Monthly Archives: November 2018



The programme at the King’s carried an advertisement for the next production which will be Macbeth, a work which theatrical superstition forbids naming except by some euphemism such as the Scottish Play. Perhaps the curse extends beyond performances of the tragedy itself to other works staged in the same venue or advertised in the same publication, because on the first day of the Edinburgh run of Rebus the lead actor, Charles Lawson, took ill and had to be replaced for the second act by an understudy, Neil McKinven. Levity is permissible because by all accounts McKinven acquitted himself admirably and Lawson was back in harness by Thursday.

With less levity, it may be that the misfortunes occasioned by the mention of Macbeth struck elsewhere and affected the writing and stagecraft. Novelists of the stature of Charles Dickens and Henry James came a cropper when they turned their talents to writing for the stage, but the decision to pair Ian Rankin, author of some twenty crime novels, with playwright Rona Munro, whose work includes the much applauded trilogy, The James Plays, seemed like a gold-plated guarantee. They worked in harmony to compose the storyboard, but it was then left to Munro to attend to the transition to drama. Good start, it seemed, and the two have been loud in their
praise of the other’s abilities, but the best laid schemes …

Fictional detectives can be divided into those for whom illegal activity, murder or robbery, was a sin, Chesterton’s Father Brown being the supreme exemplar, and those for whom it was a crime, such as Raymond Chandler’s Marlowe. Rebus is emphatically of the second category, but that is not to deny that he has his own code of values, detests those who exploit or maltreat other human beings, is enraged at the prospect of villains, of whatever stratum of society, getting away with abuse, deception or harm. The novels of Ian Rankin, like those of Henning Mankell with whom he was friendly, often focused on investigation of a social sore, not merely the diseased reasoning of some deviant. Fleshmarket Close, for instance, started with the murder of an illegal immigrant but widened into questioning society’s attitude to immigration as such.

It may be said that this play does force audiences to consider yet again man’s inhumanity to women, but the writing struggles to achieve any overall impact on the mind or imagination of the people in the stalls. The plot is multi-faceted, with various crimes from different decades, but there is a lack of originality in the events depicted which detracts from the grip of the play. There are two related twists at the very end, and while it would be wrong to reveal them, they are marked by extreme implausibility and do not compel any thinking back over the work.

At best, the play seemed like a revival of the Victorian melodrama which gave audiences that frisson of faux-horror which delighted the denizens of upper circles or readers of penny dreadfuls of other times. There are ghosts who haunt shadowy corners of the mind and the city, there is bloodshed on stage, there is mystery, there is dialogue which provokes laughter, there are some strong one-liners, there are baddies, there is a crisp, unambiguous division between good and evil and the definite sense that vile forces stalk the land. Music, sometimes modern rock delivered in a raucous blast, at others a more ambiguous melody, is called on to create an atmosphere in which a Jekyll and a Hyde, this time two separate characters, stalk each other.

The grim, even sinister, set, designed by TI Green, had a lot of work to do to establish the tone of the work. It was an eye-catching, multi-purpose, if somewhat curious, construction which must have looked splendid on the drawing board but was more dubious in the execution, rather like the play. The walls were dark but the dominant feature was a precarious-looking circular staircase overhanging a void. Simultaneously an interior and exterior, and no meeting place for God-fearing citizens, it could have been removed from the House of Shaws where David Balfour’s wicked Uncle Ebenezer tried to dispose of his nephew.

‘Ye cannae get a drink without some floppyhaired article offering ye a tapas menu.’

The staircase led up to a higher plane, perhaps even to a different dimension, where the ghostly figures of two young women occasionally emerged to emit plaintive cries and demands for justice for being robbed of the promises of the life which lay ahead of them, but this upper area appeared at other moments to indicate the street outside. An alleyway under the stairs stretched to become a domestic area which was primarily Rebus’s home, furnished with nothing more than one armchair and a filing cabinet off to the left, but also serving as the more luxurious flat inhabited by Rebus’ arch-enemy, ‘Big Ger’ Cafferty. His affluence was indicated by a second armchair and a well stocked drinks cabinet. The spartan ways of the austere or disordered Rebus clashed with those of his more affluent and showy adversary, as was apparent when Rebus admitted he had not even milk for his tea. Cafferty was scarcely a tea drinker, and he was in any case unlikely to run out of anything.

What had been seen of Rebus in Rankin’s fiction made it clear that the man did not live his life on the sunnier slopes, but he distracted himself from all angst by work. He plodded on, indignant at the misdeeds of the low and high life of Edinburgh, enjoying his pint, sorrowing over the mediocrity of Hibs and struggling with benighted police superiors who impeded his imaginative but often professionally unacceptable devices to snare his prey. His problems with such higher officers have not diminished with time, and the very name of one such, Fraser Morris, causes him to splutter with contemptuous disbelief. Lawson gives a powerful portrayal of the man Rebus, not an individual of great emotional depth or complexity. With a range of grunts, inflections, expressions of incredulity, Lawson effortlessly overcomes the problems of imbuing the character with the multi-faceted physical life required onstage, but left to the imagination of readers.

Rebus is at a loose end. Although never endearing or charming, he has declined. The days of his youth are long gone and now he is retired, elderly, alone, frustrated in part by his inactivity and a sense of futility, but more deeply by a consciousness of failure. A new generation is dominant in his former profession and has taken over the land. The language they talk, the music they enjoy, the food they eat and the way they live are incomprehensible and thus irritating to an already carnaptious man. The world view he now espouses and the language in which he expresses himself is barbed and grouchy, sometimes wittily and memorably so. Not even the pub, presumably the Oxford Bar which now draws tourists, is a safe refuge since, as he says, ‘Ye cannae get a drink without some floppy-haired article offering ye a tapas menu.’

His failure is not only existential, but the expression of a deep regret over the cases he had not been successful in solving. The world is not as he would wish it to be, and the scientific methods of the contemporary police are unfamiliar to him. The course of days is disturbed by an encounter, accompanied by a blast of rock music, on the staircase with young Heather, who is not one of the 25% of contemporary under 24s who are teetotal. The two get talking, not in sentimental tones, and Rebus allows himself to rebuke her on the state she is in. He wonders at the cause of her discontent, and it transpires, as it would, that she was the daughter of Maggie Towless, murdered at night some seventeen years previously on a building site in Newhaven. Of course Rebus remembers the woman. He had been in charge of the investigation, but never succeeded in bringing the killer to justice.

Maggie herself, in the company of another young woman who had been more recently murdered, returns to reproach him, so the play moves between various timescales and levels of reality. The more immediate complication is the arrival of his ex-colleague, DI Siobhan Clarke. She too seemed to have altered with the years, or perhaps with the intervention of Rona Munro in the creative process. Actress Cathy Tyson did not seem quite sure what to make of her, and her performance was in some scenes strangely faltering. Siobhan herself was less in awe of Rebus than in the novels, and more intent on ordering him about and going her own way, even if she was at an uncertain point in her own career. Should she put in for promotion, or should she change tack altogether? Rebus wonders if she could really do anything else.

Meantime, she is in pursuit of the killer of Angela, another young female victim, and is intent on hauling in another of Edinburgh’s psychopaths, one Mordaunt. Here things get tricky, for all paths cross. Her concern is that Rebus’s disquiet and desire to settle scores will lead him to interfere with her plans to bring at Mordaunt to justice. She is decidedly more decisive and assertive than the Siobhan of old, but even so she has to be moved aside when the central clash of the play, which brings Rebus face to face with ‘Big Ger’, takes place.

This encounter takes place in Big Ger’s flat and occupies most of the second Act. John Stahl inhabits with little effort and appropriate gracelessness the skin of a man who is meant to be odious, but cannot avoid exercising the power and paradoxical attractiveness of a hissing snake. The two men sneer and slang at each other in a wide-ranging discussion not just over their lives and specific crimes but over morals and manners, crime and law, the rewards of materialism against those of conscience. Big Ger expounds a mafia-style code of belief, that ‘they’ are all at it, that might is right and has brought him a style of life more easeful in every sphere than that attained by Rebus. In love, or at least in sex, you get what you pay for, he says, but then, unexpectedly and jarringly, he turns out to be a big softie with unfulfilled emotional longings, so the play ends with two strange twists which frankly strain credulity. The Victorians did this sort of thing better.

