Even the youngest of us can remember the dreary days when it was an accepted canon of English literature that a novel should deal wholly with character-painting, and should never be sullied with incident. All our cleverest writers wrote stories in which nothing ever happened, and we all agreed that this was true art. Nevertheless there is not the slightest doubt that we had a secret hankering for incident, and refrained from acknowledging it only because we had been taught that incident was ‘low,’ and that those nearly obsolete novelists, Fielding, and Marryat, and Cooper, indulged in incident merely because they were incapable of anything higher. When Mr Stevenson wrote Treasure Island, a story overflowing with incidents of the most exciting character, we enjoyed it immensely, but we excused the writer and ourselves on the ground that, after all, the book was only a boy’s book. But then came Dr. Conan Doyle with his Micah Clarke. Here was a novel whose bloody battles, hair-breadth escapes, and all sorts of wild and delicious adventures were strewn with amazing prodigality. No one could deny that it was a novel, for it followed the traditions of Waverley, Roy Roy, and Old Mortality, and even the warmest admirers of the novel in which nothing happened was compelled to admit that Scott was a novelist. Micah Clarke met with such immediate and wide approval that the oppressed novel-reading public mustered courage to rise in insurrection, and demand that henceforth its novels should be novels of incident. Since then the novel that confines itself to the analysis of character, or to the promulgation of religious and moral fads, has been relegated, on this side of the Atlantic at least, to women writers. Our masculine story-writers, Kipling, and Doyle, and Weyman, and Quiller-Couch, and the rest of them, can draw character as skilfully as the best of the men of the analytic school, but they can also invent incidents in limitless profusion; and when we sit down to read their books we know that our cheeks are to be fanned by the strong, fresh breeze of adventure, and not sallowed by the wearisome toil and profitless trouble of the spiritual dissecting room. To Dr. Doyle, more than to any other man, we owe this return to honest story-telling, and in future years, when we have rediscovered Marryat and cooper, and when even women have ceased to write bad theology and to discuss their more obscure emotions, the public will raise a monument to Conan Doyle as the reviver of the British novel.
Mr Stevenson has, consciously or unconsciously, produced a series of composite characters in his Ebb Tide. It is an extremely attenuated story as far as the plot is concerned. Three worthless vagabonds conspire to steal a schooner, and afterwards to steal a small cargo of pearls. One of them is shot in the course of the latter attempt, and thereupon the story ceases rather than ends, for strictly speaking it has neither beginning nor end. Mr Stevenson is said to have called it a ‘brutal’ story. It is certainly a powerful one, perhaps the most powerful story that Mr Stevenson has yet written, but its interest consists almost wholly in the four men, whose characters the author has painted so vividly. Of these, the captain of the schooner is simply ‘Captain Wicks,’ of the Wrecker, superimposed upon ‘Captain Nares’ of the same story , with the result that the outlines are a little blurred. Then again, the mate of the schooner is ‘Carthew,’ the mate of the Wrecker, softened and weakened, doubtless by the use of a different literary ‘developer.’ As for the pearl-fisher, the reader feels that Mr. Stevenson had not quite made up his mind as to the man’s true character, and he is, therefore, somewhat unsatisfactory. It is in the vicious, murderous little cockney, ‘Huish,’ that the author has made his greatest success. Nothing could be stronger, more subtle, and in every way finer than the portrait of this wretch. It may not be an agreeable subject of contemplation, which is probably what Mr. Stevenson had in mind when he said that the story was a brutal one, but of its wonderful power and truth there cannot be the slightest question. The Ebb Tide reads as if it were written before the Wrecker, and thrown aside because there was not enough in it to make a coherent and rounded story. After the success of the Wrecker, Mr Stevenson may have been tempted to finish The Ebb Tide, for which the public will certainly be grateful. In spite of its slightness of construction, I am inclined to think that it will live longer than the Wrecker. Certainly there is nothing in the Wrecker that will compare with the portrait of ‘Huish,’ and we shall remember the little wretch and his death scene long after those adventurous schooners, the ‘Currency Lass’ and the ‘North Creina,’ with their crews, have sailed over the edge of the world into oblivion.
First published in December 1940
The Auld Licht
For the benefit of English readers, the Auld Lichts were the Original Seceders who left the Church of Scotland because of differences of opinion alike on points of doctrine and church government. They were evangelicals who objected to ‘cauld morality’ sermons and to the law which allowed a patron to impose a minister on the parish and people without their consent and free choice. The Disruption of a hundred years later was an assertion of the same right of a congregation to choose its own pastor. This right was legally recognised by the abolition of patronage in 1874.
