school mate Frances Niven said that ‘75%’ of Miss Brodie was surely Miss Christina Kay, the teacher both of them had at Gillespie’s. Hers, noted Niven, were the expression ‘crème de la crème’ and the extra lessons on art and music. ‘She it was who took us both (who were especial favourites of hers –? – part of the as yet unborn Brodie Set) to see Pavlova’s last performance at the Empire Theatre. Who took us for afternoon tea at McVitie’s.’ Like Miss Brodie, Miss Kay had strong views on education and what its purpose was. For her, in contrast to the prevailing attitude, it was a ‘leading out’ of what was already there rather than a ‘putting in’. It was this that governed her attitude to her vocation.

Certainly, few teachers can have had the formative impact on a pupil that Miss Kay had on Spark. The future novelist was eleven years old when she first encountered the colourful and charismatic dominie. Miss Kay was then fifty-one. Muriel Camberg had her as a teacher for two years, during which time she was introduced to subjects that previously had not been part of the syllabus, such as the Italian Renaissance, the symbolism of both the Old and New Testaments, the nineteenth-century novel, and the allure of Mussolini and his black-shirted fascisti. Just as important, though, were Miss Kay’s ‘dazzling non sequiturs’, diverting anecdotes and off-the-cuff aphorisms which became imprinted in the mind of the impressionable student. ‘Why make a wet day more dreary than it is?’ Miss Kay would announce. ‘We should wear bright coats, and carry blue umbrellas or green.’ It was the kind of advice I often heard Muriel herself proffer.

To a nascent writer, buxom Miss Kay – ‘that character in search of an author’, as Spark described her in Curriculum Vitae, her deceptively revealing autobiography – was a heaven-sent gift. Miss Kay would regularly diverge from a prescribed topic to rhapsodise about her foreign holidays (a rare thing in Scotland at the time) or to caution her young charges not to be swayed by the insidious power of crowds. In doing so, she was unconventional, even eccentric. Nevertheless, Spark felt that the lessons she had did not in all probability differ in essence from those of other pupils. But there was something special, perhaps magical, about Miss Kay, something that made her ripe for moulding and metamorphosing into Miss Brodie. Almost immediately, she embedded herself in Spark’s imagination and she began to write about her, embroidering and magnifying her experience. ‘No, Miss Kay was not literally Miss Brodie,’ Spark recalled, ‘but I think Miss Kay had it in her, unrealised, to be the character I invented.’

The real Miss Kay is pictured in class photographs from James Gillespie’s. Researching a memoir of Spark, I was unable to track down any others. In one, she is surrounded by forty or so girls, one of whom, dressed in a white blouse and a dark pinafore and smiling demurely, is Muriel. The teacher, in the middle of the fourth row, is wearing a stylish cloche hat and a checked coat in whose buttonhole is what appears to be a large artificial flower. Later, I came across the same photograph in a new history of Gillespie’s School, with a caption: ‘She resigned in 1942 after sustained complaints from parents about her defiant regard for Mussolini.’ No evidence was given in support of this assertion. The book’s author, John MacLeod, told me that he believed its source to be a former Gillespie’s pupil but he couldn’t be sure.

A more prosaic explanation for her departure may be that Miss Kay was approaching sixty-five when she left. There was no hint in the school’s annual magazine (where many of Spark’s earliest poems appeared) of anything untoward. On the contrary, the tribute to her in the 1943 edition, doubtless included with the approval of the then headmistress, was unqualified in its praise of the long-serving teacher. Service like Miss Kay’s, it was acknowledged, ‘must surely be unique’. A lover of ancient Greece, Miss Kay had sought perfection in all things, ‘for the gods see everywhere’.

In the many conversations I had with Muriel about Miss Kay, she was always at pains to point out that she never thought of her as a fascist. Nor, indeed, did she believe Miss Brodie to be of that persuasion. To anyone tempted towards such a conclusion, Spark said it must be remembered that the novel is set in 1930 when the world was as yet unaware of the horror that was about to be unleashed. ‘Women, particularly single women, adore a strong man, a liberator,’ she told an interviewer in 1979. ‘There were many in those days who admired Hitler. I guess you could say . . . that Mussolini was a big bad man and Hitler a little bad man. But we didn’t know that then.’

