Monthly Archives: June 2018



‘Quinuituq’ is an Inuit word for the deep patience required to survive in the arctic, where the rhythm of life consists of long still-ness broken by sudden movement: ice hanging at the front of a glacier then crashing into the ocean; long, dark winters erupting into the brief summer feasting of migrant bird swarms; a hunter sitting silently over a fishing hole for hours before being rewarded by the struggle of a catch.

Something similar occurs in Lochinver harbour. Not a lot happens for days on end, then a French or Spanish fishing boat comes in and suddenly there’s a queue of refrigerated lorries and a melee of hoses, fish boxes and engines. Likewise, over the winter, the hard-standing is full of idle, sheltering boats. The place is deserted until the first sunny days in spring, when out of the woodwork of Assynt come dozens of boat-people, up and down ladders, painting and polishing, fixing and mending, in a frenzy of readying vessels for the season. One by one, yachts and creel boats are launched back into the water. It’s all action, motion, voices, whiffs of anti-fouling and old diesel, the songs of hammers and drills and chains, good craic.

Our boat, Each Mara, is among those still waiting to go back in. She has her mast off for re-rigging, so we’re taking advantage of that to renew all the electrical wiring and the VHF aerial that has never worked properly since we got her, and while we’re at it there are ropes that might as well be replaced: the topping lift, the foresail halyard. It’s chaos inside, she’s not at all ship-shape, but the birds are singing as we go at it. ‘Each Mara’ is Gaelic for walrus (literally horse of the sea), whose characteristic behaviour is perfectly arctic: long stretches of beach-lolling in a big, blubbery, communal heap until disturbance sends the whole herd into the water with an explosion of spray and splashing shock-waves.

* * *

Five years ago, sailing in the Arctic, I hatched my plans for a novel trilogy in which the historically real Iron Age explorer, Pytheas the Greek, makes his way north to the arctic, encountering various fictional characters, including a young woman from Assynt, where we are pretty certain he visited. It also features a walrus hunter. The trilogy’s first volume bears his name.

The launch of The Walrus Mutterer has perhaps not had the drama of a walrus stampede, but gratifyingly it does not seem to have gone unnoticed by the pinniped world. I set a key walrus scene in the book, after extensive research and ground-truthing, on Sanday in Orkney. As the book went to print, a walrus appeared in Scotland for the first time in years, and I was more than a bit excited that he chose to make landfall on precisely that northerly island. As the launch day approached, so did the walrus, making his way down to the Sutherland coast as if heading for Clachtoll, where the novel begins. There has been much banter on Facebook and sharing of video footage of the ‘old gentleman tooth-walker’. For me, it has been comforting confirmation that the Iron Age is in many ways still with us.

Most historical fiction is really about now. It brings the past into the present in order to show just how the same things are still happening. People are driven by the same urges and passions as they have always been, pretty much, and sometimes a historical setting can cast those things into relief. I am interested in greed and why some people strive to have so much more than they need to survive. The Iron Age was the era when conspicuous over-consumption began. Individuals started to be buried alone, often with beloved possessions, rather than sharing communal resting places.

Pytheas travelled to the ends of the known world in search of tin, amber and walrus ivory and he would have journeyed with traders in gems, metalwork and slaves, in order to find what he was seeking. I am intrigued both by the Celtic maritime society he would have encountered and by the fact that similar trafficking continues to this day. I suspect people have, for a very long time, been wondering how much stuff is enough, how much is too much, who should profit from it and whose stuff it is anyway.

* * *

Looking into history is one way of trying to make sense of our lives and to explore questions that perplex us about our society, using a long time-frame to put the madness of today into perspective. In one of the other strands of my life I am (re)learning how to teach in Higher Education, after two decades out of the academic system. As part of my studies and reflections I was pointed to the fascinating contemplations of Abha Dawesar, an Indian novelist. She gives a TED talk (that present-day manifestation of the saying that we each get ten minutes of fame) in which she discusses that we need time in order to develop a sense of self. In particular, we need the long time-frame of a whole lifetime; our sense of self requires us to be able to see ourselves (and have others who know us) across the whole narrative arc of our lives.

Yet the long view is not enough. We also need immersion in the present to give us the experiences that will define us. We need moments of full attention to feel like real people. Dawesar equates these moments of attention with love. The relationships that make us feel valued, that teach us who to be, that help us to learn and grow and become who we are, come from moments of loving attention.

Dewasar then compares this loving attention with what she calls ‘the digital now’, where, with our handheld, ever-present devices, we are never-present, always clicking another link, continuously distracted from where we are in the physical world. We are distracted even from where we land, for an instant, in cyberspace, before blundering on. There is no flow of the immersive present in the digital world, just a series of leaping divergences.

Being at the helm of a boat is the extreme opposite. There is nowhere else to go. Attention must be constant. I find this hard, but now I understand why we sailors become so smitten by the sea.

* * *

When I’m not sailing, or writing, or teaching, I’m trying to save the world’s forests. I’ve been at this for decades and I’m afraid I have to confess that it’s not going well. If only the forestry industry focused on using trees for things with high social value, like books, voting papers and furniture. Instead, they are increasingly used for packaging and other things destined for a short trip to the rubbish bin. Even more worrying is the trending attempt to replace coal with wood for generation of electricity. As well as being no better in terms of climate change emissions this ‘biomass energy’ threatens the very forests we need for absorbing the dangerous levels of carbon in the atmosphere and giving us all the good things that grow on trees. Like books (and this magazine!).

* * *

As if we needed proof that climate change means something other than ‘global warming’, the unseasonable cold easterly and northerly winds are delaying the onset of spring. I’ve lived in Assynt for nearly twenty years and never known the primroses, always the first wild flowers, to be so late to open. Neighbouring crofters with livestock are complaining about the lack of grass. The temperature has barely risen above five degrees and nothing grows. The ewes lack the milk to feed their lambs. Deer are causing devastation in woodlands.

On the other hand, this means there is perhaps still time to get to some of the winter jobs that have remained undone while the other threads of life have unravelled from their spools. The rain and hail is washing the seaweed on the shore ready to be brought up onto the vegetable beds. The fruit bushes don’t look like they’d mind being pruned even this late. The grass isn’t growing, and that means the weeds, which are all wildflowers after all, aren’t either.

* * *

The launch of The Walrus Mutterer was a blue-sky day. I had to abandon the boat work for a session with primary school children in a tipi by the fank on Stoer green, and a walk out to Clachtoll broch, which was excavated last year. The dig revealed a snapshot of Iron Age life, caught in the moments before a catastrophic fire destroyed the 13-metre-high tower. The assemblage of objects found inside include more than a dozen lamps (it was dark in that windowless space), a knocking-stone full of grain kernels in the process of being shelled, querns and bowls, loom-weights and spindle whorls. There’s a ringed copper pin and a fragment of pottery bearing an indentation that matches it perfectly. The archaeologists have shown us lives being lived in mundane quietness until the sudden onset of the fire caused them to flee the building, apparently dropping everything as they ran.

After a sunny day at the broch, we adjourned to the Community Room for a night putting the story back into history, where I was ably abetted by Margaret Elphinstone and Ian Stephen. Margaret read from The Gathering Nights, a novel set even further back in time, in the Mesolithic era. Her spell-binding reading gave us a story of continuous ancestry, with the scenario of a child born into a family who needed to recognise her as the incarnation of someone who had lived before. Ian led us into the territory where reality and story blend, and we discussed how novelists may, indeed must, take liberties at the edges of what is known, or what is told. We create the story’s fabric from imaginative wefts woven on whatever warps we can find. This is also, of course, how we make our lives. It comes naturally. We weave or plait the many threads of ourselves together.

Boat, croft, writing, activism, family; quiet times and busy ones; they all tie together in the end.

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Twelve or thirteen hours into the flight from Glasgow to Christchurch on New Zealand’s South Island the will to live starts to evaporate. It had taken seven hours to reach Dubai, through whose labyrinthine airport we marched to our gate as if to an appointment with an amateur dentist.

Where were all these people going? Was there room in the sky to accommodate all these humungous planes? I had already watched several movies, hoping that it would help time fly by. Time did pass but not, alas, as fast as one might have liked. Several hours later I woke up, stiff-necked, dry-mouthed and red-eyed, and studied the flight plan. We were now some fifteen hours into the journey. Below was the Indian Ocean, or so we were led to believe, for all we could see was cloud. There was at least another ten hours to go, including a brief stopover in Sydney, before we reached our final destination. I recalled reading Pico Iyer’s Falling Off the Map, a series of essays about “some lonely places of the world”. Iyer got as far as Australia at which point he must have felt he had gone far enough. And who could blame him? From Sydney to Christchurch it was another three hours and more during which I would have been happy to bale out had a parachute been one of the perks.

On arrival in New Zealand, however, what is so remarkable is the feeling of familiarity. Having travelled nearly 12,000 miles you might think that things would be distinctly different but they are not. The weather seemed similar to that which we’d left behind and the landscape, dotted with sheep and bright with yellow gorse, was a parody of our own borders hills. Meanwhile traffic kept to the left hand side of the road. Moreover, the towns we visited over the following days – Christchurch, Dunedin, Auckland – were redolent of the place we had just left. Dunedin in particular is Edinburgh writ small. One New Zealander told us how, after partaking of a few beers following an All Black triumph at Murrayfield, he had momentarily lost his bearings. Then he recalled that his home town had been laid out like Edinburgh’s New Town and thereafter had no trouble with orientation.

Christchurch is the most anglicized of Aortearoa’s cities. It was founded as recently as 1850 and, at least until the earthquakes of 2010 and 2011, had a number of fine buildings dating to the early years of its birth. In February 2011, 185 people lost their lives and 6,600 were seriously injured. As historian Katie Pickles notes in Christchurch Ruptures, ‘The earthquakes have taken lives and homes and assaulted and destroyed senses of belonging’. Seven years on, Christchurch is still trying to recover from the aftershocks. Much of its centre lies bare, cars are few and people even fewer. Like sabbaths of yore in the Western Isles, there was, even on weekday mornings, an unnatural hush. Everyone seemed to talk in whispers and the shops cried out for customers. Had we not known better, we might have assumed that the population had decided to pack their bags and seek their fortunes elsewhere. Yet, as several people said, even before the earthquakes struck Christchurch was not the most raucous of towns.

Dunedin, to which we travelled a few days later, wears its Scottish ancestry like a clansman does tartan. It was founded in 1846 by the Free Church of Scotland but its influence is now negligible. One of the city’s most famous landmarks is a statue of Robert Burns, erected in 1887. There are three others from the same cast in London, New York and Dundee. The Reverend Thomas Burns – his father was Gilbert Burns, the poet’s younger brother – was among the first Scottish settlers to arrive in Dunedin in 1848. He is revered still not only for his pioneering vigour and vision but for the value he put on education and reading. A legacy of this is the high number of students in the city, of whom there are around 20,000 in a total population of just over 120,000. Another is Dunedin’s status as a UNESCO City of Literature, which it was awarded in 2014. Yet another is the University of Otago’s Centre for Irish and Scottish Studies, which is run by the scholar and crime writer, Liam McIlvanney, and which regularly offers residencies to writers from the old country.