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On a damp Edinburgh day in July 1940, Fred Urquhart stood before a tribunal on the Royal Mile. Just a few weeks previously, over 300,000 British and French troops had been rescued from the beaches of Dunkirk, as the German military pushed onwards towards the Atlantic.

Since the start of the war, all British men aged between eighteen and forty-one had been liable to conscription. Yet, Urquhart, described by one critic as the foremost Scottish short story writer of the twentieth century, claimed exemption on the grounds of conscience. He was far from alone. Between 1939 and 1945, around six and a half thousand Scottish men and women made similar applications. They included socialists, anarchists and humanitarians, as well as large numbers of Christian pacifists, and many things in between. Alongside Urquhart, they also numbered the poets Edwin Morgan and Norman MacCaig, writer and painter Ruthven Todd, the novelist Robin Jenkins, and artists Alberto Morrocco, Edwin Lucas, and Sax Shaw. Although the conscientious objectors of the Second World War have now largely fallen from popular memory, we might wonder why so many significant Scottish cultural figures stood before a tribunal and refused to take up arms? The answers lie partly in a story of often ambiguous loyalties. But they can also be found in the relationship between the creative process and the struggles to make an intangible conscience persuasive to others.

A general amnesia about the conscien-tious objectors of the Second World War is largely due to a discomfort about refusing to fight fascism. If the conscientious objectors of the First World War are sometimes held up as principled opponents to the slaughter of the trenches, those that came over twenty years later produce a much more complex response. Refusing to fight the Nazis seems very different from refusing to fight on the Western Front. It is important to remember, though, that for much of the 1930s broadly pacifist attitudes were part of what Scottish historian Arthur Marwick called ‘middle opinion’. Indeed, there was a strong tradition of activism against war across most shades of the political spectrum. For young men and women growing up in the aftermath of the First World War, it was widely assumed that if another outbreak of violence came, it would be even more destructive than the last. In the late 1930s, Urquhart felt that any new war would be unwinnable, writing in his diary that ‘those who don’t get killed by bombs or gas will find when the war ends that they are slaves under absolute fascist dictatorship’. The possibility of gas attacks caused particular fear, and after the declaration of war Urquhart would wear a gas mask whenever he went into town. For Urquhart, the renewed violence was almost too much to bear, writing in his diary that twenty years after the ‘war to end all wars’, the world had gone mad again. It was the Somme, rather than Auschwitz that, initially at least, focused the mind.

Photos from just before the war show Urquhart’s angular face, a faint smile and slightly distant eyes. By the late 1930s, he was gaining critical success as a writer of stories on the quiet dramas of working-class Edinburgh life. Following the publication of his first novel, Time Will Knit, the New York Times Book Review, for example, described him as one of the ‘white hopes’ of Scottish literary life. The book was also one of the first Scottish novels to write openly and sympa-thetically about homosexuality. However, despite being well reviewed, he never quite earned enough from his prose to make ends meet and was never really an established part of the Edinburgh literary scene.

Urquhart’s father was a chauffeur for several wealthy Scottish families, living all over the Lowlands of Scotland, with Fred spending his school holidays with his grand-parents in the working-class parts of north Edinburgh. Urquhart left school at fifteen and worked in an Edinburgh bookshop, before falling out with the owner. Parents and son remained close throughout this time, and, when he could, he would send his mother money for what he called ‘gin and rent’. His politics were resolutely left wing and there were inevitable tensions with his conservative father, who accused him of being unpatriotic. The son responded that he had more in common with the German working class than Scottish landowners for whom his father often worked. Although Urquhart never appears to have joined the Communist Party, he was broadly sympathetic to its cause, and a close friend, a teacher called Mary Litchfield, was a Communist Party activist in Fife. On the eve of the war Litchfield’s house, where Urquhart often stayed, was raided by the police, who suspected her of harbouring ‘fifth columnists’. In the following days Urquhart ripped several pages out of his diary. It was not just party politics though that made him nervous. He was gay and sexually active, and the possibility of the police reading the diary at a time when homosexuality was illegal inevitably caused anxiety. We might speculate on what it does to a person’s enthusiasm to put their life on the line for a country that would send you to jail for the most intimate aspects of your personal life.

Before the outbreak of war, Urquhart worked as a civilian at the army and navy shop in Fort George on the shores of the Moray Firth. He apparently had to leave the base in a hurry though, after being caught with a soldier and threatened with prosecution. Even before this event, it does not seem to have been a happy time. The experience would seep into his written work, which often had anti-military themes. A 1937 short story appearing in Left Review, ends with the lines ‘I eat, sleep and drill. I’m a soldier – but am I a man?’. Another story, ‘To-Morrow will be Beautiful’, tells of a young girl’s visit to an Edinburgh barracks, where she describes soldiers as ‘a man who was little better than a machine’.

The declaration of war and the introduction of conscription brought Fred Urquhart’s antipathy to war to a head. By early 1940, he was supplementing his income by working as a gardener in Cupar, living with Mary Litchfield. An increasing number of his friends were joining up and Urquhart’s publisher wrote urging him to put on a uniform as soon as possible. Even Litchfield tried to persuade him that he should join the army, arguing that defeating fascism was more important than anti-militarism, causing considerable strain in the relationship. Urquhart though was determined not to join the armed forces. He was in two minds whether to apply for a desk job or to register as a conscientious objector, telling his publisher that he did not think that his talents lay in ‘staggering beneath the combined onslaught of a heavy pack and the sarcasms of some bone-headed sergeant’, but also worrying whether he had the ‘courage’ to stand before a tribunal.
He asked some friends to find him a job in the Ministries of Propaganda or Food, but to no avail.

For Urquhart, artists had a very particu-lar role in war, writing in his diary that ‘in a war like this it is imperative that people like me should be kept inviolable. We are part of a civilisation that must be saved.’ He was also deeply concerned that military life would destroy whatever talent he had, noting that ‘a writer, to be a good writer, must suffer, but I don’t see why one should suffer needlessly… (the army) would kill everything creative in me’. He was far from alone in feeling this way. The composer Benjamin Britten, for example, had gone into a semi-exile in the US with the outbreak of war, asking his publisher ‘where would English music be today if those men who happened to survive the last war had shared the fate of their less fortunate colleagues?’. Eventually returning to England, Britten told the tribunal that his life was devoted to creation and he therefore could not take part in acts of destruction. For Britten, he could best help his fellow humans by writing music. The tribunal granted an exemption, telling Britten to write for the BBC. Unknowingly, in Edinburgh, Urquhart hoped for similar treatment.

‘I eat, sleep and drill. I’m a soldier – but am I a man?’

Fred Urquhart’s conscience – often fraught and divided – was typical in many ways. Indeed, there is a broader sense in which conscience only comes into view when it is troubled. A clear conscience can seem unremarkable and therefore unremarked, and all too often the only conscience we know is a guilty one. The diaries and letters of other conscientious objectors are full of concerns about what friends, families and neighbours might say. There is also often careful consideration of what military service could mean for professional and personal life, and whether fascism was a greater threat than war. Many conscientious objectors were also deeply concerned with whether fear was driving their actions rather than conviction and principle. Urquhart was not entirely comfortable with his own position, and when a young boy asked him why he was not in uniform, much to his later disappointment, he replied that he was medically unfit. For the people who claimed exemption from fighting on the grounds of conscience, their convictions were often uncertain, not least to themselves. Many conscientious objectors changed their minds, and as the war went on, the voice of conscience was just as likely to tell people to fight fascism as it was to urge for peace. Edwin Morgan, for example, was initially determined not have anything to do with the military, but on appearing before the tribunal, and with most of his friends already signed up, agreed to serve in a military medical unit. Either way, more often than not, conscience was uncomfortable and anxious.