The most unexpected element in Lichtie was in his drollery. Considering the preposterous beliefs he held in what is called religion, it was perplexing how readily his mind saw the mildly ludicrous in everyday events and sayings. He brought the gravity of a chancellor to the consideration of every topic, and made you wonder if you were not a trifler in a world of momentous solemnities. And yet he had a quirk of natural whimsicality that left you uncertain. If you asked him how he did, he would answer, ‘Oh, jist battlin’ awa.’ This reply he gave you always in the same undeviating tone. But you could never be quite sure what he meant by it – whether he intended you to infer that life was a discouraging battle or that he was enjoying the tussle. His tone gave no clue.
Lichtie’s genial neighbour, Geordie Crow, had one day ‘a narrow shave.’ Geordie was a blacksmith, and his smiddy was roofed with flagstones. One of these slid off as he was passing and just missed his head by an inch or two. He told the story to Lichtie, adding ‘Wasna that Providential escape, Robbie?’
After musing a little, Robbie said gravely, ‘Weel, I dinna see ony Providence in it, Geordie.’
The blacksmith drew back a step and looked at the immobile figure. ‘Only twa inches nearer, and the flagstane would hae killed me, man,’ he cried.
Lichtie was unconvinced, and stated the fact in his own way.
‘If Providence threw the stane at ye, Geordie, He would either hae struck ye or made a wider deliverance – twa feet or mair.’
Geordie was puzzled by this, but tried again. ‘It’s this way, Robbie,’ he argued. ‘It cam’ sae near me that if it hadna been for the interference o’ Providence it micht hae clove my skull, man.’
The stoical Robbie could not follow this caprice.
‘I canna tak’ it in, Geordie. Providence couldna baith knock the flagstane aff the roof to kill ye, and at the same time keep it awa frae its mark.’
‘An’ why no?’ queried the amazed blacksmith.
This insistence slightly nettled Lichtie.
‘A’ I can say,’ he remarked stubbornly, ‘is this – that if Providence aimed at ye, and then repented, it would be because ye wasna fit to dee, Geordie!’ And he walked off solemnly.
Did anything so simple occur to them as the loosening of the slab by ordinary natural wear and tear and then the operation of the law of gravity, the passing of the blacksmith at the moment being pure fortuity? It would be hard to say. The discussion at any rate was purely theological, and irreverently ignored the only real laws of the occurrence.
The blacksmith, who thought he had proved a clear miracle, gazed after his inscrutable acquaintance in wonderment. Was Lichtie taking him off, or was he really being rebuked? He was bewildered, as Robbie’s hearers often were.
Lichtie was a mason to trade. While doing some repairs at Lengar Castle, the proprietor condescendingly asked the old man if he would like to see through the building; and without waiting for a reply he opened the front door and signalled Robbie to enter. The marvels of the interior did not escape the sturdy mason. He admired in his own fashion the scope of walls, staircases and rooms; but to any remark of the complacent castellan his sole answer was ‘Ay.’ ‘A fine view from this window’ was met solemnly with ‘Ay.’ The pictures and statuary were similarly honoured. When the two arrived at the doorstep again the laird sought to draw out his guest.
‘Well, a fine mansion, isn’t it?’ he said.
‘Ay,’ replied Lichtie, ‘an’ yet, d’ye ken, it wudna mak a SKYLICHT in oor Father’s hoose!’
Robbie left Willie Dow’s son Peter in the same plight. Peter had been in London for a year or more, and returned to the village in fashionable clothes. He called on Robbie as an old neighbour. Robbie gravely scrutinised him from head to heel.
‘Good fit, ain’t it?’ remarked the youth, turning himself round maliciously to allow Robbie a full view.
‘Fits ye like a coat o’ paint, sir,’ was Lichtie’s verdict.
Had it been another person’s. Peter would have considered it a neat saying and would have felt flattered. But Robbie was no sartorial connoisseur, and his remark must have meant something else. Did he infer that, like a rotten paling painted, Peter had only a skin-deep respectability? Who could tell? Peter came away hurt. Then he changed his mind. In the end he remained perplexed.
Fourteen miles Lichtie tramped every Sabbath. (We must not say Sunday – that was in Lichtie’s view only the profane, pagan, official name for the Lord’s own day.) His Auld Licht church was seven miles away. He was never absent unless very ill, and indeed often made the double journey in great enfeeblement. His house was one of the old type, with a hinged shutter to the window. This shutter was never opened on the Sabbath, which was thus no sun-day with his abode. His chief reason, however, was that he might not see the kind of weather until he was outside. Thus a sunny day did not tempt him to wander in his garden and neglect attending ‘the means of grace’; and if snow lay deep on the ground he did not know of it until he had stepped outside: and then, having committed himself so far, there was little to be gained by going back, even had he been tempted to do so. By this manoeuvre he held ‘the flesh’ by a firm rein.