And so to Auckland where there is an impressive annual book festival. Auckland is in the North Island and is the most populous of New Zealand’s cities. Its growth in recent decades has been dizzying and the festival has likewise burgeoned, deservedly so. It was not unusual, for example, to see its venue, Aotea Centre, attracting a crowd of 2,000, which may be normal for opera divas but can be disconcerting to humble authors. We spent five days in and around the festival, and were much taken by its warm vibe, cultural diversity and the sophistication and savvy of the audiences. It is not easy to attract writers to such far-flung places but Auckland’s energetic organizers do because when at last you touch down you are made to feel – thanks in no small part to a Maori welcome – that you are part of an extended family, and that for however long you are their guest you can be assured that you will be made to feel at home.

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‘I had never really thought about leaving Scotland,’ says Graham McLaren, but in 2016 he and Neil Murray were lured from the National Theatre of Scotland to become joint directors of the Abbey Theatre, Dublin. Murray had experience as manager and producer at the Tron as well as at the NTS, while McLaren had been director with Babel Theatre, which he co-founded, before moving to the NTS, and the two went as one bulky package.

Anyone even taking a seat in the Abbey foyer will feel the hand, warm and encouraging or cold and clammy as it may be, of Irish history and culture, so it is no surprise if McLaren says that taking charge was a personal and professional challenge of a special type. The imposing portraits on the walls – W. B. Yeats, Lady Gregory, Miss Horniman, Brendan Behan and various founding actors – peer down. He found himself in the unique situation of moving from the youngest national theatre in the English-speaking world to the oldest. ‘I am the first from “outside the parish”, as they say here. There were other artistic directors who were not Irish, but they had been long resident here.’ Any doubts about the scale of the task were quickly dispelled. ‘We came over for the Dublin Theatre Festival, and the taxi driver turned and said – “Are you the fellah that’s taking over at the national theatre?” In Glasgow, they would say – “What! We have a national theatre?” Here everybody knows about the Abbey.’

‘That same weekend Brian Friel died, and there was an eight-page supplement, exquisitely prepared, in the Irish Times. I cannot think of a single artist anywhere in Britain who would command similar respect. Unfortunately, I found myself reported prominently in the same paper shortly afterwards when I made a terrible gaffe. I was on stage at a poetry event and cheerfully announced that until then I had thought that Yeats (Yates) was a wine lodge. A dark silence fell. Afterwards the actor Stephen Rea came up to say, Graham, if that’s your idea of Scottish humour, you’ve a long way to go.’

He has come a long way, sorting out his views and building on acquired experience. He plans to make the Abbey a company more open to touring, taking it to places not accustomed to having live theatre on their doorstep, perhaps something he has brought from the NTS. The chair of the board, Frances Ruane, paid him a compliment, one of many, for having made the Abbey more accessible to visiting companies. The evening we met, a work entitled Here All Night, by a company with the extravagant name of Gare St Lazare Ireland, was performed in the main auditorium. It turned out to be an adventurous piece of Beckettiana, a compilation of excerpts from Beckett’s novels movingly recited by Conor Lovett, to the accompaniment of original music by Paul Clark, a fascinating exercise in tradition adapted.

Beckett is one of the authors who should be at home here, but there are many unspoken expectations surrounding the Abbey, and not only over production values. The biggest switch for the new artistic director might be the necessary change of mindset from being a pioneer to being an inheritor, albeit one who is keen to continue innovating, experimenting, taking risks. ‘Ireland had its national theatre before independence. The people who appeared on stage were among those who laid down their lives at the Easter Rising. There are plaques to commemorate those who died with grease paint on their faces,’ as he colourfully puts it.

‘That’s a far cry from putting on Black Watch. I savoured the fervour of the first ten years of the NTS,’ he says, while realising different talents are needed here. Among European theatres, perhaps only the Comédie Francaise has a comparable status, and that venerable institution never generated the number of riots causing outraged theatre-goers to descend onto Dublin’s streets to protest at the unwelcome depiction of the country in plays by Yeats, Synge and O’Casey, and latterly by Frank McGuinness in Caravaggio. Such a response is the dream of theatre people. It proves theatre matters.

So what is his own fire, the force that drives a man like him to make theatre? His reply is not modest. ‘It’s quite simple. It’s what we all seek. How are we going to change the world? The only reason for putting myself through the hell of making a spectacle of myself, as my mother would say, is I believe we could change the world. You could count on one hand the number of theatres which have changed the minds and hearts of people: the Berliner Ensemble in its day, the Schaubuhne perhaps, Dario Fo. In those cases, there were artists engaged in changing the world, and what is amazing about the Abbey is that from its inception it has been able to do that.’

One of the intellectual and aesthetic dilemmas in governing the Abbey is the troublesome question of the role of tradition, although it was so, more unexpectedly, in Scotland. Ireland’s theatre tradition is enormously richer and more resplendent than Scotland’s, but already when the NTS was established there were those who believed that its prime purpose should be to tend to what was already there, to give a second platform to works which had been produced only once in the Tron or the Traverse, been praised by the critics and then consigned to the attic.

The issues are more acute in the Abbey, where the theatre is more than stage and stalls, but it has to avoid becoming a heritage institution even if the institutional names are of a stature that entitles them to be viewed as having a place among the great names of western drama. That tradition is carried on by living authors whose works have been produced in the West End or on Broadway, so what is the balance to be struck between continuity and discontinuity in tradition, or Tradition? Is tradition something to be preserved for its own sake, or managed, manipulated, cultivated and innovated, or alternatively treated as an embarrassing elderly relative at the fireside who wants to discourse on the golden days long gone? How many approaches or how much schizophrenia can be tolerated?

A production of The Plough and the Stars is currently in the Abbey repertoire, but it was commissioned some months before McLaren took over, and while he speaks admiringly of O’Casey he adds, ‘I don’t think I’ll do O’Casey because he’s simply been done too often. I remember Vicki Featherstone getting into trouble when she was artistic director of the NTS for asking why she should do certain Scottish plays. The unstated coda to the opinion she expressed was – “Why should I do a particular work unless an artist comes to me with a really good idea about, for instance, Thrie Estaites?” Similarly if someone comes along to suggest it’s about time we did a version of Riders to the Sea, that’s a sympathy plea, but it’s not enough. I will always reply – “Envelope me in the passion. Make me understand why it needs doing now”.’

He speaks with focused passion, his ideas running away with him and coming out with a force of eloquence and a fund of expletives, as he ponders various aspects of his position. ‘Neil and I are the first directors to be released from some historical responsibilities. We have brought some perspective and energy of the kind John McGrath, Giles Havergal and Vicki Featherstone brought to Scotland. They transformed us Scots. I think the clarity we have brought here has been refreshing.

‘The job of an artistic director is to make things move on. Politicians have legislation, Charles Dickens had his pen but a theatre has a stage and five hundred people who will listen. That is a privilege and a responsibility, but the task is to foster change. The question with NTS was what could it be? Here the question put to me at the Abbey is what should it be? The problem inherent in that question is that we might end up looking over our shoulder at … the list is endless. We could be in the position of those people who are managing the estates of Brecht, Beckett or Lorca. Whatever their intentions, they are killing them. They have reverence, not respect.’

The task is to navigate between these similar but antithetical concepts, between stultifying reverence and healthy respect. ‘There was an American director who used to say that the greatest collaborator with Shakespeare is the individual theagre-goer, so my job is to say to these young artists who want to stage a revival, to take the work and pull it apart, because otherwise we’ll never have another O’Casey. I have respect but no reverence. I respect the canon and convention, but I have no reverence for them, nor should I have. The Irish tradition is rich and vigorous. At the NTS, we used to say that as a national theatre we are fifty years behind London but a hundred years behind Dublin.’

Any aim to change the world will involve a venture into politics, something which can be achieved either by providing a forum for preachy agit-prop or for more subtle forms of dramatised clash and debate. Can theatre deal best with current issues or should it restrict itself to examining underlying values and directions? When we met, the topic of the day in Ireland was abortion with the referendum still ahead. Unexpectedly McLaren pointed to the impact of a play by the Quebecquois writer Michel Tremblay which had been performed as a comedy in Scotland under the title The Guid Sisters, and which he directed in the Abbey as The Unmanageable Sisters. ‘It did not have the resonance in Scotland it had in Ireland, but at its heart is the tragedy of teenage pregnancy. I saw women in tears on the stairwell because that was their experience, and in forty years no one had ever told that story. Political theatre is best conveyed in the John McGrath style, by combining political content and popular form. These are the two wires, like earth and live. Put them together and they spark.’

There are other ways of making sparks fly. In the days of Babel, McLaren staged several much admired productions of Greek tragedy. ‘I was inspired by the purity of form and was obsessed by the idea of catharsis. Ena Lamont Stewart was dealing with the same issues as Sophocles, but in different circumstances. A tragic character is one facing forces greater than himself, and often these are related to social and political issues. That was the case with Lamont Stewart or Joe Corrie. There was the same potential for catharsis and tragedy.’ He is looking again at the Theban Trilogy, and it might well provide what he calls one of those ‘Oh my God’ moments which theatre is uniquely placed to offer.

In his present position, facing the demands of tradition and iconoclasm, moving from a new national company in Scotland to a venerable company in Ireland, Graham McLaren compares himself whimsically to Marty McFly, the baffled hero of Back to the Future. In both places, he has to strike a balance between past and future. A high-wire artist has an easier job.

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NEW POEMS: Brian Johnstone

Treading the Boards

The air of 1960 holds him still
in mid-dive, arms extended, legs aligned:

the ten year old who took the top board
in his stride, took this year younger kid,

every bit a show-off, up as far as second top
to execute the flop that still stings

in recall. He hangs there yet, the older boy,
the grace of one brief moment caught

as if it hadn’t ended, never could; his hands
had never split the surface of the pool,

his body hadn’t slipped into the space
below the board he’d sprung from, to rise up

through the water shaking drops out of his hair,
grin as broad as Portobello Sands

spread across his face. Just enough to tempt
this one admiring friend to climb

up time and time again, until each board
was taken – save the top. From that

a jump alone had to suffice, a step out
into air I’m surely treading still, almost afloat.