After much doubt, Urquhart appeared at the Edinburgh sheriff court. The hours of waiting in a crowded and smoky room seem to have taken their toll, and on noticing the reporters and members of the public in the court, he became flustered and inarticulate. He would later write that the tribunal seemed to be posing questions designed to trip up, and he eventually decided to answer only yes and no, in case he stuttered. When able to speak, he argued that he had shown his pacifism throughout his published work and considered war ‘the greatest of all evils’. The tribunal asked whether he was willing to do anything for his country, and to his later regret Urquhart said no, almost immediately realizing that he would have said he would help his country by continuing to be a writer. The chair of the tribunal responded that Urquhart’s answers made them question his honesty, and after barely ten minutes, the case was dismissed.

Urquhart appealed his tribunal decision. This time he was fortunate to be represented by a young advocate, Labour party activist and fellow conscientious objector called Gordon Stott. Twenty-five years later Stott would be appointed Lord Advocate for Scotland, becoming the most senior legal figure in the country. On Stott’s advice, Urquhart barely spoke at his appeal, and did not mention his Communist sympathies, but took a friend along to provide evidence of his ‘humanitarian’ objections to war. The appeal tribunal, led by the aristocrat Lord Elphinstone, granted Urquhart exemp-tion on the condition that he carried out agricultural work. The vast majority of conscientious objectors were treated in this way. Although some were sent to prison after rejecting all compulsion, the local notables sitting on the tribunals seemed happy not to force them to fight, so long as they were willing to do something for the collective good. Many, like Urquhart, went into agricultural work, whereas Robin Jenkins spent the war looking after trees on the west coast of Scotland. Others worked in hospitals or did ambulance work, often near the front lines. A sizable minority joined the armed forced in the non-combatant roles. Edwin Morgan, for example, worked as part of 42nd General Hospital, leaving Peebles in 1941 to spend the rest of the war with the Royal Army Medical Corps in Lebanon, Palestine and Egypt.

It was not entirely straightforward though for Urquhart to find agricultural work, as several farmers turned him down. One wrote back telling him that a lamppost was the best place for his kind of conscience and that he should go to Germany. Even-tually he found work on a dairy and potato farm in Kincardineshire owned by John ‘Red’ Mackie. Mackie would later become a Labour MP and junior Minister in Harold Wilson’s government, and his younger brother was a future Liberal MP for Caithness and Sutherland. These days the family are probably best known for their crisps and ice cream. Urquhart was initially set to work helping to bring in the potatoes. This was cold, tiring, and badly paid, and he complained that he was not being given enough food. There were Polish officers lodged near the farm, and he notes in his diary that he thought many of them were fascist sympathisers. He continued to write throughout this time and was relieved when he was transferred to clerical duties at the farm, keeping track of the milk yields. However, he got into trouble with the Ministry of Labour, who had a much more traditional understanding of what counted as agricultural work. The biggest source of tension though was Mackie’s wife, Jeannie. Urquhart, who by now had unrequitedly fallen in love with his employer, became convinced that Jeannie was trying to starve the farm workers and mistreat her husband. By late 1944 this all became too much, and he becan to look for work on an English farm. Urquhart would not return to live in Scotland for nearly fifty years.

Scotland in the mid-twentieth century, as with many other times and places, was marked by complex loyalties, and conscien-tious objectors made their arguments in the middle of all this. A small minority of nationalists refused to fight on the grounds that the British state had no right to raise an army in Scotland. Douglas Young, for example, the wartime leader of the SNP, was imprisoned in Edinburgh Castle, splitting his party. Although sometimes described as a conscientious objector, technically he was no such thing, denying the right of the British crown not only to conscription, but also to judge his conscience. Young and the relatively small number of nationalists who refused to fight stand out as an anomaly though, as many conscientious objectors also saw themselves as loyal, perhaps even exemplary citizens, whose convictions were part of a longer tradition of moral seriousness and individual freedom. Yet even for those who did take up arms, they rarely did so just for God, King and Country, but also for family, friends, comrades and loved ones. These loyalties were often overlapping, contradictory and ambiguous. Conscientious objectors were not just men and women of high principle, although they were that too. They were also sisters and brothers, friends and lovers, colleagues and comrades. Litchfield urged her friend to join up in the name of class solidarity, rather than national loyalty. Edwin Morgan took up non-combatant duties after his best friend was enlisted. Urquhart’s convictions and uncertainties about what to do in a time of war were filtered through concerns
about his relationships with friends like Litchfield, his parents, lovers, class and own artistic endeavour.

The war had brought questions of obligation to the fore, but not always in ways that we would assume. The blitz and rationing might have created a culture of mutual self-sacrifice, but this was not always warmly or easily embraced, as some people were clearly more willing to sacrifice than others. Urquhart’s own fiction sought to show this ambivalence. In his novel Jezebel’s Dust, a woman complains about Churchill’s claim that he had nothing to offer, but blood sweat and toil, saying that she liked her comforts as she eats a plate of meringues. Fighting or not fighting, taking up arms or refusing to do so, rarely broke down into a simple distinction between the loyal and disloyal, those supporting the war effort and not, or the conscientious and the cowardly, but operated in the space in between. Those people who eventually registered as conscientious objectors were probably only a very small minority of all those who were reluctant to fight, and many of them, like Urquhart, would have considered other options before doing so. Behind the story of a nation united in sacrifice, only a tiny minority of people would actually end up firing a gun in anger. As in any war, the majority of military jobs did not involve direct fighting, but were in logistics, planning, medical care, or engineering, for example. There were also reserved occupations, which at various times included miners, farm workers, accountants, tailors, and dentists, amongst others. It was also possible to gain exemption on medical grounds. In this situation, where people like Benjamin Britten were supported by the BBC and the classical music elite in London, working-class shop workers like Fred Urquhart were in a less privileged position, lacking the knowledge and social connections that might help them find alternative employment.

Behind the story of a nation united in sacrifice, only a tiny minority of people would actually end up firing a gun in anger.

In the midst of wider ambivalences about the turn to arms, the thing that most marked out the people who stood before the tribunal was a need to make their conscience public. If conscience was deeply personal and intimate, it was often also hidden. Standing before a tribunal therefore required making it tangible and visible to others. Providing evidence of conscience was difficult though and Urquhart had stumbled over his words whilst trying to do. One way of proving the sincerity of conscience, to both yourself and others, was by going to jail. Norman MacCaig, working as a teacher at the outbreak of war, was sent to Edinburgh Castle, before serving time in Wormwood Scrubs, and eventually being allowed to work as a gardener back in Edinburgh. Hard work was by far the most common way of proving convictions. Many conscientious objectors were more than willing to work for others, so long as it did not involve shooting a gun. This is how Robin Jenkins ended up heaving logs, Edwin Morgan patching up the wounded, and Fred Urquhart picking potatoes.

But alongside incarceration and labour, we might also see art as a way in which people tried to work through their conscience and give it a physical form. Urquhart had essentially claimed as much when he appeared before the tribunal, arguing that his written work was proof of sincere and genuine objection to war. By no means all writers and artists sought to put a troubled conscience about war at the centre of their work. More often than not the tensions of conscience flit in and out. Norman MacCaig’s refusal, for example, was deeply personal and individual, perhaps best summed up in an undated poem Patriotism: ‘My only country, is six feet high, and whether I love it or not, I’ll die for its independence’. In another poem he wrote ‘My profound ideas were once toys on the floor, I love them, I’ve licked most of the paint off.’ If he is not talking of conscience, it is hard to know what he might mean. As a teenager contemplating war in Glasgow, Edwin Morgan filled his scrap books with images of destruction. One page contains the words, cut out of newspaper print: ‘war, a highly practicable experiment. You are free to choose any butcher you like.’ In the first half of 1940, he would copy out the lines ‘When the light finally broke behind my eyes I was made blind to the appearances of the world…’. Elsewhere conscientious objectors are an enigmatic presence in the background of Robin Jenkins’ most famous work, The Cone Gatherers, but they are right to the fore though in his later novel, A Would-Be Saint, where the central character is a young man grappling with how to live at peace in a society mobilized for war.