He was taciturn to the end, and his droll turn remained also. When the neighbour who attended him in his last hours asked him if he had any ‘message’ for her, he merely answered, very feebly but earnestly, ‘Dinna forget God; an’ keep yersel’ clean.’
To her last breath she did not know whether to be pleased or offended. And he left the minister in a similar haze. To him he said, ‘Never preach the gospel in a dirty collar, sir.’
To warn people against venial ‘sins’ they are not likely to commit is very Calvinistic and unpleasant; yet we were all of one mind that Robbie was a saint and a mystic; but whether he was a satirist or not remained an open question. The children seemed to understand him best. His solemnity was an amusement to them, and they were never annoyed by the equivocal sayings he uttered to their seniors. When they christened him ‘Lichtie’ it was done more in a spirit of affectionate familiarity than to proclaim his connection with the Auld Licht Kirk.
OOPS, Only after publishing this did we realise we published it previously in December 2016. Ah well, the years are catching up eh? Ed
A Newspaper Comment on the Gateway, and a Rejoinder.
In the Glasgow Evening News of the last Saturday of last year there appeared a double-column comment upon the first of these articles. We have a few score readers in Glasgow, but none of them seems to have thought of sending us the paper. The editor of the Educational News, however, my friend Mr Thomas Henderson, happened to call at the office of the Glasgow News, and someone suggests, as he was to be visiting Turriff, that he might take me a copy.
If an Aberdeenshire man, or an Aberdonian (they are different) had done this is would have been remarked that it was not in character. An Aberdeenshire woman (not an Aberdonian) took a parcel to the guard of the train and said: ‘Ye’ll tak’ that in tae Aiberdeen, an’ ye wunna charge me, since that ye’re gaun ony wye.’ She would have been a poor woman probably; and the proprietors of the News are not too poor. But they did exactly the same thing as she did.
The Yorkshireman or Londoner who has most to say about Scots greed is usually very costive in the disbursement of money himself. Sitting near two young couples at a band performance in Aberdeen one Sunday, I asked if they minded my smoke. ‘Not at all,’ said the livelier and prettiest lady of the two. ‘I like it.’ And she said to the other lady, ‘I wish he would smoke a pipe and nice tobacco. I was nearly buying him one the other day.’ Her husband, whose accent betrayed St Mungo’s, said jeeringly to the other man: ‘She was ‘nearly’ buying me one! That’s right Aberdeen!’ Most men would have been grateful that she hadn’t, knowing the pipes women buy.
Glasgow never misses a chance of rubbing it in. One night at a sumptuously spread table in Turriff a Glasgow business man told, among much else, of how an Aberdonian at sea claimed a certain trawl boat, seen in the distance, as of Aberdeen, and of how a Glasgow man declared it couldn’t be, because the gulls were following it!
Some of the most foolishly lavish things one has heard of have been done by Aberdeenshire men. Here is a specimen. One night in the New Inn at Ellon, a company of curlers, after supper, began to play a rink with decanters of whisky. The fun was fast and furious for a time, the waiters being ordered to bring in fresh-filled decanters, which duly met the fate of the ‘stones’ with which the roaring game had been begun. When there was no more glass in the house to smash, the curlers, as they trampled among the fragments, laughingly called for the bill. But the man who had begun the whole play had slipped out, and the others were told that the score had been paid. Ellon is an ancient little Aberdeenshire town of some 1400 of a population. The only thing I know to compare with this decanter-smashing is the trick of the old Russian nobility of making a clean sweep of all the contents of a dinner-table. But that was after they were all drunk, whereas the Ellon company would be no more than ‘canty.’ It was a deliberate piece of fun, and the more it cost and the more daft it was, the better it would be enjoyed.
But not by the sophisticated commercial man. And I do not know that I think any less of him for that. One night at a dinner in the old County Forum, Manchester, I lifted a bottle from the table and helped myself to a glass of Chablis, only to be told by my nearest neighbour that ‘There is no wine on the menu – I got that bottle for myself and my friend.’ Fortunately (as it must have seemed to him) I hadn’t drunk the wine, and he did not press me to. I said if the wine wasn’t on the menu it was on the table, and I moved to another seat where the atmosphere was less bohemian, or perhaps I ought to say citified.