The Marks on the Map

You number them off on a tramp – the big house,
the lodge, the manse – each good for a cup of tea
in your hand, a piece on jam, some bacon clapped
in a bap. It’s the back door ever, a knock, the wait:
Any odd jobs needing done? Some kindling to chop,
a shoe on a last to tack back to shape, some dreels
to dig over or weed. And, maybe a barn to doss in
if the farmer’s a man with a kindly heart; the back
of a dyke if he’s not. Old coats and jackets: things
that you need, or boots that have seen better days;
the minister’s breeks once, threadbare at the knee,
nothing a needle and yarn couldn’t save. And you
number them off on the map in your head – a flea
in your ear, long stand in the cold, a rare welcome
that warm by a Rayburn door – each one a species
of kindness or scorn, a foot put in front of another.


Just as rubbings have taken
the words we wrote as infants,

chalk dust the letters on slates
our grandparents laboured to shape,

so the lessening chill of the day,
the weakling sun of winter,

has warmed this pane just enough
to erase the message a child has left

for someone coming in on his wake
to stare through this window

at snow that’s beginning to melt;
the meaning he tried to impart

vanished, but for the ghost of a script
caught in the sheen of the glass,

only there when viewed at a slant,
but lost with the swab of a hand.


for Will Maclean

You return to the township your family had dwelt in
for years. Years that brought changes
none would have imagined

even as house after house was closed up, doors locked,
keys trusted to neighbours who, in their turn,
did the same. So few left now

the language has withered away, the stories they told
have dissolved; there’s nothing to grasp
but the map, the web of relations

who lived in this place, gave some meaning and sense
to the stones. For that’s what remains:
four walls, if you’re lucky,

some rafters, a rotting of mortar and thatch, thresholds
you tread on, remembering those
that had dwelt here, and all

they recounted lifetimes ago, when you listened, a boy,
laid in store what no-one can take from you,
none can bring back to these stones.

The Weight

She carries within her a weight
neither large nor small, just
exactly the size of itself;

the size of a childhood spent
in his steps, shoes that bit bigger,
height a span more;

the size of a brother, first
to that risk, that chancy return,
first to make ways for himself;

and knows that the mention
of merely his name, the date
of his name day, the night

that he crashed is enough
to dredge depths of her grief
she will recognise, even if not

plumbed before; knows that
for her Anastasi always is soured:
a locked door, a shut window,

an unbroken loaf; knows that
the last words he heard, someone’s
chronia polla! only deepen

her hurt, a stone in the grain sack
to bolster the weight; flour
cut with chalk, ever bitter to taste.
* * *
Anastasi: Resurrection ie Easter Sunday (Greek Orthodox)
chronia polla!: Greek Easter greeting (literally ‘many years’)

Day of Rest

They speak of those Sabbaths as lost,
the forbearance changes simply forgot,
doors closed, the good book, no catches

unlatched. For the brazen, maybe a walk,
just ten minutes down to the shore, lest
someone should see, turn disapproval

to censure, at best to a pursing of lips,
an intake of breath at their gall. Those
that wouldn’t lift peat from the stack,

wash any dishes from morning till night,
or open a window to freshen the air;
those perhaps the most driven in life,

the ones who took work at a pace, let it
measure their years like a pendulum
shifting in space. To them give the rest,

give one day in the week when nothing
was something, the graft of the present
was simply laid down, left till the dawn.

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There has never, to state the very obvious, been an easy time to pursue a writing career. But certain events in the past decade – the Great Recession, the onslaught of digital, the economic decline of print journalism – have made it harder still. We seem to have entered a world where Virginia Woolf’s room of one’s own is in danger of becoming most authors’ lifetime habitation.

The idea of an aspiring ‘serious’ novelist, truly committed to his or her craft, being able to afford a small flat, let alone an imposing, persona-defining home, is increasingly improbable. Yet, once upon a time, Somerset Maugham had the Villa Mauresque in Cap Ferrat, Edith Wharton had the Mount in Massachusetts, and Walter Scott, of course, had Abbotsford. Literary writers all – it scarcely seems believable.

Perhaps the last great author’s home/artistic salon was ‘La Rondinaia’, Gore Vidal’s villa in Ravello, on the Amalfi Coast. Clinging to a cliff face, two hundred metres above the Mediterranean, La Rondinaia (‘The Swallow’s Nest’) was built in 1925 and bought by Vidal in 1972. He sold it in 2006 and, though it’s firmly closed to the public, I was lucky enough to get the chance to wander around it not so long ago. Even in its current, neglected state, it’s an astonishing place and reflects his personality in ways he perhaps never quite intended.

I first became aware of Vidal when I saw him being interviewed on television by Clive James in the early 1990s. The aging heartthrob appearance and patrician drawl made their customary impression. But it was what he said that really captured my attention. He spoke about wealth inequality and the deformation of politics by corporate greed. He predicted a significant increase in tensions between the Muslim world and the West. He dismissed US Presidential elections as meaningless, disputatious carnivals in which the two candidates were funded by the same elite interests and represented merely different wings of a single ‘property party’. This was all heady stuff to a naive Ayrshire teenager. Even at the time, I noticed that TV critics who reviewed the interview scolded him for being so cynical. Yet everything he said has since entered the mainstream political dialogue and seems like plain commonsense. What strikes me now is not so much his prescience as his guts. He said what he thought and didn’t care whom he annoyed.

I can’t say I went on to read everything he wrote, but I read a good deal, in particular the essay collection, United States, and the memoir, Palimpsest. I even met him, albeit very briefly, at the Edinburgh Book Festival. Given his waspish reputation, I was incredibly nervous, but what struck me was how patient he was with those of us in the signing queue, paying close attention to our babbled remarks. Unlike many acclaimed authors, he seemed not to have lost the ability to listen.

Though I continued to follow his media appearances into his seventies and eighties, I watched with sadness as too much booze caused the prescient scepticism to degenerate into hectoring paranoia. When he died, in 2012, I despaired of the media obituaries, most of which portrayed him as a camp purveyor of bitchy put-downs. But it had also occurred to me for some time that he was, at heart, a rather old-fashioned person, whose reputation for coldness derived in part from his belief that the public sphere was the place for reasoned argument and nothing else. In an era when effusive, emotional ‘sincerity’ was prized above all else – even when concealing absolute vacuity – he was bound to end up out of step.

And then I found myself in Amalfi, on a package holiday with my wife. Having done some research in advance, I contacted local hotelier, Vincenzo Palumbo, the current owner of La Rondinaia, and, via a mixture of dogged persistence and rudimentary Italian, managed to tag along while he showed the property to some rich Americans he was courting as investors.

Vidal’s guests included Mick Jagger, Greta Garbo, Springsteen and Hilary Clinton

Having assembled with the others in the main square of Ravello, my wife and I set off on a route that I’d read about in numerous profiles of the great man: through the discreet iron gate then along a cliff-side path, shaded by drooping wisteria and overgrown with chestnut trees, their fallen husks crunching underfoot. Citrus groves and a small vineyard, bordered by swaying cypress trees, shelved away steeply. Far below lay the Gulf of Salerno. Mingled scents of rosemary, lavender and thyme filled the air. We followed steps down to a pool area (the pool itself drained to reveal its startling, dark blue tiles) and finally arrived at the graceful entrance, where a statue of the Virgin Mary clasped its hands in an alcove above the door.

Inside, the house appeared slightly smaller at first than I’d expected from seeing it in various documentaries (a judiciously chosen camera lens can turn a small tiled bathroom into the Palace of Mirrors at Versailles). But it was deceptive, following the classical Roman layout, whereby numerous unsuspected rooms fan out from narrow corridors. And the architectural details didn’t disappoint: barrel-vaulted ceilings, elegant archways, terracotta tiled floors, Tufa stone fireplaces. On the dining room wall hung a first century AD mosaic of a hippocampus, which must be worth an absolute fortune and would, in any country other than Italy, have long since been sequestered in a museum.

Beautiful as all this was, though, the rooms lay empty. The only exception was the study, still crammed with Vidal’s possessions, in the half-hearted intention of turning it into a museum. Copies of his books, some rain damaged, filled the shelves and several bottles of booze were on display on his writing desk, alongside a portable Olivetti. A portrait (the same one that appeared on the cover of Time magazine in 1976) was propped against the fireplace. Elsewhere, there was tarpaulin over some of the windows, and bare wires hanging down the walls. Scaffolding covered parts of the façade and canvas sacks of debris were dotted around the place, along with an idle cement mixer. It seemed as if Palumbo’s dream of turning the place into a luxury boutique hotel and spa had long since foundered.

It was sad. As you moved around the neg-lected rooms and stepped onto the broad terrace, you could hear the laughing voices of yesteryear. Celebrity guests once included Paul Newman, Mick Jagger, Greta Garbo, Sting, Bruce Springsteen and Susan Sarandon. More stirringly, the house also played host to writers like Tennessee Williams and Italo Calvino. (The residents of Ravello refuse to be dissuaded from their assertion that Jackie Kennedy was a guest at the house, even though Vidal fell out with her long before he bought the property. Hilary Clinton, yes; Jackie O, no.)

But, in spite of the emptiness and general dilapidation, nothing could diminish the views. Standing on the smallest balcony, looking out at the heat-soldered sea and sky, you felt as if you were in an opera box suspended above an infinity of blue. To the south-east, towards Paestum, the rocky, precipitous coastline was lost in a haze of antiquity – Magna Graecia.

Huddled into the soft limestone, La Rondinaia, for all its glamour, feels like a refuge. You can see why it would appeal so much to a man who, whatever his peccadilloes, always felt compelled to place himself above it all – not only above political graft and literary envy, but above ordinary heartaches. None the less, ordinary heartaches came to him in the end. His life partner, Howard Austen, died in 2003 and he was compelled to relocate to his house in Los Angeles, grieving both for Howard and for La Rondinaia. He confessed that when he woke in the night in LA, he could still hear the guides’ voices from the tourist boats far below declaring, “Li vive lo famosissimo scritore Americano, Gore Vidal….”

Our tour over, we returned to the town’s main square. Palumbo had the preoccupied, disconsolate look of a man who knew that he had, from a commercial viewpoint, bought a lemon – an Amalfi lemon, the best kind, but a lemon none the less. Who knows if the rich Americans (who serenely ignored our presence throughout the tour) made an offer to invest in La Rondinaia as a hotel. But I do know that Palumbo has since put it on sale again for twenty million dollars, so I suspect not.

As we left Ravello, I was preoccupied with all the standard thoughts about mortality and the artist’s galvanising wound and the evanescence of fame. But then, to cheer myself up, I recalled my own favourite Vidalian story – one that didn’t appear in any of the obtuse obituaries. Allan Massie once told me about being asked by his publisher to try and elicit a blurb from Vidal (with whom he enjoyed a cordial if distant acquaintance) for his forthcoming Roman novel. Reluctantly, Massie made the request. Vidal responded generously in the end, but his first offering prompted a certain amount of consternation. It read, “Modesty forbids me from calling Allan Massie the world’s second greatest historical novelist.”