Even if conscience never explicitly raises its head though, there are clear parallels between a creative process that tries to give form to the otherwise intangible, on the one hand, and the attempt to give conscience a concrete presence, on the other. Poems, music and brush strokes make the unseen or unsayable, seen or heard. And conscientious objectors tried to turn their otherwise private convictions into something that could be judged by others, to give public form to the deeply personal beliefs. Both processes involve the attempt to make the invisible visible, the inchoate choate, and both processes are shot through with uncertainty, hesitation and the possibility of misunderstanding. Although we might not always agree with the answers they came to, as people like Urquhart, Morgan and MacCaig grappled with their obligations to themselves and others, they left us a rich cultural legacy.

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Whenever I’m blocked, or stuck, or just don’t understand, I like to copy-type. It’s a tip I got from the saintly Frank Delaney, who left us last year. Nothing is better, if you write as well as read, for revealing the heft and rhythm of the sentences, where the punctuation goes, the breaths and the pauses, and the underlying pulse. I recommend it.

Not least because it allows me to say that much of The Long Take seems to work just as well when set out as prose. Sure, it’s written in verse lines, albeit without rhyme or assonance, but parts of it are almost discursive in tone. It appears in a poetry imprint, and in an unfamiliar trade format, but it is unmistakably a novel.

We have a long-standing problem with the poetic novel, and the novel in verse. For the second, blame Vikram Seth, whose The Golden Gate was flatly unfinishable, or at best un-rereadable. For the first, blame T. S. Eliot. Both of them have some relevance here. In an infamous introduction to Djuna Barnes’s Nightwood, Eliot came on like a Soho bookseller who promises there is more specialised material for discerning gentlemen in the back shop. His point was that there are novels that might appeal more to readers of poetry than to those who merely want a yarn with a beginning, middle and end.

Possibly so. The Long Take is that very rare thing in modern publishing, the long poem. It is by a poet, and is poetic, if the word means anything much at all. It is also an extraordinary yarn. It takes its knightly protagonist, whose grail is a fifth of cheap booze, from one waste land to another, and then back to a primal one. It neuters him, or renders him as ambiguous and all-seeing as Tiresias. It is a fire sermon and an ode to the unburied dead. It begins in a cruel month, colder even than a northern April, at the end of a war.

The story is that of Walker – no other name disclosed, but it defines him – a Nova Scotian and a traumatised D-Day veteran, on the loose in New York City in 1946. Walker is that other modernist trope, a camera eye, shuttering the cityscape in a series of vivid monochromes. One of the book’s attractive but disturbing oddities is the juxtaposition of ‘still’ images you wish might quicken into motion and moving images that you very much hope will stop soon. It’s a story not so much influenced by as haunted by the noir movie-making of its period. In a New York bar, Walker meets director Robert Siodmak, who sees or maybe mistakes something in the Canadian’s eyes – ‘what we call deep focus. Long eyes for seeing’ – and invites him out to the West Coast.

There are three landscapes in The Long Take: a California that is just about to surren-der its frontier status to the developers and to uneasy permanence, a Normandy whose Old World identity is as fragile as glass, and an upcountry Nova Scotia, culturally Scottish, physically untouched. Robertson’s text is presented in different fonts, with Italic representing deep memory, whether of war or an idyllic youth, and bold his occasional writings. With his deep focus and long eyes, he gets a job as a newspaperman, jumping out of the frying pan of fighting the SS Hitlerjugend with the North Novas and into the fire of the city beat.

For Walker, and it is banal to put it so literally, the war is not over. Death is as casual on the streets of LA as it was in the fields and allées of northern France. The physical destruction of property – quietly framed in the French scenes by a house full of Murano glass and icons in vitrines, with a dead child spread-eagled in a pool of red outside, possibly a Spielberg steal – is matched by the physical demolition and redevelopment of the old Bunker Hill and the displacement of its population. For this is not just a poetic novel but – even more unfashionably – a political novel, an often savage but certainly unflinching protest against greed and exploitation. It is the California that Robert Frost – normally thought of as a New England poet – thought of as a ‘night of dark intent’, the moment when frontier as a process reached frontier as a physical fact and folded back on itself. But not only a night, as Frost put it in ‘Once By The Pacific’, ‘not only a night, an age. / Someone had better be prepared for rage.’

Walker’s rage grows steadily. Some of it focuses on his fellow newsman Pike, who seems to gather up all the vices of the age in one smug, lanky frame. But Pike is also a poetic device, or a jazzman’s repeated melodic phrase. The Long Take is not so much a film noir as a long improvisation on a handful of themes. The title seems to refer to the virtuosic shooting of a getaway scene in a film by Joseph H. Lewis, another of the real life characters who people the book. Walker (and Robertson) reveal in the technical detail – an opened-up Caddy, the cameraman in a jockey’s saddle on a greased plank, button microphones, ad libbed script – but it’s the rhythm and cadence of the detail that matters more than the detail itself. Likewise the lovingly mapped and recreated geography of downtown LA between 1946 and 1958. Likewise the chorus-character Billy Idaho, who personalises the city’s sharp social decline. Likewise the tiny but perfectly positioned detail of an elderly lady in a rooming house who fusses over a series of ailing rodent pets – hamsters, cavies, rats? – in a shoebox, all of them called Alfredo. This is beautifully done.

Sometimes, though, the detail trips, especially when the research is too obviously flagged. One gets used to the movie sets and the big name directors – Siodmak, Dassin, Aldrich, Zinnemann, Tourneur – and it’s safe to accept that if Robertson names a location and a movie that it was made there as and when he says it was. In other ways, though, the period detail clunks like product placement, as when a guy in a bar proffers a pack of filtered Kents and tells us they’re new, and the whole scene seems to freeze and smile at the camera. Or when Marilyn appears in the very first issue of Playboy – October 1 1953, from memory – or when Charlie Parker, same age as Walker, keels over in a rich woman’s apartment on March 12 1955, a date even more securely remembered if you’re a jazz fan.

All this is incidental, though. The Long Take is put together like a jazz solo, not one of Parker’s proto-hip-hop scorchers, but something by Coleman Hawkins or Lester Young, deceptively slow, full of sublimated anger and, yes, poetic. In the middle, as a (no pun intended) bridging section, Walker moves to San Francisco for a time to research homelessness and urban decay. The fogs that swirl round the Golden Gate, the cool in the air, are a reminder of Dunvegan, Inverness County, Cape Breton. The evocation of the city knocks Vikram Seth’s yuppy cleverness into a small cocked hat.

Like Hawkins and Young, Robertson understands that poetry can survive not just discord but also a prosaic plainness. There are passages in The Long Take that might come from Lewis Mumford or Jane Jacobs, but their presence doesn’t diminish but instead enhances the musicality of the whole structure. It is hard to believe that Robertson (born 1955) couldn’t have been in the places he describes and only read about them or watched them on screen. When Sebastian Faulks tried to capture a similar world in On Green Dolphin Street one sensed and shared his desire to be there, without quite believing he ever had been. Robertson has a few generic moments in his description of combat – and here the Faulks analogy would be Birdsong – but the utter rawness of the Normandy scenes are undiminished by them.

For Walker, the war is not over. The flashbacks and symptoms of PTSD – or what would have been called ‘battle fatigue’ – are episodic and Robertson doesn’t dwell on them. What he does instead is build them into a controlled crescendo. The closing choruses of The Long Take are quite remarkable. If The Waste Land is the Ur-text of modernist/postmodernist writing – and it is almost explicitly alluded to in an early, New York image like ‘At night, the river rolls and turns like oil…’ – it reasserts itself at the end, when the San Andreas fault, the Santa Ana wind, encroaching wildfires and the rubble of Bunker Hill are the background chords to Walker’s moment of quiet self-determination. His final line (and Robertson’s) has a whiff of Manifest Destiny but because of that it is almost biblical, too. I won’t quote it here, but you better read it twice, thrice, more, in order to savour its stoical pride and multiple irony. A great novel? A great poem? Only really matters to the prize committees and the shelf-stackers.

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My study, all the study I have ever attained to, is the little second drawing-room where all the (feminine) life of the house goes on; and I don’t think I have ever had two hours undisturbed (except at night when everybody is in bed) during my whole literary life.’ So wrote the Victorian novelist Margaret Oliphant in her plaintive memoir.

