James Robertson’s novel introduces itself with an epigraph of Scotland’s late Makar, (poet laureate) Edwin Morgan’s poem ‘The Summons’ hinting at the impossibility of writing and fully understanding a nation’s history:
“like a slate we could not clean / of characters, yet could not read, or write / our answers on, or smash, or take with us”.
I would like to add my own suggested poem from the former Makar (probably known mostly to fans of Scottish band Idlewild) that of ‘Scottish Fiction’ (1). It seemed a really fitting description of what James Robertson is trying to evoke in his novel, that difficulty of defining Scotland, its people and its literature –
“It isn’t in the castle / It isn’t in the mist / It’s a calling of the waters / As they break to show / The new Black Death / With reactors aglow”.
In his novel, Robertson presents various fragments and snapshots of Scottish life and the novel is framed by Michael Pendreich’s attempt to organise his father Angus’s photography for an exhibition, and the exhibition itself. The book doesn’t follow a linear pattern and in Mike’s attempts to rearrange his father’s portfolio, we come to see how little chronology matters, and how a nation can only begin to be portrayed through multiple voices from different generations and backgrounds.
The threads of the characters’ lives run throughout the novel, becoming tangled and inseparable. It gave me a sense of what I imagine a lot of Scottish people feel, that it feels like a wee country, and that everyone knows everyone else, connected somehow or another by family or acquaintance or work. (Which reminds me of another poem actually, this one by Hugh MacDiarmid, which begins “Scotland small? Our multiform, our infinite Scotland small?”).
The novel is steeped in modern Scottish history, ranging from the 1940s to the noughties. There is so much life contained in this book, and yet the feeling that these are just snapshots of a country, still images, unable to represent a whole nation. It is a weighty novel and one that I found to be a hugely rewarding read and writing this review I am struck by how much of Scotland’s social history is covered in the novel. It sweeps from the industrial slowdown of 1950s post-war, a world of “no PCs”, to 1970s Edinburgh where there “was a sense of something about to happen, of things already happening in rooms just out of sight and reach” and the youthful positive outlook of Mike. It takes in the hedonism of the 80s, the money-making, AIDS, privatisation, oil, the closure of mines, nuclear power, the Stone of Destiny, the Right to Buy scheme and even Hitchcock’s Psycho and The Beatles get a mention. Look out too for an encounter with C.M. Grieve (better known as Hugh MacDiarmid, the Scottish poet and staunch Scottish nationalist) and Maggie Thatcher’s shoes (I’ll leave that to your imagination…).
The novel is preoccupied with politics and the question of Scottish independence is perhaps summed up by one character’s bleak view that devolution came “twenty years too late. It’s like we fought our way to the bar just in time for the barman to tell us he’s stopped serving”. There is the sense that Scotland remains subservient to its bigger neighbour and might not be capable of escaping its influence despite its delusions and the people who discuss the need for independence and “sit in contemplation while the gas fire hisses at their pretensions”.
Intermingled with politics are the personal lives of the characters, vividly portrayed, each one highly distinctive from the next. There is Jean Barbour with her “independent streak”, who attracted people to her in the 70s with her talent for story telling but who is now slipping away and ravaged by cancer, too much whisky and endless cigarettes; Peter Bond, a small time spy sent to gain intelligence on Scottish people’s quest for independence, also being swallowed up by alcohol; and Jack Gordon, whose presence is felt throughout, a symbol of the landscape itself, gathering stones and placing them in people’s hands as if urging them to take care of it, this land that they belong to and that belongs to them.
I thoroughly enjoyed this book, to me it is destined to become a modern Scottish classic, rich with Scottish history and voices, giving the reader a real sense of what the country has been in the previous century, hints towards what it may become in the near future and the journey that modern Scottish politics has taken to become what it is today. It is an ambitious work that gives vivid snapshots of Scottish life over several decades and a sense that Scotland can be optimistic about its future. In the words of Edwin Morgan “You will not shake us off above or below”.
(1) The collaboration came about when lead singer Roddy Woomble wrote to Edwin Morgan asking him to contribute a poem to their album. You can read more about the collaboration (and read the full poem) here. In case you’re interested, the song is called ‘In Remote Part/Scottish Fiction’ and it’s worth listening to for Edwin Morgan’s recital of the poem at the end. I love the richness of his voice, as well as the defiant tone he takes in the poem’s final lines.