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In a two-part essay originally written for Partisan Review, Arthur Koestler meditated on the origins of ‘The Intelligentsia’. It was typical Koestler, a mixture of windy science and visionary percipience.

In the first part, he speculates on the nature of brain cells: were they ordinary body cells that over evolutionary time had become sensitized and specialized? Or was brain matter fundamental and our outer bodies simply a toughened sheath made of degraded neurological cells? This was, of course, a metaphorical way of looking at the origins and role of an intelligentsia in modern society. Either we were all intelligentsia once, in some golden age, before most of us were sidelined into leaden social roles; or societies found a way of sensitizing some of their citizens and privileging them with the role of thinker and improver.

As Ralph E. Matlaw has noted, the term ‘intelligentsia’ carries ‘greater ethical implications’ than the term ‘intellectual’. In keeping with the didacticism that always lies at the heart of Russian culture, but which we continue to blame on the ‘command’ culture of the Soviet era, thinking and art are always directed towards change in some degree, whether in society at large or in the individual. Matlaw also points out that in the Russian context, and before ‘intelligentsia’ was appropriated internationally as a term, admiring or sneering, for the chattering class, there was another, more socially specific, word in use. Raznochintsy simply means ‘people of different classes’ and refers to those who have managed to detach themselves from humble origins in order to pursue aspirational careers. Many of these people joined the intelligentsia.

What has this to do with Ivan Turgenev, whose bicentenary is celebrated this year? The life didn’t start humbly. His father was a nobleman, who had faced down Napoleon’s Grande Armée in the Patriotic War of 1812. Turgenev himself never married but contented himself among his female serfs before falling in life with the opera singer Pauline Viardot. By then, Turgenev was an international figure, living in Baden-Baden and Paris, accepting an honorary degree at Oxford. He was the model of what Western readers and fellow-writers expected of a Russian novelist. Ernest Hemingway knew enough of him – he’d probably read the Constance Garnett translation – to pinch The Torrents of Spring as a title. Nabokov loved the prose, but hated the clunky endings. Henry James and Joseph Conrad admired him. His closest literary friend was Gustave Flaubert, himself the paradigm of what we now expect the novelist to be. And yet, much as in music, hierarchies of taste shift. Where once Beethoven was considered without much dissent to stand at the pinnacle of classical composition, now it’s Mozart’s more playful and improvisational style that heads the roster. In the same way, Turgenev’s reputation has ceded in recent times to that of Dostoevsky and Tolstoy. Turgenev quarrelled with the latter, but made up with him on his deathbed and pled with him to return to literature. Dostoevsky caricatured Turgenev in The Devils as Karmazinov, a vain poseur living off his reputation.

A straw poll of friends and students suggests that Turgenev is not so much read now, which seems a pity. The novella First Love, published in 1860, is one of the greatest love stories of all time, but also a brilliant illustration of the principle most clearly aired by Philip Roth that everything that is processed by memory is fiction; or, that fiction is simply what is processed by memory. This is overwhelmingly true in Turgenev’s case. The memory that drove First Love, the carefully framed story of how 16-year-old Vladimir Petrovich fell in love with 21-year-old Zinaida Alexandrovna Zasyekina after meeting her at a party, was a memory from his own past, sharpened by the knowledge that the girl the young Ivan had fallen for turned out to be his father’s mistress. Not much that Turgenev wrote was without some autobiographical element.

The secret to his greatness is that, as Belinsky noted, he had no imagination. Turgenev saw, and he wrote. The sharp decline in his later work, and notably in the ambitious but hollow Virgin Soil (which saw him well on his way to becoming Karmazinov), was due to his distance from his subject matter. Living abroad meant that Turgenev had no feel for the Populists he tried to portray, while in the ‘Nihilist’ Bazarov, the central character of Fathers and Sons, he knew his man from the inside out and was able to apply the ‘secret psychology’ he believed was essential to the novelist: the ability to understand the inner workings of an individual without writing about them. Turgenev was a superficial writer. He wrote about behaviour and he carefully transcribed dialogue. He doesn’t give us much of a character’s inner world, and yet we know his finest characters with a special intimacy.

What has this in turn to do with Koestler’s para-science? Turgenev seems to have thought in similar terms. Some of his characters appear to have acquired a sensitivity to the world and its ills through experience. Some, and perhaps notoriously Bazarov, seem to hide their feelings and the roots of their beliefs behind an ‘armour’ of studied physicality. It’s perhaps no coincidence that Koestler was writing when the sexological theories of Wilhelm Reich were also becoming fashionable. Reich’s concept of ‘body armour’ and the socialized ego often seems relevant to Turgenev’s characters. But so too is the sense that intellect and feeling must also have some deeper ethical dimension.

There is a certain consensus now that, while First Love is his most beautiful story and best reflects his mastery of the novella, Fathers and Sons is by far the finest of his novels. The early Rudin and A Nest of Gentlefolk have their virtues, which are broadly the same virtues to be found in the short pieces that make up A Sportsman’s Sketches, but they do not have the remarkable structural integrity of the 1862 novel. They also present problems of translation that have never quite been overcome. Ralph Matlaw’s revision of the Constance Garnett Fathers and Sons delivers that book in almost ideal form, even if the title really ought to be Fathers and Children.

It is a book dominated by a single character. Yevgeny Vasilevich Bazarov is a hugely controversial character. Friends who saw the manuscript begged Turgenev not to publish, convinced that Bazarov (who was based on a doctor Turgenev met on a train) would be misconstrued as an assault on the young, or worse still, that Turgenev would be accused of throwing in his lot with ‘nihilism’. He didn’t invent the term, but he gave it currency. Far from having a sensitive core, Bazarov presents himself as the ultimate empiricist, disbelieving in all abstraction, sentiment, love, art and beauty – it’s hard to believe that Hemingway didn’t get as far as Fathers and Sons, too – and trusting only in science and dissection. It is in the end dissection that kills him, a rampant sepsis contracted while helping his old father with a rural autopsy. Surprisingly few commentators dwell on the appropriateness and/or irony of that fate, preferring to consider the deathbed scene and curiously fudged ending that follows it.

A straw poll of friends and students suggests that Turgenev is not so much read now, which seems a pity.

Turgenev laboured hard and long to thwart any conclusion about his loyalty or otherwise to Bazarov, or his feelings about the fathers’ generation. He admitted to correspondents that he was instinctively of Bazarov’s party, in believing that the timid reforms that were slowly changing the nature of serfdom were insufficient. Bazarov is the first Bolshevik. We admire and distrust him equally because of that hindsight, but we are fascinated by him because he is a man whose denials of an inner life make us all the more convinced that emotion roils within him. By contrast, his friend and would-be disciple Arkady seems almost wilfully one-dimensional, a hostage to the last book he read or the last charismatic person encountered.

For all its understandable reputation as a tract about the conflict between a new and an older Russia, Fathers and Sons is a delicate web of love stories, a comedy of manners played out with the utmost delicacy and control. Arkady’s father, a liberal landowner on a small scale, has taken his late housekeeper’s daughter as a mistress and has had a child by her. Fenechka is also (secretly) loved by Arkady’s uncle, a marvellous creation who believes himself to be of aristocratic rank and who ends his life in exile, as a sad boulevardier. Bazarov’s surgeon father knows himself to be out of touch with the modern world and compensates for that by committing himself to the twin cults of Orthodoxy and his own son. A book that is supposedly about the tension between generations is very much about the effects of love between the generations. This extends in surprising directions. The illegitimate child Nikolai Petrovich Kirsanov has with Fenechka is an object of profound love as well as a living symbol of the distance between the classes. Nikolai’s brother Pavel Petrovich buries his affections deeply until gallantry dictates that he fight a duel with Bazarov after he witnesses the young nihilist forcing a kiss on Fenechka. All this is done with operatic indifference to probability but with decidedly un-operatic economy. The two young men are both attracted to the wealthy widow Anna Sergevna Odintsova, who like several of the modern women in the book are often referred to in the male form of their names, as if that boundary has also been breached. Bazarov declares his love, but Odintsov either judges that a man who denies poetry probably has no heart, or senses that there is something dead in herself. Arkady, meanwhile, very wisely switches his intentions to Odintsov’s young sister and promptly marries her.

Bazarov’s fate is less happy. The representative of the future has to make do with a fleeting visit from his putative beloved and then a tatty grave. All that Turgenev has left for us is the poignancy of the parents’ grief – their future has been abruptly torn away – and a rather pious conclusion about the eternal nature of …nature. But with Turgenev, we are more inclined to trust the tale rather than the teller. The pro forma ending doesn’t in any way dull the profundity of his analysis of human relations. His conclusion, which is an attractively modern (even modernist) one is that the only emancipation that counts is not the emancipation of a class but emancipation of the heart.

The hostile reception Fathers and Sons received prompted Turgenev to leave Russia. Being his country’s foremost cultural representative in the West was a role that suited him, but it cut him off from his subject matter and unquestionably harmed him as a writer. Smoke, which he completed in 1867, was a novel of exile. Set in Baden-Baden, where he had gone to be near Pauline Viardot, but also a favourite resort of disgruntled Russian gentry alarmed at the turns their country was taking, it is another complicated love story interwoven with a series of ‘condition of Russia’ set-pieces. It sparked a row with Dostoevsky, who disliked it and found Turgenev himself absurd.

He lived on, absurd or not, until 1883. His birth and death dates match to the year those of Karl Marx, another great prose stylist and controversialist, who is fated to be more written about than read. When he lay dying, in fierce agonies from the cancerous abscess that was attacking his upper vertebrae, Turgenev threw an inkwell at his lover Pauline Viardot. It may well just have been a sick man lashing out, but Turgenev never forget anything that he had seen or read, and the gesture immediately recalls the moment when Marx’s second most important intellectual forebear Martin Luther flung his inkwell at the Devil. For Turgenev, not woman, but the love she commanded was the very devil. Throwing ink at the problem never quite made it go away, but it resulted in some of the finest writing of the age.

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In the whirlwind of Freshers’ Week at Edinburgh College of Art in 1961, Helen Percy, 18 years old and newly arrived from Golspie, attended a concert, ‘a wild, orgiastic, anarchic charade’, in which a pianist, draped in a fishing net, with a butcher’s bone on a rope around his waist, ‘thundered out crazy jazz’. She doesn’t confirm until a few chapters later what the reader already suspects: that this is her first encounter with her future husband, John Bellany.

It took a little over a year for John, a student in the year above, to ask her out. They moved in together immediately and got engaged two months later, hurtling into the future supremely confident of two things: that they would spend the rest of their lives together, and that Bellany would become a great artist. After a fashion, allowing fate’s rollercoaster a few twists and turns, they were right.