She had good reason to be often melancholy, not because of the conditions in which she worked, but because she lost so many of her family when she and they were still young. One chapter of her reminiscences, in particular, has an eery quality, only explained when she reveals that as she writes she is sitting beside her grown son Cecci’s coffin. By this stage she had been widowed for quarter of a century, since 1859, when her artist husband died in Italy of tuberculosis, when she was on the point of again giving birth. This left her with three children (three others had died in infancy), one of whom, her only daughter, died a few years later and was buried with her father in his grave in Rome.

The appalling arithmetic of Victorian mortality is hard to imagine, despite Mrs Oliphant’s heart-rending descriptions. Many genteel wives finding themselves in the same situation would have been helpless, incapable of supporting their family without a husband. Despite her grief and fear, how-ever, Mrs Oliphant was resourceful. Born in Wallyford, near Edinburgh, she had published her first novel in 1848, at the age of 21. When events left her alone and almost penniless, she began to churn out books, so many, and so fast that by the time of her death, in 1897, she had written over 110. Ninety-seven of them were novels. Gentle social realism, romance, and historical fiction was her territory, along with tales of the supernatural.

It is Oliphant’s recollections rather than her novels, however, that are compelling. A mirror to her times, they are endlessly fascinating despite their morbid tone. She is only one of several writers included in Scotland: Her Story, in which the history of the country since the early middle ages is told in the words of women, or those who recorded their actions. It makes for a different view of the past, much of it inevitably based on the home front. What piques the interest with Mrs Oliphant, for instance, is that while she may have had to write in the parlour, constantly breaking off to tend to children or visitors, she was conducting a business that, like all successful writers, would carry her ideas across the world. What she wrote in the hours of darkness when she had liberty to think, was arguably as influential and important as most of the everyday doings of men in parliament, trade, councils or churches. While men were patted on the back, awarded honours and titles and bonuses, novel writing – though only when undertaken by a woman – was viewed with amused tolerance. Yet even Mrs Oliphant acknowledged that things had improved immeasurably since the turn of the century when, she wrote, Jane Austen’s family ‘were half ashamed to have it known that she was not just a young lady like the others, doing her embroidery. Mine were quite pleased to magnify me, and proud of my work, but always with a hidden sense that it was an admirable joke, and no idea that any special facilities or retirement was necessary.’

At various points in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, women writers utter the refrain now indelibly linked to Virginia Woolf: the need for a room of one’s own. Like Mrs Oliphant, they rarely got it. Mary Somerville, the celebrated mathematician who earned an international reputation for her genius, revised and interpreted Laplace’s algebraic ideas while also being constantly interrupted. Nor could she write in her own room in winter, since no fire was allowed in it.

These and other writerly issues are included in the book, less for their literary significance than for the light they throw on women’s position, and the expectations placed on them – lowly in the first instance, and exceptionally high in the second. To meet the terms and conditions imposed on wives, daughters and mothers in any age except perhaps the last half century required meekness, dedication, selflessness, inventiveness and stamina. It’s hardly surprising that those with intellectual or creative impulses felt stifled and oppressed, sometimes to the point of insanity.

By the time of Mrs Oliphant’s death in 1897 she had written over 110 books. Ninety-seven of them were novels. Gentle social realism, romance and historical fiction was her territory…

Would Jane Welsh Carlyle have become one of the finest ever letter-writers had she been free to pursue a career? Yet while her abilities were clearly thwarted by convention, the way in which she channelled her energy has left a timeless record of marriage and domestic life that is second to none. Her letters, to a wide circle of friends and family, are one of the brightest illuminations of Victorian life we have. They also allow occasional glimpses into the secret feelings of an often unhappy wife. Married to the acclaimed and irascible historian, Thomas Carlyle, Jane  assiduously kept house for him, exercising her pen almost every day in brilliantly sharp and witty descriptions of her doings. Nothing was beneath her observation: decorators, dinners, the great historian himself and, on occasion, her alcoholic servant:  ‘My poor little Helen has been gradually getting more and more into the habit of tippling – until, some fortnight ago, she rushed down into a fit of the most decided drunkenness that I ever happened to witness. … Finally, we got her bolted into the back kitchen, in a corner of which she had established herself all coiled up and fuffing like a young tiger about to make a spring, or like the Bride of Lammermoor (if you ever read that profane book).’

How ironic that her spouse, still acknowledged as among the first rank of historians, is barely read today. Jane’s writing, meanwhile, is as fresh as when she dipped her nib in ink. Had women been able to exercise their brains in that period as they can today, it seems probably that she would have written books on serious subjects. They might have been erudite or sage, but they would doubtless have dated too. The personal, highly engaging style she uses in her private correspondence would have been lost in the ponderous literary conventions thought necessary to convey elevated ideas.

Indeed, the uncomfortable truth for many of the bygone novelists, poets and writers included in the book is that much of their fascination today lies not in their works of art but in what their letters, diaries or memoirs show of the period they lived through. If you wish to reserve a place in posterity, perhaps you should consider keep-ing a journal or writing a memoir.

Nobody now reads the best-selling romantic novelist Annie S Swan, but her spirited autobiography reveals how she got involved in giving inspirational moralizing talks to the troops in France early in world war one. Swan was a devout Christian, but she also had a sense of humour. This became necessary when she unexpectedly found herself addressing hundreds of young soldiers in a quarantine camp, who were being treated for venereal disease. A few years later, her novel The Pendulum, which gently alluded to women’s sexuality, led to her being ostracized. ‘One minister’s wife told me quite gravely, and with considerable unction, that she was one of a little coterie who had met together to pray that I might be restored to the right way. Another told me that, on the Leith to London boat, a group of women had met in the saloon to discuss the book, and the finding was, “She has let us down.”

I don’t believe I have ever been restored to confidence or favour in these circles. But it does not keep me awake at night.’

Among the most evocative autobiographies in recent memory is Christian Miller’s A Childhood in Scotland. First published in The New Yorker, it describes her upbringing in a haunted Highland castle, and is a rare insight into the lives of the aristocracy and gentry in this often lonely, cut-off region in the late 1920s and early 1930s. The historical record is filled with the deeds of royalty and aristocracy in interesting, violent times, but noticeably lacking, especially in the past century, is a personal view from this class. It is almost as if, as democracy replaced deference and the lower orders were finally allowed to speak, those in the upper echelons shrank into themselves.

The novelist Naomi Mitchison was one of this elite, but as a bohemian she escaped the common rules that dictated how the classes interacted. Her memoir is luminous, arguably one of her finest works, in which she recalls her upbringing in sooty Edinburgh only a stone’s throw geographically and historically from that of Robert Louis Stevenson. When, as part of the Mass Observation project, she kept a war-time diary, airbrushed memory gives way to daily accounting. There is no varnish in these entries, just the dash and colour of a natural writer and thinker. When she describes the death of her infant daughter in 1940, the day after her birth, she has to steel herself: ‘I had better get this over,’ she writes, before giving a matter-of-fact account that cannot hide her pain.

Passages like these are a reminder of how previous generations lived and felt. Nobody has ever doubted the sorrow of losing a child, be it last century or in the middle ages. Yet to hear a mother describe the experience is to  come close to a moment in history that might seem insignificant in the grand sweep of events, but for an individual in one of the defining moments of their existence.

Not all the revelations, thankfully, are bleak. The pieces in this book are drawn from women of all occupations and ranks. You will find as many being critical as kowtowing, making comedy as well as marriages, defying the rules, the authorities and their spouses, and going their own way with a gleam in their eye. At times it is also possible to see how little has changed. Many of us will recognize Mary Somerville’s complaint that: ‘I rose early and made such arrangements with regard to my children and family affairs that I had time to write afterwards; not, however, without many interruptions. A man can always command his time under the plea of business, a woman is not allowed any such excuse.’ These days, of course, the problem is not emancipation or respect. It is simply called working from home.

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Writers writing about books has always made for compelling reading. Writers writing about their own books in private correspondence to their publisher tends to produce a particular kind of letter. There is passion, conviction, fluency, doubt, deference, sometimes frustration and anger, maybe even gratitude. The letters in Dear Mr Murray: Letters to a Gentleman Publisher, published to mark the 250th anniversary of John Murray, show these qualities and more. The book is a behind the scenes tour of a publishing enterprise of astonishing longevity and success.