What we do know about Miss Kay, apart from what Spark herself tells us, is frustratingly little. She was born in Edinburgh on 11 June 1878, and died in Midhope, West Lothian, where she had relatives, on 23 May 1951. An only child, she spent her early years in the family flat in Grindlay Street in the shadow of the Castle Rock, which, for a girl with a keen sense of history and of a romantic bent, could hardly have been more uplifting. Her father, Alexander, a cabinetmaker, died when she was fifteen. Thereafter, she lived with, and cared for, her mother until the latter’s death in 1913. Hers was a life that would have blended into the shadows, had she not been the woman on whom one of the great characters of modern literature was based.

From the age of five, Miss Kay attended the school where she would later teach. It was a pleasant stroll away, in part across the tussocky links where Spark had freedom to roam decades later. Between 1897 and 1899, Miss Kay completed her teacher training at the Church of Scotland College in Edinburgh where her conduct was deemed ‘exemplary’. It is a sentiment with which many of those who fell under her spell at Gillespie’s would concur. One of its former pupils said that she was rather dowdy in appearance except in one respect – the hats she wore, which she may have made herself. She was a reserved woman who evidently blossomed in the classroom. A performer and storyteller, she was readily diverted from the three Rs and happy to embrace subjects other teachers would never have broached. Once, Miss Kay described in unvarnished detail her mother’s funeral, including the coffin. Italy was her favourite place, as it was Miss Brodie’s. Was she as much of an admirer of Mussolini as Muriel suggested? She was most certainly pro him. ‘The Pontine marshes were drained because of Mussolini’ was one of her many repeated phrases. Muriel speculated that she may have had Italian ancestry on account of her olive complexion, hooded eyes and a whisper of a black moustache. Did she have a sweetheart who had been killed in the First World War? It’s quite possible. Many women of that era faced a lifetime of spinsterhood as a result of the carnage. ‘Until we ourselves grew up,’ Muriel wrote in her autobiography, ‘there was a veritable generation of spinsters. At any rate, Miss Kay told us how wonderful it had been to waltz in those long full skirts. I sensed romance, sex.’

The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie was first published in the United States where it had previously appeared almost in its entirety in a single issue of the New Yorker. This was unprecedented, and reflected the recognition by the magazine’s editor, William Shawn, of the novel’s classic quality. Of similar length to The Great Gatsby and The Catcher in the Rye, it was a story that resonated across boundaries and cultures. Its eponymous heroine, like Madame Bovary and Anna Karenina, is a flawed, pitiable, fascinating and ultimately tragic character whose betrayal by one of her ‘set’ is double-edged and deeply moving. Her admiration, adoration even, of Mussolini, Italian Fascism and Hitler may be foolish, but does she deserve to be stabbed in the back, Caesar-like, by one of her girls, who is ‘notorious’ for her piggy eyes? Spark’s view of Sandy Stranger was unequivocal. She told listeners to a radio programme that she thought she was ‘a little bitch’ and that by betraying, rather than forgiving, her former mentor she had committed an unforgivable sin. Unlike her model Miss Kay, Miss Brodie is forced to retire early on the grounds that she has been teaching Fascism, about which Sandy learns after she has become a nun and ‘entered the Catholic Church, in whose ranks she had found quite a number of Fascists . . .’

In common with another now classic novel published in 1961 – Joseph Heller’s Catch-22 – reviews of The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie were mixed. Some reviewers expressed bafflement while others had trouble fathoming what the novel was ‘about’. At least one critic felt that Spark had written too many books too quickly while another, doubtless having read ‘How I Became a Novelist’, reckoned that she ought to feel guilty at having produced something so effortlessly. For his part Anthony Burgess found it thin and humourless which, given he was soon to produce A Clockwork Orange, rather takes the breath away. Evelyn Waugh, ever loyal, led the counter-offensive. In particular he loved the spoof letter, written by two of the Brodie elect, in which they imagined her declining an offer of marriage from fellow teacher Gordon Lowther: ‘But I was proud of giving myself to you when you came and took me in the bracken on Arthur’s Seat while the storm raged about us.’ John Updike, writing in the New Yorker, was similarly enchanted and continued to be so: ‘Muriel Spark is one of the few writers on either side of the Atlantic with enough resources, daring, and stamina to be altering, as well as feeding, the fiction machine.’ Time has shown that the novel’s admirers were more percipient than its detractors. Spark was fêted in New York, to which she moved a year after publication. The subsequent adaptations into a play and a film hugely boosted already impressive sales and added considerably to the author’s coffers. So reliable was her income from The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie that she gratefully called it her ‘milch cow’. Readers may feel the same for it is a novel that never palls; it pleases and perplexes and produces surprises with every reading, and, like all great books, it is ageless, vindication of why its inspired creator became a novelist.

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