These opening chapters set the tone for Helen’s account of their life together. Her writing is guileless and immediate, full of emotion. There are few half-measures. After John has asked her out, she is ‘crazy with elation’, in their first weeks together they are ‘floating in orbit way off the earth’. Later on, there are times of ‘blackness that permits no light or form of escape’. In her writing, she does not reflect on events as much as relive them, so the reader relives them with her, both the joy and the despair. It makes for a compelling, if not always comfortable, journey.

The Bellanys’ first home was a top floor flat on Edinburgh’s Rose Street which John rented as a studio, a place with rudimentary electricity, no heating and a single cold water tap. But they demonstrate from the start an impressive lack of concern for home comforts. Helen writes that Bellany’s overriding characteristic was his ‘joie de vivre’, a determination to lay of hold of life and all it had to offer. In fact, both had an extraordinary ability to live for the moment, disregarding inconvenient practicalities. This, it turns out, proved very useful later on.

Helen was quickly introduced to John’s family in Port Seton and grandparents in Eyemouth, experiencing first hand the world which fuelled his imaginative life. Some artists need time to discover their subject matter; John Bellany arrived with his fully formed, a well of imagery and mythology drawn from the proud, insular, superstitious fishing communities in which he grew up, on which he would draw for the rest of his life.

Although Helen arrived in Edinburgh with her own dreams of being an artist, she quickly decided that her future lay in supporting Bellany’s mission. She says she ‘lacked the drive and ego required’ to pursue art for herself. ‘Also, in the face of such a towering presence as John’s my efforts would be totally incongruous. There just wasn’t room for more than one artist in our menage… one of the two used up all and more of the space both physically and psychologically.’

The flip-side of the Bellany joie de vivre was a naked fear of ‘death and [the] sure promise of hell’.

Bellany quite simply lived to paint. Everywhere he went, he drew. The act of drawing and painting was as essential as breathing, and this Helen never questions. Painting ‘came before everything’. [I had] ‘no issue about accepting our [herself and her children’s] secondary place in regard to his painting’. Perhaps it was ever thus for the women who live with great artists.

By the time the Bellanys arrived in London in 1965, Helen was expecting their first child. They had nowhere to live, no money (John was a postgraduate at the RCA) and no ante-natal care, but John was a devotee of Mr Micawber: something would always turns up. ‘We were so naive about everyday things,’ Helen writes, revealingly, ‘it is a miracle we survived anywhere.’

Jonathan was born, followed shortly by Paul and Anya, but by now the bright idealism of youth was starting to wane. John was staying out too late, too often, coming home drunk and full of apologies. After years of living hand-to-mouth, harking at the sound of every late-night taxi in the street outside, Helen had had enough. She asked him to move out in 1974, filing for divorce so she could claim state benefit as a single parent.

Living alone, Bellany’s drinking slipped from sociable to destructive. When the children visited him every Saturday, they were sent to the local shop with the same shopping list: sixty fags, B.O.B. (bottle of bacardi), Coca Cola, tin of cat food, any treats they’d like for themselves. He was still selling very little work, but had become a popular teacher, and the life and soul of every party on the art scene. And, remarkably, even when his drinking was out of control, it did not dent the productivity or quality of his painting.

In 1979, John married Juliet Lister, whom he met at Croydon School of Art where he was teaching. She suffered from bipolar disorder for which she was frequently hospitalised, and had a drink problem of her own, but they seemed to find fragile happiness together for a time. Helen writes little about this period in his life, as they were estranged, but comments later that the turbulence brought ‘a wildness to his vision and a freedom to the touch of his brush’.

Although she was his muse, and intimately involved in his work for much of his life, Helen writes comparatively little about John’s painting. Perhaps it was such an integral part of life – the living stream from which everything else flowed – that analysis seems inappropriate. But she does comment that the rich personal mythology on which he drew had its dark side too, populating his nightmares with hell and damnation. The flip-side of the Bellany joie de vivre was a naked fear of ‘death and [the] sure promise of hell’, which surfaced at difficult times.

Making her way alone, Helen started studying for a degree in psychology while working full-time as an art therapist, but the children gave her increasing cause for anxiety. Jonathan and Paul, entering their teens, became involved in the skinhead scene with its attendant right-wing politics, and Anya (whose dyslexia was not diagnosed until she was 18) struggled and rebelled at school. John’s help, perhaps predictably, was nowhere to be found.

Then, in 1984, at the age of 42, he was hospitalised with acute liver failure. Doctors gave him an ultimatum: stop drinking or die. He never touched alcohol again, but the damage to his liver was irreparable, his life-expectancy much reduced.

And now we reach perhaps the most remarkable twist in the story. With John ill and Juliet estranged and in hospital, Helen moved back in. With the spectre of alcohol banished, she and John began to rediscover their former happiness. For the first time since they separated, her writing takes on a tone of contentment: ‘The living breathing tide of creativity I had been starved of, that had so inspired me, now flooded back into my veins’. In January 1986, John and Helen remarried.

Finally, in his mid forties, John’s career was taking off with major exhibitions and sales. He and Helen were drawn into a new social circle of people keen to collect his work. Sean Connery and his wife became friends, as did David Bowie (a Bellany fan, who spent time quietly exploring Port Seton on his own, unbeknownst to the media). There is such joy in all this that one could almost forget John’s health balanced on a knife-edge. Helen writes: ‘Life was a rush of pleasure and private pain… a relentless pattern of swinging from one extreme to the other, from crazy happiness to frantic despair’. The rollercoaster kept rolling.

By late 1987, they had reached the end of the line. John’s only hope was a liver transplant. Despite his physical frailty, he met the requirements and a match was found, but the surgery was still pioneering: one in three patients did not survive. John, however, surfaced in intensive care making motions for pencil and paper. Art is life, after all; he needed to know he was still alive, so he needed to draw. Soon his hospital room was lined with watercolour portraits of the medical staff.

So began his second life. His career was in full-flight; there were exhibitions across the world, and the Bellanys attend most of them. They travelled to Mexico and to China as the guests of collectors, and everywhere John went, he drew. At last, there were no money worries. They bought a house in Italy, near Barga, and embraced life there easily and joyfully. Their children married and had children of their own; the family grew, the days were golden.

John’s health problems continued, but they were not to be dwelt on. The Bellanys were again exercising their astonishing ability to embrace life and not let the difficulties distract them. As Helen writes, poignantly: ‘The show had to go on and it would last as long as he could make it, and I was in total agreement with that’.

So, the man who thought he might not reach 45 celebrated his 50th birthday and his 60th in life-loving ebullience. But his last self-portrait, done around the time of his 70th birthday in 2012, shows him gaunt and frail. By then, his health problems had multiplied, and the heavy medication he had been taking since the transplant had begun to exact its price, not only in physical discomforts but in mood swings, night terrors, paranoia. Perhaps most despairingly, macular degeneration was affecting his sight. On bad days, he could no longer see to paint.

The last chapters of The Restless Wave make painful reading. Helen is as unflinching as she is uncomplaining. A few days after the opening of his retrospective, A Passion for Life, organised by the National Galleries of Scotland in 2012 at the RSA building in Edinburgh, John was once again in hospital, a pattern which continued until his death in August 2013.

Further books will be written about John Bellany. Other writers must evaluate and analyse his work, reflect on him in the context of his antecedents and his peers, contemplate his unique personal symbolism, weigh up his achievements. But I’ll wager that none of them will immerse the reader so immediately and completely in the Bellanys’ world as the book written by the woman who knew him best, who rode the lifelong rollercoaster at his side.

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One of the age-old qualities of art is its capacity to transcend the limits of place, time and selfhood. At a time when countries around the world – especially in Europe – are retreating into themselves, art might function as a countervailing force: a way of looking beyond the horizon.

The playwright and director David Greig has never been afraid to roam far and wide in his plays. His main-stage debut at the Traverse in 1996 was called Europe. It was set in an anonymous European border town and explored the impact of mass migration and civil war at the end of the twentieth century. A later play, San Diego (2003), switched between twenty different locations and explored the myriad disorientations of globalisation. In The Cosmonaut’s Last Message to the Woman He Once Loved in the Former Soviet Union (1999), he even un-tethered his protagonists from the confines of the earth itself. As the title suggests, it featured two cosmonauts, floating in a capsule in space, forgotten by those who put them there but hoping to be remembered by those they love.

Greig was born in Edinburgh in 1969. After living in Nigeria for a decade, he spent his teenage years in the city of his birth, studied at Bristol University and moved back to Scotland shortly afterwards. In the early 1990s, he founded the Suspect Theatre Company with director Graham Eatough. Between 2005-2007, he was the National Theatre of Scotland’s first dramaturg. A prolific playwright, he has written, adapted and directed too many plays to mention but a few. Whether based in Scotland or not, they all contain the same worldly, otherworldly and deep political themes. Caledonia Dreaming, for example, was a satire about a Scottish member of the European Parliament with a wild ambition to bring the Olympic Games to Edinburgh. Dunsinane (2010) was a sequel to Macbeth. Although set in the 11th Century, it had a contemporary resonance: Britain’s invasion of Iraq in 2003. His work rate is matched by an almost quixotic sense of ambition. In August 2015, he accomplished the seemingly impossible, successfully adapting Alasdair Gray’s Lanark for the stage. Shortly afterwards, he was appointed
the Artistic Director of the Edinburgh’s Lyceum Theatre.

Nick Major met David Greig in one of the Lyceum’s plush, red-carpeted function rooms. Greig is tall and slim with short hair and youthful alert eyes. He was dressed in blue check shirt and wore a navy sweatshirt and jeans, and brown shoes. He had a quiet calm demeanour and an ability to talk at-length on any subject. Before he was whisked away on directorial duties, Greig talked about the art of putting together a theatre’s season programme, the particular pressures of writing for stage, and how his early years at the Edinburgh Festival Fringe have helped him direct the city’s most distinguished playhouse.

SRB: It would be useful to get a sense of your day-to-day life. What were you doing before this interview?

David Greig: I had a couple of meetings. I met with the Scottish Community Drama Association, which is an organising body for amateur theatre in Scotland. I wanted to see whether there were any connections we could build with them. I think there’s something very interesting about non-professional theatre. It’s something that I have done at the Lyceum in the past with community chorus. I have this profound feeling that, to quote Bertolt Brecht, ‘Theatre is a transformative art and the people it transforms the most are those who make it.’ I had a meeting with the Royal Conservatoire of Scotland in Glasgow on a similar topic – to find ways that we could be of help to their students and their students could be of help to us. We are about to make our season announcement so immediately after this interview I will be speaking to the whole Lyceum company. That will be the first of a phase of announcements. We announce it to the company, then the subscribers, then to the public. So that’s an exciting phase of the theatre’s life. There isn’t really a day-to-day, but there’s a certain rhythm to the theatre: the productions come through and there’s the first day of rehearsal, dress rehearsals, last run-through, previews and openings, and that sort of thing. But there’s a lot of writing work as well.