David McClay, former senior curator of the John Murray Archive at the National Library of Scotland, has assembled a collection of letters from that vast resource to tell not only the story of a publishing house, but also a history of literature. This is surely to have made order from chaos, for the correspondence that accumulates in the production of a book, from an author’s first enquiry to a volume’s arrival on shop shelves, would be a towering paper mountain alongside the neatly squared corners of a handsome Murray quarto. Not known for their tidiness, publishers must present particular challenges to the archivist.

McClay’s selection bristles with familiar names (Austen, Byron, Scott, Darwin, Bernard Shaw) but Dear Mr Murray also brims with almost forgotten literary phenomena, such as Samuel Smiles’ vastly popular nineteenth-century Self-Help books, while more celebrated people pop up in surprising situations. Felix Mendelssohn makes a cameo in a very funny chapter about the production of Murray’s Handbooks for Travellers. His recommendation of a friend’s Swiss hotel sits amidst complaints from travellers and tour operators about the misrepresentation (for better and worse) of various establishments.

Dear Mr Murray emphasizes tradition and consistency. The Johns Murray stretch from I to VII in an almost direct line of succession. As in all dynasties, though, there are some kinks in the line. John I was born John McMurray in Edinburgh in 1737. He dropped the ‘wild Highland Mac’ when he established the business under his name in Fleet Street in 1768. The business passed from father to son with only one falling out (between John IV and his brother Hallam) until John ‘Jack’ V died without issue. His nephew, John ‘Jock’ Murray took over as VI and the line was restored. While all this may seem like a lesson from Stuart history, the reader is not required to remember which John is which. A cumulative effect of reading these letters is that, like monarchs, the various Murrays merge, each a living embodiment of the same unchanging office.

This is the case because the publisher’s voice emerges almost entirely from the narrative linking the letters. McClay has excerpted the Murray side of correspondence skilfully. Responses are briefly quoted when interesting, paraphrased to relay essential facts. John Murray, in any decade, is circumspect and generally magnanimous in dealings, rising only occasionally to anger and drawing on a trusted circle of friends and critics for advice.

John Murray III’s letter to his father recounting Walter Scott’s first public admission of his authorship of the Waverley novels offers a glimpse of the young man’s training. Having studied at Edinburgh University, he was apprenticed briefly to Oliver and Boyd, showing the strong connections and equal footings of Edinburgh and London publishing houses at the time.

As generations of authors come and go, Byron haunts the halls of 50 Albemarle Street. His sensational popularity filled the Murray coffers and Murrays in turn shaped and perpetuated his stardom. Byron’s long absences from London made John Murray II his primary agent in the city, and many personal requests arise in the correspondence, from the mundane (a request for tooth powder) to, literally, the grave. In 1822 Byron asked him to arrange for the burial of his illegitimate daughter, Allegra, whose body was returned to London after she died in an Italian convent aged five.

Byron’s story is told across three chapters. The first cluster is a whirlwind of private correspondence from 1813 concerning a forgery that duped Murray into releasing a miniature of Byron into the clutches of his former mistress, Caroline Lamb. Caro, who coined the phrase ‘mad, bad and dangerous to know’, had impersonated Byron’s style and hand, the latter ‘to perfection’ as Byron admitted to his close friends. His letter to Murray on the matter requests discretion. ‘You have been imposed upon by a letter forged in my name…. This I know by the confession of the culprit, & as she is a woman (& of rank) with whom I have been unfortunately too much connected you will for the present say little about it’. In letters to friends, he writes of the affair with considerably less discretion and more cruelty.

Murray was keenly aware of his role in shaping Byron’s reputation and how that reputation could, in turn, affect his business. Correspondence concerning Don Juan shows an escalating tension about the cutting of incendiary passages from the final published version. ‘Having fired the bomb,’ Murray II wrote on its publication, ‘here I am [at Wimbledon] out of the way of the explosion.’ The sure sales assuaged his misgivings, as Francis Palgrave reassured Murray: ‘Don Juan must sell: grave good people, pious people, regular people, all like to read about naughty people & even wicked words… do not really offend many very modest eyes.’

PC Wren telegraphed on news of a $22,500 rights sale, ‘I am most delighted and grateful, but I do not believe a word of it – WREN’

The danger for an anthologist is to draw attention to something enticing but not to include it. In the final Byron chapter, dealing with his literary estate and the infamous burning of his memoirs, we learn of executor Thomas Moore’s disgust at the familiar tone of Byron’s correspondence with Murray and the idea that a particular letter detailing Byron’s affair with a Venetian woman would be read in Murray’s salon. Moore’s letter about the letter is included because it shows Moore’s distaste at the private being made public in what he saw as a vulgar setting, but the telling tantalizes: can we read this Venetian letter? What are the details? Was Moore clutching his pearls too tightly?

Over 250 years times change, even in books. While the processes of writing, editing, and forming opinions remain strikingly unchanged by the march of technological progress, modernity creeps into Murray’s by the inch. The accurate illustration of non-fiction works was considerably more difficult before there was a camera in everyone’s pocket. David Livingstone, for example, preparing his first book, Missionary Travels and Researches in South Africa, for the press in the spring of 1857, fired a volley of letters in which he suggested giving a ‘peep’ of the images of the Victoria Falls and his encounter with a lion to a friend ‘who is a good judge of lions’. A few weeks later he finds that ‘lion encounter is absolutely abominable. …Everyone who knows what a lion is will die with laughing at it. …It really must hurt the book to make a lion look larger than a hippopotamus; I am quite distressed about it.’

In the 1920s and ’30s the selling of motion-picture rights promised sacks of cash and posed new challenges in communication. Transatlantic telegrams surface in the correspondence at this point, as large and time-sensitive deals are forged across the Atlantic. Novelist PC Wren telegraphed on news of a $22,500 rights sale, ‘I am most delighted and grateful, but I do not believe a word of it – WREN’. It was, of course, too good to be true: the novel was not copyrighted in America so Murray’s and Wren received only a $5,000 advance.

John Murray V had to act as intermediary between Swedish author Axel Munthe who was being ‘hustled’ to agree a deal with Paramount for his book The Story of San Michele. Munthe’s view was that, ‘nothing but the much needed money from those animals could make me agree for a moment to submit to this vulgarisation of our book.’ Despite Murray’s entreaty that the agents ‘altogether unhustle him now’, the offer was withdrawn and it was a further thirty years until the book was filmed.

As the anthology approaches the present, Jock Murray VI is credited with ‘reigniting the literary and social spark of John Murray II’. Featuring correspondence with John Betjeman, Freya Stark, Patrick Leigh Fermor, and Dervla Murphy these chapters overflow with warmth and friendship. Betjeman had been a college friend before the publishing relationship began; Stark’s letters from across the globe reflect on World War Two and what it asks of humanity. Murphy is the only living author in the book: her selection revealing a story ‘not to be publicized, please’ that she agreed to a long interview on Irish television to win a £300 bet for a friend who had recently been abandoned by her husband.

An elegiac chapter about Patrick Leigh Fermor is beautifully balanced and a moving conclusion to Dear Mr Murray, though it is not quite the end. Fermor’s friends write to Jock about his life and work, and about his connection to Greece, weaving through recollections and news before the voice of the man himself finally rings through with deep sincerity. His letter is a reflection on how he should best represent his introduction to Greece, a pivotal moment in his life, as he plans the account of his iconic walk across Europe to Constantinople.

The journal of that walk has been returned to Fermor unexpectedly. He finds the writing ‘immature, awkward, pretentious… unwittingly comic, often embarrassing’ but also fresher and more immediate than his present recollections of the period. Musing on how to resolve these two voices, he expresses the paradox of age, time and progress quite simply, ‘although I’m the 1934 diarist’s descendant I could also be his grandfather’. The same could be said for the publishing house. Just as Murray’s moves venerably but inexorably towards its sale to Hodder & Stoughton in 2002, this bustling collection brings its salad days resonantly to life.