Do you have time to write built into your day?

I take writing days. I try to assign to each project the requisite amount of days. In some ways that’s good, but it is interesting for the writer in me. Before I had the job, writing was painful and unpleasant. I always broke deadlines and agonised and procrastinated and it always seemed like there wasn’t enough time. Now the same is true, although my actual writing days have shrunk from 365 to 50. I still get it done. I have just telescoped the angst into a shorter number of days. It’s efficient but I can’t say it’s pleasant. It’s also odd because normally the artistic director of a theatre is a director, so when they are doing their artistic work they are actually in the building – they have a presence. Whereas, when the artistic director is a writer they need solitude. I have to get away. I do think that absence can be problematic so I have started to rent a shop under the offices on the other side of the road. I sit in the window and write – part of that is so writing is less absent. People crossing between the office and the theatre can see me working.

Do you still go to a cottage on Rannoch Moor to write?

I still do that. There are phases of writing. I spend a long time on practical work, research and construction. Then I begin a slow-build, which I can do in periods of two days at a time. But there comes a point when I have to hit a draft. I find for that I need to go away. Part of the reason I go to Rannoch Moor is that there is no wi-fi or phone. In the modern world, I find that unbelievably productive.

Do you write on a computer?

Yes, I pretty much always have – I’m of that generation. The first mass market green screen Amstrads came out when I began writing plays.

In the introduction to your Collected Plays, you recount W.S. Graham becoming lost in a snowstorm on Rannoch Moor. For Graham, the empty white landscape became a metaphor for the white page. The writer has to navigate across both.

I use W.S. Graham’s work as a touchstone for a number of things. One of the questions I ask on any project is, how would W.S. Graham would write this play? It throws open a different approach. Graham’s poems are always written with the knowledge that they are being written. That translates to me as theatre that is aware of itself and is searching for a way to escape its own medium. In one of Graham’s poems, he describes a beast hammering on the other side of the page. Writers are trying to create an object that communicates something. They will never achieve it. But as a result of trying, what they create can have these resonances that go out to other people.

You also wrote, ‘Creating a play happens for me when, driven by some mad impulse, I strike out into the chaotic snowstorm of my heart and mind in search of a lift home.’ Your work is often set in liminal places: aeroplanes, hotels, and train stations. Do you know why?

I wrote a whole series of short plays set in the rooms and atriums of hotels. The poet John Burnside, in one of his poems, says, ‘forgive me this: I never really mastered coming home’. I think it is because I am what’s called a ‘third culture person’. Both of my parents and extended family are from Aberdeen but I’m not. I was brought up in Nigeria. So, I have a kind of convert’s zeal for belonging to a place because it’s not natural to me – I think to a certain degree that applies to Scotland as a general rule. I don’t have a natural feeling that I’m from here. I don’t sound like I’m from here and I have a slightly ambivalent relationship with Edinburgh.

A scene from David Greig’s adaptation of the Creditors.

Can you explain that ‘ambivalence’?

I don’t think it’s possible to be a citizen of Edinburgh and not be ambivalent about the city. People from Edinburgh would never do anything so vulgar as love their city. That’s something Glaswegians do. But joking aside, Edinburgh is an odd city. It is a capital that’s not a capital. It’s a beautiful Tuscan hill village. But it can be closed and small-minded. It’s an incredible cultural city and for one month of the year has an extraordinary burst of being. Yet, the city as an institution can be contemptuous of culture. In most cities, the middle class are confined to the suburbs and the working class are at the centre. In Edinburgh, that has been reversed, which creates an interesting and problematic dynamic. I would very much like the Lyceum to be Edinburgh’s city theatre but that’s something that takes a bit of work because Edinburgh is quite hard to reach in some ways.

Did you move from Edinburgh to Nigeria when you were young?

Yeah. My dad worked in Nigeria in the 1970s. He and my mother moved from Aberdeen to Lagos and then to a town called Jos in northern Nigeria. That was where I was largely brought up. I came back here towards the end of primary school, lived in Edinburgh and then went to university in Bristol. I had a period in Edinburgh as a teenager, but I didn’t come back until I was in my thirties. I now live in Fife so I’m not a resident. But Edinburgh is as close to home as I have. I should be clear, I do not think there is anything peculiar or unique about my peregrinations. It’s not a wound. As Bob Dylan said, ‘an artist should always be in a state of becoming’. Basically, when you think you’ve arrived, you always have to set off again. My way to maintain a sense of becoming is to never feel at home.

What was your life like in Nigeria?

I had an oddly Christian education. I went to an American Baptist Missionary School, but it was very mixed. There were Nigerian, Lebanese, Bulgarian and Russian children there. I found it idyllic. From a 1970s British perspective, West Africa had such colour and warmth and noise and excitement and life. That was an extraordinary privilege. At that point, Nigeria was just coming out of colonialism. There was huge optimism everywhere. There were regular coups during our time, but I was a kid and I didn’t really notice that.

Did you experience any theatre there?

It wasn’t until I went to Edinburgh Youth Theatre that I really encountered proper plays and theatre.

Why did you go to EYT?

Because there were girls there; I went to an all-boys school. I immediately liked it. It was clear to me that I wasn’t a very good actor, but I adored theatre and the company of actors, so the question became, how can I carry on doing this? At some stage, I tried to be a director and that is what I pursued at university. Writing came about because I was trying to find a way of being an interesting director. Everybody I knew in the early 1990s was doing radical re-workings of classic plays. I wanted to carve out a niche where someone would notice what I was doing. So, I decided to write and direct a new play. It took off from there.

Norman Mailer once said if you had to compare writing to one of the other arts, it would be acting – perhaps because both arts require the artist to inhabit the language of characters.

I see the sense of inhabiting another person, and I think there is a similarity. One thing actors sometimes say to me is, how did you hear the line? I always resist that question because, as I write a play, there is a repertory company in my head, and that company has an older woman, an ingénue, a leading man, all the stock types. But, the thing about them is that because I’m a terrible actor, so are they. One of the thrills of a rehearsal process is that when good actors get hold of the material they find the truth in it. A lot of people think I have recorded a perfect version of a play and everyone else is desperately trying to get at it. My experience is that I somehow find the play and my laborious process gets me to the play’s spirit. It takes off when it encounters other people.

That might illustrate one difference between a playwright and a novelist. Novelist has a greater sense of imaginative control over their work.

That’s the good thing about writing plays. I see it that you are creating a skeleton and other people put flesh on the bones. One of the analogies I use for playwrights and directors is climbing a mountain. I think writers want to create plays that are Mount Fuji. It doesn’t matter if you’re a good climber or where you start, you’re going to get up and you’re going to get down the mountain. Whereas directors love Annapurna – plays where there’s only one way up and only the boldest, and cleverest and best can find their way through and get back down. So, there’s always some tension between a playwright and a director because the playwright is always trying to create something that will work with any production. Whereas directors hate the idea that someone else could do the play equally well.

Is it more difficult to adapt an existing play than write a new one?

Not at all. Adaptations have their difficulties but it is much easier than writing my own play. I will be really annoyed if I haven’t put on some original plays by me over the coming few years. It was difficult in the first few years because it is always easier to create partnerships around an existing work. A new play is a much more complicated thing because you don’t know if it’s any good or if it will sell tickets. I am ready to write new plays. I have four or five thought-through ideas that need to be written.

You recently worked on Muriel Spark’s Doctor of Philosophy. Most people will know her as a novelist and a poet, but not as a playwright.

She did write radio plays, but she only wrote one stage play. Doctors of Philosophy is a brilliant and extraordinary piece of work that mixes Pirandello and Joe Orton and Oscar Wilde. It has deep elements of classic 1940s and 50s French windows-style plays but is inimitably her. There are five brilliant women characters and the male characters only exist as foils for the women. It was staged in 1963 and was a mixed success and was revived in Sweden, but apart from that it hasn’t really been seen. I was given it by Willy Maley, an academic from Glasgow University. We had a showing of some edited highlights at the Muriel Spark event at the Usher Hall, which was the closest I have ever got to a play-reading being a rock concert. That gave me a sense that it has legs. I am very hopeful that that it will see the light of day.

A scene from David Greig’s play The Suppliant Women, written for the Lyceum.

Thinking of plays being workshopped. I read that Dunsinane was workshopped before it was written. Does that happen often?

A lot, yeah. The labour of writing is getting myself to a position where the writing can begin. In order to write I need to get myself to a place where the act of not writing will result in more shame than the act of writing. Dunsinane is a long story, and it led me to a point where I was in a room with actors who were paid to be there, but there were literally no words to speak out-loud. I had to write live. I started walking from actor to actor and saying, ‘can you say this word’ or ‘can you say this sentence?’ It was not dissimilar to having the repertory company in my head – they were just in the room.

Can you talk about Suspect Culture, the theatre company you founded with Graham Eatough?

We founded that at university with Nick Powell, the composer, whose work is now commonly in the West End in London. The company began at university but we really founded ourselves in Glasgow in the 1990s. Our idea was always to try to decentre the text. I did write for the shows, but we would discuss what the show would be before I wrote the text. We were trying experiments with form and physicality and music. We did eventually get some funding and we managed ten years as a funded theatre company; we would roughly do a show a year.

Did the generation of provocative and politically-engaged playwrights, such as Sarah Kane and Mark Ravenhill, who emerged in the 1990s, influence your work?

Shortly after I began, there was that new writing boom of the mid-1990s in London that got called ‘in-yer-face’ or ‘the movement’ – the Germans called it ‘blut und sperma’. It was interesting to me, but I was never part of it, and nor was David Harrower or Zinnie Harris or Stephen Greenhorn, who were my contemporaries in Scotland. Somehow Scotland sat slightly apart. At times we felt left out, but at other times we felt very lucky, especially once the wave had broken.

We’d never been fashionable, so we couldn’t be unfashionable

You weren’t chained to the zeitgeist?

There was no one play that defined us. We slowly built an audience. There’s fifteen million people in London and it is the heart of the establishment, so I understand the impulse in London to treat the audience as a parent so that you, the young writer, can be a teenager and you can shock them and show them how wrong they are – a section of the audience will be rather thrilled by that. But, if your home as a writer is the Traverse or the Tron or the Citizen’s, I don’t think you have that relationship with the audience. It’s much more consensual. You don’t have the same power dynamic. My theory is that it produces playwriting that is perhaps gentler on its audience, which isn’t to say it’s populist, but that it takes it much less for granted that its audience will come.

But you knew Sarah Kane at university?

I knew Sarah at university. We did plays together. My very first show was called A Savage Reminiscence. It was a monologue for Caliban after everybody has left the island. I wanted to stage that. Sarah had a monologue called comic monologue, which – being Sarah – was not very comic; it was a very bleak dark piece. That was the first time I was a producer. I booked the Hen and Chicken pub in Bristol for three nights, did a rough budget, used my overdraft and we put on a double bill. That started a process where I would use my overdraft to put on shows than would run for four nights in a pub.

In 1990, we took those shows to the Edinburgh Festival. I made friends with someone at university who had a clever scheme to take over the Masonic Lodge at the top of the Royal Mile opposite what is now The Hub. He wanted to fill it with student companies from drama departments of universities during the fringe. You would maybe get ten to twelve student shows in this one space, and you knew these people would be the writers, actors and directors of the future. I came to a deal with him where I would put a show in every slot he couldn’t sell. He took all the box office, but he gave me the franchise on the café and bar, so me and the actors ran that and kept the takings. We did that for two or three years. Those shows gave me the chance to do lighting, producing, set-designing, sound, and play-writing.

It was a kind of apprenticeship?

Yeah, it was really lucky in that way. I’m still in the same mindset. In some sense, the Lyceum is an extension of that. It is an endless search for slots in which I can put plays.

We had a showing of some edited highlights at the Muriel Spark event at the Usher Hall, which was the closest I have ever got to a play-reading being a rock concert

When you’re putting together a season programme for the Lyceum, do you have a cohesive vision for it?

The season is very personal and I see it as a work of art through time. This last season pushed political questions. The next one is much more inclusive and about bringing people together. That is just a gut response to the world. But in putting the programme together I’m trying to balance a huge number of things. This is by no means all of them: I think about the curation of the Scottish canon of the past and future; I think about what the political moment needs; I think about what plays appeal to our subscribers, but also how we reach more widely than our base. Like many regional British theatres, our subscriber base is in their fifties, sixties and seventies, so I think about if I need to do different work to attract a younger audience; I need to think about if we are doing enough work from Europe; I’m also really keen that fifty per cent of plays are written by women. But, a massive element is that the economics of theatre in Britain mean that for every play we make, we have to be looking for partner theatres to give it a long life.

How important is the economic side of theatre production?

For example, I was looking today at what was on at the Lyceum in the 1980s. That is basically just a list of good plays. One of the plays was Gerhart Hauptmann’s The Weavers. I was thinking, that’s a good play, I’d like to see that. But here’s the thing: back in the 1980s the subsidy [from the Scottish Arts Council] was properly at its height. You cannot underestimate how much subsidy has been taken away from this theatre over the last fifteen or twenty years. To put it in context: we have had fifteen years of standstill funding, and that’s with our recent uplift. So, my predecessor in the 1980s had something in the region of a million or more pounds per year to play with than me.

The thing about The Weavers is that it’s quite a big company. How much money is The Weavers going to bring in? Also, it’s not a big title. So, I think, can I invite David Tennant or someone who has some presence to the theatre? How’s that going to happen? I would need a director and a partner [theatre]. We might end up with a brilliant production. But, what I can’t do is what Ian Woolridge could do back in the 1980s, which is to simply say: let’s put on The Weavers. There is good and bad. The bad is I have to put in all that work, the good is when Woolridge put on The Weavers it was on for three weeks and that was that. Whereas, if in this putative world I was able to put on a production, it would live in this theatre and partner theatres and it would have this other life.

Do you know why Creative Scotland have restricted your funding?

The building-based theatres in Scotland have all been in the same situation for a period of time. I can’t answer for Creative Scotland about why they choose to do things in that way. I absolutely understand that the pot is far from infinite. I am incredibly grateful for Creative Scotland’s support – we couldn’t do without it.

In 2012 you signed a letter criticising Creative Scotland’s practices – how they communicate with artists, their bureaucracy, and their emphasis on art as commerce. Earlier this year, they received similar criticisms and were forced to reverse several funding decisions. What’s your take on it all?

I’m not sure Creative Scotland was ever given a very clear brief about its purpose. For example, a lot of the debate about funding the arts is around funding artists, as though the point of Creative Scotland is to fund artists, which it isn’t. To my mind, the point of Creative Scotland is to make sure the citizens of Scotland are given access to the best art. A diet that solely consists of theatre made somewhere else is a bad diet. You should have work that comes from your own culture. The only way you have work from your own culture is if it’s made in Scotland. But in order to have that, you have to fund artists, if you see what I mean? If you don’t fund artists in Scotland, they will go to London or New York. We know what theatre in Scotland would look like without subsidy because that is what existed pre-1945. We would be a receiving house for touring productions from London and we would have a certain degree of popular local interest and amateur work.

The job of a funding body in Scotland is very difficult. You’re always going to come in for flack. The disbursement of resources for so many competing needs is always going to be problematic. Geography, for instance, is a huge factor now. Back in the ’90s people may not have been so bothered that funds weren’t being spread geographically. Now it’s totally understood that, for example, people are paying taxes in Dumfries and Galloway; are they getting enough art? Local authorities also used to be quite heavy supporters of the arts and that has shrunk across the country – in some places to zero.

I am very encouraged that Fiona Hyslop is developing a cultural strategy. I hope that might be a step towards being more concrete about why the arts are funded. I think there is general consensus in Scotland that the arts are important to society – I think that is cross-constitutional and across party lines. I am hopeful that we can reach a point where it is agreed that having indigenous theatre-making and publishing and dance in Scotland is important. I think there was a lot of mis-handling in the last round of funding, and Creative Scotland have accepted that.

So, funding has to stem from the idea that art has an intrinsic value over and above an economic one?

In terms of theatre, it is not commercially logical to make your work in Scotland. At the moment you let commerce be your logic, we might as well all move to New York. So, then you have to ask: why are we making art in Scotland? We are making art in Scotland because it is a moral good for society. I believe it is profoundly central to democracy that we have art and theatre produced from within the polity. So, I would build backwards from that: if producing art is a central part of the polity, how do we make sure it happens?

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In the opening chapter of The Valley at the Centre of the World, Shetland-raised writer Malachy Tallack’s first novel, two of the main characters, David, a crofter, and Sandy, the ex-partner of David’s daughter, come together to slaughter and skin some of David’s lambs: an act Tallack describes in detail.

‘Lifting the flap of pelt that faced towards him, he pressed the knife beneath, separating the skin from the flesh, like a label from a parcel. He laid the blade down and put the his right fist into the space he’d created, running his knuckles up and down the join, gently at first then harder, forcing it back, widening it until his whole hand could fit inside. It was hot and clammy in there, beneath the fleece, and Sandy felt he was entering some private, forbidden space, the heat a kind of warning.’ Tallack is commonly regarded as a landscape writer, one of the chroniclers of wild places and preservers of ancient words. His first book, Sixty Degrees North, was a memoir-cum-travelogue which took readers on a round-the-world trip along the 60th parallel north from Shetland through Greenland, Canada, Alaska, Siberia, Scandinavia and then home again. In The Valley at the Centre of the World, however, which is set in Shetland, he is less concerned with the contours of the land – with vertiginous cliffs, bleak moorlands or the iridescence of light on water – than with in the way in which human beings interact with it and with each other; and how those interactions, often in themselves prosaic, bind disparate individuals and stabilize drifting communities.

Tallack is fascinated by work and the way it shapes relationships; the novel is shot through with passages like the one above in which physical tasks, and the co-operation and compromises required to complete them, are the medium through which taciturn men (and occasionally women) communicate. Sweat-inducing graft – the shifting of a wardrobe, or, in one memorable scene, the burying of a dead sheep –takes on an almost spiritual dimension; providing both a refuge from outside worries and a space to think, it is at the root of what makes us human. Sandy, a part-time taxi driver, is dismissive of Up Helly Aa: Shetland’s famous fire festival and the event for which the archipelago is best known. ‘Macho, chauvinist bollocks,’ he calls it. For Tallack, it is the less spectacular rituals – the coming together of men to mull over over the way in which a particular problem should be approached, for example – that have the deepest resonance.

The novel’s dust-jacket carries praise from Bernard MacLaverty, whose own Midwinter Break, is a tribute to small domestic moments and there is a similar quality to Tallack’s writing. The relationship between the steadfast, almost plodding David and the more restless Mary has much in common with the one between Gerry and Stella, the couple whose marital frustrations are at the centre Midwinter Break. Like MacLaverty, Tallack is adept at capturing both the everyday intimacies that keep people together and the slow-burn frustrations that drive them apart.

At the core of the novel is the question of belonging. This is a long-standing preoccupation of Tallack’s, who was born in London, moved to Shetland when he was ten and was about to move back down south to live with his father when he was killed in a road crash. Sixty Degrees North is subtitled ‘Round the World in Search of Home’ and in it Tallack talks of his sense of dislocation, of not quite fitting in. In The Valley At The Centre of the World, Sandy has had a similarly unsettled childhood. He is from Shetland, but not from the valley and doesn’t know if he should stay now his partner Emma, who brought him there, has gone. While they were still together, she told him (in her Shetland dialect): ‘We are tied to da islands by elastic. Du just has to decide how du lives with it. Either du goes awa and stretches that elastic – gradually it will slacken off and du can breathe easier – or else du just gives in.’

Another resident, Alice, whose husband has just died, has come to the valley to process the grief that has left her ‘dizzied by the passing of time; straitjacketed by the endless motion of the world’. A successful crime writer, Alice has decided to strengthen her connection to the area by compiling a forensic account of its history and its flora and fauna. Now working on a chapter about invertebrates, she spends hours tramping through fields and along the shoreline looking for earthworms and molluscs, caddisflies and lacewings. Later, she thinks she can breathe life into her compendium by delving into the life of Maggie, an elderly resident who has just passed away, leaving a set of journals behind.

Meanwhile David, who once worked in the oil terminal but now spends most of his time tending sheep, has no doubt about where he belongs; the valley runs through his blood. He fears the way of life he has always known is slipping away. In a world where ‘money [has] become easier to earn than food [is] to grow’, much of his land is now used for grazing. His daughters have left to set up home elsewhere. The death of Maggie, the only other indigenous resident, provokes an emotional crisis and perhaps the most poignant passage of the novel. ‘The thing he felt ending was not just one person, or even one generation. It was something older and had, in truth, been ending for some time. It was a thread of memory that stretched back for as long as people had lived in this place. It was a chain of stories clinging to stories, of love clinging to love.’ In a desperate bid to keep the valley alive, David takes matters into his own hands, offering a young couple from Lerwick the lease of one the houses at a knock-down price and encourages Sandy to take over Maggie’s croft, which David has inherited. But it soon becomes apparent that growth has to take place organically, as a result of careful nurturing, like the plants that Mary helps weather the winter storms.

If The Valley at the Centre of the World is about continuity – about preserving the past while securing a future – then Tallack plays his part, writing in the Shetland dialect or rather in a watered-down version of it he thinks readers won’t find too intimidating. In a note at the end he explains he has kept the use of vocabulary that would be unfamiliar to outsiders to a minimum, which is a shame. One of the joys of reading books set in places with their own distinctive vernacular is revelling in unfamiliar rhythms and discovering unusual and evocative words for rain or clouds or birdsong. You do get a feel for the Shetland accent in the dialogue, but I would have preferred the whole book to have been immersed in it.