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The Hôtel Chevillon in Grez-sur-Long has long been a place of artistic endeavour. The Swedish writer and playwright August Strindberg and his wife Siri resided there. Another Swedish writer, Carl Larsson, lived in a small house in the surrounding compound and his daughter was born in the attic room.

The bridge that crosses the River Loing at the foot of the hotel grounds featured in paintings by The Glasgow Boys. And Robert Louis Stevenson, then 25, romanced his future wife Fanny Osbourne at the Chevillon in 1875, making an initial impression by crashing through the terrace window into the dining room.

The skies are postcard blue in Grez when I finally arrive. In a sweaty daze I pass the church, the remains of a castle and reach the main street, Rue Larsson. A small silver plaque on the hotel’s grey exterior bears its name. After opening the front door with a skeleton key, I’m immediately struck by the winding staircase which showcases paintings of the river and bridge. The bridge is drawn from different perspectives and in a range of palettes – sketches, watercolours, oils – and in summer hues, bright hellfire colours and muted blues. To the left of the staircase is the salon, with worn sofas and blue and yellow stained glass windows. Beyond the salon is a library with a shabby red chair and stacks of books, including a hefty Scottish section donated by previous recipients of the Robert Louis Stevenson Fellowship.

There are six apartments in total, named after August Strindberg, Finnish cartoonist Ville Vallgren, Stevenson, Julia Berg and Carl Larsson, as well as the Skagen painters. My apartment is number 3. There’s a framed photo of a moustachioed RLS placed outside it. His stepdaughter, Belle Strong, once called him ‘a nice looking ugly man’. That seems about right. No. 3 is the best of all the apartments, not for its size but because of its central position above the grassy courtyard. I can see silver ribbons of the Loing, the dip and hump of the bridge, the roofs of the other flats and the leafy trees which provide a sylvan walkway down to the river.

Stevenson arrived at Grez in 1875, along with his cousin Robert Alan Mowbray Stevenson (known as RAM Stevenson) and returned for two summers after that. In an essay he wrote of the Hôtel Chevillon: ‘The inn garden descends in terraces to the river; stableyard, kailyard, orchard and a space of lawn; fringed with rushes and embellished with a green arbour.’ After I put away my things I go for a wander. Stevenson was right about the garden descending in low terraces but where the stable yard was there is only a shambling wood structure and a lone apple tree is all that’s left of the orchard. What was once ‘an English-looking plain, set thickly with willows and poplars’ on the river’s opposite bank is now a raucous campsite, teeming with people in neon swimsuits riding unicorn-shaped inflatables. The Loing has a shimmering gold and green hue, clear to the bottom, with sunken stones and floating reeds. RLS wrote a rather mawkish poem about it:

Know you the river near to Grez,
A river deep and clear?
Among the lilies all the way,
That ancient river runs to-day
From snowy weir to weir.

The bridge doesn’t disappoint. Stretching across the Loing, its seven muscular pillars support the concrete decking that fills one’s view. Today it’s a springboard for young French men from the camp ground who dive into the only part of the river deep enough to absorb them. Their gymnastic leaps provide entertainment for our side of the river and cannonball splashes soon become a part of my daily background noise.

That evening from my open windows, I spot other residents gathering on the rusted chairs near the river. I tentatively join them, armed with some bottled poetry. RLS once wrote of the goings-on at Chevillon: ‘Dinner over, people drop outside to smoke and chat. Perhaps we go along to visit our friends at the other end of the village, where there is always a good welcome and a good talk, and perhaps some pickled oysters and white wine to close the evening.’

Everyone by the river is Scandinavian. There are Swedish writers, academics, visual artists and sound artists, as well as a Finnish writer and a graphic novelist. They quickly switch to English when I join them, which I feel a little guilty about as it means the pace of conversation slows. We speak about cold winters and ice hockey. We agree about the talented Sedins, Swedish twins who played hockey in Vancouver where I am originally from. One of the Swedish writers claims that Scotland and Scandinavia are connected by their upper latitudes, drink and depression. ‘We all ride the melancholy line,’ he says, ‘the whisky and aquavit line.’ My new friends also tell me that a previous occupant of the RLS apartment heard knocking in the night. ‘Stevenson died in Samoa,’ I say hopefully, ‘so that’s a long ways away.’ ‘Perhaps it’s Strindberg,’ one of them laughs. That night we drink for a long time by the river, build a fire in a makeshift pit, and watch the planet Mars shine like a small torch over the bridge.

* * *

After such an intense first day, the subsequent days tumble into each other. Some mornings I wake up excited and ready to work; others, I struggle to get started. Like Stevenson, I am usually awake early, courtesy of dawn breaking and amorous birds on the roof: ‘If you have not been wakened up by some adventurous pigeon,’ he wrote, ‘you will be awakened by the light.’ On the advice of seasoned residency goers, I try to develop a routine. In the mornings I cross the street to the boulangerie, where they delicately wrap your baguette or éclair in monogrammed paper. I run along the path to the neighbouring town of Nemours, passing dogs sleeping on fishing boats. I cycle, too, on a white road bike named Nakamura. I pedal to one town, sit in the hot sun for a while, and pedal to the next town. I like running or cycling over the bridge back to Grez; it raises a small, triumphant flag in me, like I’m coming home. I know what to look out for: the strip of burnt grass on the bank, the glowing Loing, and on our side of the river, the rusted chairs and the red shovel which has no obvious purpose.

And I write, of course, more drafts of poems in a month than I normally do in a year. At my window overlooking the courtyard, I work on the sequence of villanelles which come easily due to the freedom of only being expected to do one thing. I work on my sequence on the life of Muriel Spark too, using material I had previously excavated from her archive in the National Library of Scotland. Spark adored Stevenson; her best friend Frances Niven lived next door to Stevenson’s house in Edinburgh. I read a biography of him, which says that he and Fanny consummated their relationship in Grez, and I clean the surfaces in the apartment even more vigorously. I struggle a bit with the seclusion and having such a big space to fill up with my thinking. ‘It’s strange to have no one need you for anything’, I say to the Finnish writer, who is spending six months here, from summer to New Year. In the evenings I look out the window, bemused by my new temporary life. Once a hot air balloon, farmhouse red, flies over the roof of the hotel and its tiny flame makes me well up.

* * *

There are more social gatherings by the river, fuelled by copious amounts of wine and, sometimes, cognac. Going to the river was code for wanting to socialize, though I often sat there in complete silence with the others while we all read. ‘There is a wish for solitude,’ Stevenson said. One night after writing solidly for a few days, I wander out to the courtyard with a glass of wine, wondering if I’m being unsociable. I see rows of lit boxes, windows pooling with light; everyone was working, on the hottest evening in August.

On the last evening, there is a big dinner for everyone in the courtyard. As we sit having an after-dinner aperitif, a Swedish writer says that the Chevillon was a secret SS Headquarters. It would make sense, she says, because of its proximity to Paris and reports of soldiers bathing in the river. A shadow is suddenly cast.

The next day, I depart. I have mixed feelings about leaving. ‘Life at Grez,’ Stevenson wrote, ‘was deliciously complicated as life in an artists’ colony should be.’ Though when RLS was here, he was chasing after his future wife Fanny, while his cousin RAM had his eye on Fanny’s young daughter Belle. Most of the ‘complication’ for the writers now at Grez seems internal; we were hard at our work, enjoying the experience of being at Chevillon, then moving on.

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IT was the sort of mist that carried the promise of sun; a face glimpsed through a bridal veil. That morning, it lay so thick on Whitby that the jagged ruins of abbey, at the top of the famous 199 steps, could not be seen from the town. In a glass-fronted alcove above the doorway of St Patrick’s, a plaster saint – unaware of his own kitsch – raised a dignified crozier in seeming blessing of the harbour. He blessed the gulls, the gleaming hulls, the whole salted scene.

Suddenly, out of the mist came the flag of a rival saint. A red cross bright on its field of white, as if on the prow of some merchant vessel. But this was no ship and Keith Gilpin no sailor. He is a street cleaner, the man who keeps Whitby’s cobbles swept. The flag flies on the front of his cart. On his baseball cap he wears Yorkshire’s white rose. Thus blazoned, he goes about his business with brush and black bag. Keith hates litter about as much as he loves a flutter on the horses, which is to say: a lot. He will tolerate nothing dropped unless it is an aitch.