When you choose to write about the humdrum routines of everyday life, there is also a risk your book will become humdrum, unless it is expressed in language that transcends the subject matter or it is replete with quirky observations that force the reader to see things from a different angle. Tallack’s writing is only sporadically magical and there is very little humour so that the narrative can some times feel as steadfast and plodding as the crofter at its centre.

His descriptions of the harsh weather are vivid: ‘It had come on unnoticed, a gust that failed to subside, but now it whipped up the valley,snapping at his cheeks and in the corner of his eyes. Salt hammered his lips. Everything leaned inwards.’ But the landscape – which ought to be a character in itself – remains dark and featureless, a murky blur of fields and rain. Perhaps this is an asset, this lack of sentimentality or sheen, but none of Tallack’s characters, even David, exudes that passion for the land that is communicated so strongly in the likes of Grassic Gibbon’s Sunset Song. Early on, Sandy says: ‘Hills, fields, sheep, birds: that’s all there was in this valley and he’d felt no tug of connection to it’, and one can only sympathize. Even by the end of the book – when winter has yielded to spring and Mary’s cobalt lupins have finally bloomed, it’s unclear exactly what beyond inertia or a sense of duty – would draw you to the valley or hold you there.

It is, instead, the characters and Tallack’s exploration of love, loss and community that keep the reader engaged as the novel reaches his climax. He is good on the ache that comes as your children grow up and you have to renegotiate your place in the world, but it is in his descriptions of Alice’s grief that Tallack is at his most perceptive. ‘There were occasions when she had tried to call her husband’s face to mind for company and for comfort and he was not there, like a book missing from a shelf.’ On another occasion Alice suddenly realizes that no-one has taken a photograph of her since her husband’s death. It is as if she too has been effaced. Her attempt to resurrect Maggie is also an attempt to resurrect herself, but it soon seems as though it will be foiled. As the old women’s journals yield nothing more than boring records of weather, work, and food, the question posed is: ‘What makes up a life?’ When Alice presses David for anecdotes that might give an insight into her personality, he says: ‘Dere’s aalwis stories’, suggesting that we are much more than the sum of the bits of tat we leave behind; that we are the impression we make on the people we hold dear.

In the end, Alice finds a way to finish her book and re-enter life’s fray, not vicariously through Maggie, but by becoming an integral part of the valley’s ongoing story. One transformative moment changes her from a curious onlooker to an integral member of a community which may yet survive. Like what has gone before, the novel’s conclusion is conventional: all the storylines are neatly resolved, though the aura of mystery that has been created around Maggie – the only real source of suspense – is allowed to fade away into nothing. As a portrayal of life and work in a remote community, Tallack’s first novel has much to commend it, but even stories about everyday life require a healthy injection of drama. The Valley at the Centre of the World is a paean to lives more ordinary which never quite becomes extraordinary.

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In William Atkin’s The Moor, a heady brew of literary criticism, topography and nature writing, our attention was directed to that most enigmatic and evocative of landscapes. It is a stark place – clean-lined, curving, emptied of landmarks – the perfectly bleak backdrop of that classic work of inner-wilderness, Wuthering Heights.

Atkin’s walking and writing took in Bodmin Moor, Exmoor, Dartmoor and the North York Moors, but bafflingly stopped short ‘at the Scottish border – for there the island moors became a moorland sea; and because it was necessary to stop somewhere’. It was Atkin’s prerogative to set his own parameters, but I could not understand how a self-proclaimed moorland fanatic could pass up the opportunity to explore those endless, undulating uplands of the north: the sweeping panoramas of Rannoch Moor, the dense tapestry of heather and thatch and glittering pools of the Flow Country, the winding roads of Harris, lined on either side by the blackslash contours of freshly cut peat.

All the better then, now, to be shown around by Donald S Murray, the Scottish poet and author of Herring Tales, who grew up in Ness, on the Isle of Lewis, and has bathed in peaty water, literally and culturally, since birth. In The Dark Stuff: Stories from the Peatlands, Murray explores how the people of the moors have interacted with and been shaped by their environment, starting with his own experiences: long summers reluctantly spent cutting fuel with his father; a childhood of scrambling over hags hairy with dead grasses, playing on ‘possibly the only football pitch with a surface of bare and dusty peat’.

As a teenager Murray found the monotone landscape dull and deadening, but over time and through the work of Iain Crichton Smith, George Mackay Brown and others, he came to acquire a taste for the particular flavour of desolate beauty he depicts so well in The Dark Stuff. A depth of appreciation comes with familiarity: his father, he says, could shut his eyes and know the exact moment the car crossed the town boundary at Stornoway, when the distinctive aroma of peat smoke switched to that of coal, and with it the urban world of pavements, shops and the English language.

Could a non-Gaelic speaker have written this book? Perhaps not. The bilingual among us have not only two tongues, argues Murray, but two modes of thinking. Writing recently for the Scottish Book Trust, he expanded upon this point: ‘Each native language… contains its own landscape, summing up within its parts the unique way a country’s inhabitants have seen their world for centuries.’ Murray sprinkles terms borne of this process throughout his book: sùil-chruthaich, one Gaelic term for bog, translates literally as ‘eye of creation’; the margin between the peatbank and the wall of new-cut peats is known in his district as rathad an isein, or ‘the bird’s path.’

The richness and precision of the Gaelic’s descriptive language has been noted before: Robert Macfarlane, in Landmarks, highlighted the work of Finlay MacLeod and friends in the creation of a ‘peat glossary’ of Lewissian words. The beauty of these glossaries, I find, lies not so much in the words themselves as in the act of noticing, the necessity of making fine distinctions.

Non-moor-dwellers may too be gratified to learn of the different gradations of the peat bank made by those who cut them. The top layer, pillowy with spaghnum and dry grasses, is simply ‘turf’. The next layer, white peat (mòine bhàn) is matted with roots, ‘suitable only for smoke and rarely for flame’. Finally, in the depths below the surface, the good black peat (mòine dhubh), rich and dense, almost edible – the consistency of chocolate brownie which dries to a hard cake for the fire.

But bogland is not unique to Scotland, and Murray seeks to move his narrative beyond the hyperlocal. He demarcates the book via chapters titled in an assortment of peatland languages, taking in Irish Gaelic, Danish, Finnish, Dutch and Icelandic (although, confusingly, the origin of the title bears no relation to where the chapter itself is set). As he journeys to the Netherlands, Denmark, Ireland and Germany, patterns emerge: the universal perception of moorland as the ‘province of peat and poor people’ – where occupants were often judged by outsiders for their lack of fortitude in draining and converting to more productive farmland.

In Ireland, efforts to dig out the peat in ever greater quantity were laced with nationalist sentiment. During the Second World War, when coal supplies from England were interrupted, the large-scale harvesting of peat began in earnest, and with it came pride in self-sufficiency. Those efforts have left their own landscape, a scarred one. Murray visits the Irish Midlands, large areas of which were stripped of fuel in the twentieth century and now been left to recover, dug with trenches and left ‘the dull, khaki brown of a First World War battlefield’. The emptiness and flatness of the peatlands there took on the appearance of ‘the sea with the tide having gone out’.

More than once, Murray turns to maritime imagery to evoke the rolling aspect of moorland and its impact upon the human psyche. He likens the low hill behind his childhood home to Hokusai’s ‘The Wave’, and tells of occasions when he ‘might roll and reel, as if I were on a sea voyage’, toppling into dark pools shining with a petrol iridescence. In Ireland he visits a house sitting upon an island-like hill, surrounded by ‘a sea’ of peatland which recedes with every year, rolling back like a tide.

And as with the ocean, the peatland dwarves the onlooker. On a good day, it might thrill and astound. But in adverse conditions, one is easily lost in an endless expanse without landmark. It is a wilderness, in its more traditional sense: an uninhabited, inhospitable region. Where the peat has been loosened from its moorings by poor management, then heavy rain, a dark avalanche can rush from the hillside – ‘a flood of blackness’ engulfing all that lies in its path and leaving a flayed landscape in its wake.

The moor can appear empty, barren, but it has as many layers of history as it does peat. Murray meets a botanist who tells him of the cold store of pollen in its depths: a continuous record of climate and environmental change for thousands of years. An encyclopedia of life, for those who take the time to translate it. Dark episodes of human history too lie preserved under a blanket of moss; bog bodies emerge centuries later: Celtic kings, ritually sacrificed, and victims of countless unprosecuted crimes.

The desolate moorland ‘wastelands’ were home to some of the most distasteful episodes of European history. In the Netherlands, the cheap and plentiful land provided a accommodation for the least fortunate of society – although in time they became more akin to penal colonies, casting the poor adrift in a desolate landscape. In Germany, they were home to concentration camps: at Belsen, mass graves are shrouded with the heather of Lüneburg Heath; Dachau and Auschwitz too were built upon marsh and moss.

There is much then, in the story of the bog, to write of. To do so is to follow in the footsteps of literary giants. Murray writes of Seamus Heaney (‘the poet laureate of peat’) repeatedly, and tackles similar subject matter. It is hard to do so without provoking comparison. Murray is a poet himself, and the book is studded with verses in the key of peat: the strongest, to my eyes, is ‘Curlew’, which describes childhood ball games on the moor, the bird’s ‘rippling note’ calling matches to a close as twilight falls. Heaney has the more expressive take on Denmark’s Tollund Man; here, as in other spots, Murray devotes too much space to descriptions of the museums he visits along the way. Occasionally he lapses into the mannerisms of the local historian, quoting at length from websites, or making footnoted asides of Highland trivia. Liberal usage of qualifying language – ‘apparently’, ‘perhaps,’ ‘probably’ – lends his writing the gossipy, hand-me-down taste of oral history, although this tic also contributes to the islander lilt that gives the book its charm.

For Murray is very much a product of his upbringing. He cannot help but compare what he finds abroad to what he knows so well. The purplish tone of land near Aarhus reminds him of ‘the bloom of heather on the Scottish moors during August’; whereas Lüneburg is ‘too tame, timid and denatured’ to attract his admiration. In his eyes it cannot compare to the moors of Lewis and Harris and Uist and Benbecula.

Let us return, then, to that landscape of beaten metal. Descriptive passages of the Highlands and islands are where Murray’s writing soars to its highest heights. In one memorable passage, he drives to Sutherland – ‘long miles of emptiness… the deep coffee-shaded grey or red of moorland changing with the light of day’ – where herds of deer ‘hang out like gangs of shy and inscrutable teenagers at every corner’. It is stark, striking, recognisable. This book is a love letter to a homeland, barren and beautiful both.

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