‘Whitby means plenty to me, lad,’ he said. ‘I look at the abbey and I look at the piers, and I feel comfortable and safe. I like beers and I like bets and I like a good meal, but just to see that sunrise and sunset…’ He trailed off, moved by the recollection of dawns and twilights. ‘Of all life’s pleasures, those that cost nowt are best.’

His round starts at six and he moves at a clip. Our conversation was punctuated by the hard shush of his brush. Keith is in his early sixties. It is tempting to regard him as a sentimental figure, a real-life ‘Bogie’ from Deacon Blue’s ‘Dignity’, but he resists such comparisons with northern grit. Would Bogie tear open a fly-tipped bin-bag and rake through the muck for a clue to the identity of the person who dumped it? Would Bogie explain his desire to see such litterers fined by saying, with Old Testament severity, ‘You shit on me and I’ll shit on you’?

Keith’s fiefdom is the eastern side of the town, where fishermen’s cottages have red pan-tiles, and narrow lanes clog with visitors. ‘You’ve got to always take into account the weather,’ he explained. ‘In bad weather there’s a damn sight more dog shit on’t streets because lazy people let them go anywhere. If it turns out good today, we’ll have pizza boxes and kebab boxes and tab ends. You get the spew. You get the human shit. It’s not the best of things to ’ave to sort out, but I just think of the pleasant barmaid who’s going to pour my pint later, and I’m okay.’

He’s an optimist is Keith. Yes, he has to carry water on his cart to better clean up after dogs, but this means he can give the window-boxes a drink; although watering flowers is not part of his job, civic pride is part of his nature. As is patience. His hobby is metal-detecting. For thirty years he has dug up pennies from the beach, a few thousand pounds worth of coppers; investing these in premium bonds, he hopes, one day, for a wee turn from Ernie.

The bells of St Mary struck seven. The cleaner pushed his cart along Henrietta Street to a spot overlooking the sands where Dracula is said to have come ashore. Tied to the fence are bunches of flowers left in memory of people who loved this town. Some locals think these an eyesore, but Keith, usually intolerant of mess, makes an exception for such tributes. He waits until the flowers are brown and dry and only then removes them. He can relate to the desire for some sort of memorial. This quiet corner is where, after his own passing, he hopes his family will place a bench with his name on it.

‘Then,’ he smiled, looking out over the sea, ‘you can come and park your backside, ’ave a can of beer or a cup of tea and say, “Bloody hell, that man ’ad these views every day of ’is working life.”’

* * *

On those wabbit, crabbit days when Whitby gets too hot and busy, I like to climb the 199 steps and walk the cliffs. A sign on a farm gate up there warns, in fading red paint, that ‘Trespassers will be shot.’ Happily, there is a place nearby where trespasses are not only forgiven (that being part of the whole Christian deal) but visitors actively welcomed: St Mary The Virgin, the town’s parish church.

Nineteenth-century box pews, one marked ‘For Strangers Only’, bring to mind a ship’s galley. Larkin might have considered this a serious house on serious earth, but the seriousness of the latter is open to question. Landslips have exposed bones. At night, St Mary’s is spotlit; light bouncing off its old walls casts a milky glow over the churchyard, picking out certain graves. Thomas Boynton, Master Mariner of the eighteenth century, is buried beneath a stone rich with carving: lawless ivy; a jawless skull, sockets deeply shadowed.

I was fortunate, one Sunday morning, to be shown around the church by Bob Franks, tower captain; the boss of the bellringers. He was 84, but you wouldn’t know it. They stood in a circle at the foot of the belltower, ten men and women, pulling candytwist ropes in suffragette colours. Mr Franks, a small gentleman with white hair and an air of gentle amusement, called the changes – ‘Seven on five, five leading!’ – rising to the very tips of his black loafers as the rope ascended. A plaque on the wall commemorated a day – May 6, 1935 – on which the bells were rung to mark the silver jubilee of King George V. There was, in every peal and echo, a sense of the eternal, a thing being done because it had always been done and would always be done. No dusty duty, though. The bellringers love the music and the ritual, and calling Whitby folk to worship is, for them, a sort of hallowed pleasure.

Afterwards, Mr Franks led the way up narrow stone stairs to the belfry. He undid a padlock, slid a bolt. The sound of the choir rose from far below. We were among the bells. They hung, still and heavy in the darkness, like ripe fruit. ‘Do you want to have a quick pop upstairs for the best view in Whitby?’ he asked.

He led the way along a beam, between the bells, and stooped through a tiny door on the other side of the belfry. ‘This is where I like to come to watch the Red Arrers do their stunts,’ he said, sweeping his arm around the roof. ‘They fly right over the top of the church ’ere.’ He was right about the view. The outlook north – flat blue sea, flat blue sky – was pure Rothko. South-west, a Turner-ish smear of smoke, rising from the moors, showed the position of the steam train chuffing towards Goathland.

The tower captain has been ringing bells since 1955, and has rung at over 1,000 churches around Britain including Buckfast Abbey. I did not have the heart to ask whether he had tried Buckie, a beverage that makes one go like the clappers. Mr Franks does not seem the sort.

* * *

Doc Rowe suggested a pint in the Middle Earth Tavern, so we cut down the Salt Pan Well Steps, a steep narrow close between tall houses of red brick. On Church Street we crossed the road to the water. ‘There,’ said Doc, pointing. ‘The Penny Hedge.’

It was low tide. Revealed on a staithe by the dropping water was what looked like a short length of crude fencing, woven from sticks, dripping wet and draped in bladderwrack. ‘The story goes that in the twelfth century there were three noblemen out hunting a wild boar…’ Doc began. As Britain’s greatest living folklorist, he knows about this stuff. ‘They chased it with their dogs and it ran into a hermitage.’ In the mêlée, the hermit was killed. The Abbot of Whitby insisted on an unusual punishment: every year, on Ascension Eve, the killers and their descendants must build a ‘penance hedge’ of hazel strong enough to withstand three tides. If it proved too weak for the waves, the families would forfeit their land. ‘The tradition carries on even now.’

Compared to many of England’s wilder and better known ceremonies, the Penny Hedge is gentle and reserved, a rite of spring in a minor key, but Doc loves it and would not miss it for the world. He will be there with his camera come hell or, well, high water. Now 74, he has almost certainly attended and documented more British rituals than anyone else alive; more, probably, than anyone who has ever lived. I first encountered Doc in South Queensferry, where, each August, he helps to dress the Burryman in his jaggy outfit of burrs. He maps out his year according to such calendar customs. He has missed the Padstow Obby Oss just once since 1963.

We sat in the Middle Earth nursing ale. With his crescent moon moustache, spectacles and melancholy expression, Doc brings to mind a disappointed schoolmaster in a western. His extraordinary archive is in Whitby, and he lives nearby, but is not a native. He’s a Devon lad. His obsession with documenting and collecting began, he thinks, when his father returned home from ‘fighting the Hun’ and found work in an auction room; he’d bring home unwanted stock. ‘So by the age of seven or eight I had eleven wind-up gramophones, and tea-chests full of 78s. I was singing O’Rafferty’s Pig before I went to school.’

He has had various jobs, can turn his hand to fire-eating and escapology, has spent long periods living ‘on fresh air and nothing’. He doesn’t drive, is a veteran hitcher, a committed user of public transport and Shanks’s pony. Sometimes it takes him four days to get to an event, if no bus goes near. This is ideological as much as pragmatic; he meets interesting people along the way, uncovers stories, gets a little closer to the spirit of the rituals. He is a knight-errant, Doc Quixote; it isn’t easy to imagine him on horseback, but perhaps a donkey.

‘Can you explain why you live like this?’ I asked.

‘No, I can’t,’ he replied. ‘I’ve got trapped in it, in a sense.’

He did not seem unhappy at this thought. Outside, waves lapped against the sides of the Penny Hedge. The tide was coming in.

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