There are mean and generous people everywhere, but the bigger the town the more likely the average non-bloated person is to be usually well spent-up, were it only because he has more temptations and facilities for spending. I thoroughly sympathise with that; but the man who lives up to his income does not, characteristically, do generous things. He can’t afford to.
Anyhow, we sent the News The Gateway, which is a ‘threepenny touch’ and has no advertisements. These we refuse as we refuse to advertise ourselves. And we paid the postage. The News is a penny paper, with lots of advertisements, and the News saved the postage.
The News man makes sarcastic play with the name of Turriff as a place of residence, mentioning it many times, as London comedians make the house rock with ‘Aber-r-r-r-deen.’ I would do him the credit of believing that he would prefer to live in a little, clean, tree-surrounded town if he could. Ayr wasn’t much of a town when Burns produced, just outside it, the greatest pieces of literature that Scotland possesses. Stratford-on-Avon, in Shakespeare’s day, was a smaller town than Turriff is now. Sir Walter Scott, the Lake poets, Harriet Martineau, Tennyson, Ruskin, all wrote in the country, as Belloc, Chesterton, Shaw, Maurice Hewlett, Thomas Hardy, and Arnold Bennett do now. Neil Munro left Glasgow for Inverary as soon as he could. He is a native of the little Argyllshire town; but I am not a native of Turriff. It was ‘a place to retire to,’ chosen out of the whole country. Doesn’t the News man wish he were as free an agent! The people of the cities will yet have to come back to the countryside, which will be redeemed from dullness by their presence, as they will be recreated by having work to do that will have some sense, utility, and beauty in and about it. The game of commercial civilisation is about up. Building battleships and shopkeeping among dirt and racket are not men’s work; though male children have to do them.
Our commentator is surprised that we find Glasgow speech is full of corrugated cadences. But all the midlands of Scotland speak up and down, up and down. So, for that matter, does the Ulsterman. The speech of the north of Scotland is only too much of a monotone; but this often means that a northerner can speak English (and French) with much less trace of a Scottish accent than the southerner. The cadence begins in the southern end of Kincardinshire and is intensified as one goes south.
The name of Helen Hope, the capable write to the London Daily News, is mentioned in the Glasgow paper as being a native of Glasgow who toured with a company of Scottish players for two years. The Glasgow News writer must have overlooked the fact that in the article from which he quotes the writer remarks upon the up-and-downness of her speech. My comment upon this up-and-downness was written weeks earlier. Perhaps the Glasgow writer has not lived much away from Glasgow. Anyhow, it is odd that he has not noticed the cadence.
Edward Bernstein, a man of European culture, one day in a Huddersfield hotel managed to locate the approximate county of origin of each of the speakers present, except the Aberdeen one.
The News writer hazards the remark that ‘Mr James Leatham… sets up his own work in type.’ Well, he doesn’t. he wishes he had time for that too. If the Glasgow writer had set up his work in type, probably he would not have transformed the word ‘couthy’ into the very different word ‘courtly.’ He doubtless saw a proof of his article, and it is odd that he didn’t correct that.
I intended to deal this month with some of the early pioneers of Socialism in Glasgow. But the lecture printed in this issue occupies so much space that this short comment upon a comment must serve instead.
PART ONE OF TWO.
The Penalty now being paid
The Amazing Attitude of Youth.
The whole framework of Society, compared to what it might be, is as the hut of a savage to a Grecian temple. Sir J.R.Seeley.
Why should we make play any longer with empty fictions of Divine Right vested in families, class, and orders which are not morally respectable or intellectually adequate? It is not merely Republicanism but hatred of the unreal in general which is running over the world in the wake of the war. The Dean of Durham (Henry Hudson)
On the plane which has now been reached, official European diplomacy and statesmanship seem bankrupt, and it is to the Socialists that the people of Europe are increasingly looking as the only intermediaries who can prepare the way to a settlement. Aberdeen Free Press (Liberal)
Travelling the other day with a teacher who is something of an author, and a man of character besides, we naturally got on to the subject of the world-war. At one point he said:
‘I see a whole generation being wiped out. You older men don’t feel it so much. To you most of the men who are being killed off are only names. But they are contemporaries and in many cases my friends and acquaintances.’
I was in no haste to answer; though I knew, because I knew, what my answer must be. I have thought much about the matter since, as I had the previous conversation; and my opinion is as it was. I told him that the young men of Europe, and particularly of Germany, were suffering the penalty of having neglected politics. They had been absorbed in work and trivialities, with the result that the business of government had been left in the hands of men who were not fit to be trusted, not because of their lack of ability but because of their impossible ideas and ideals. On the one side was the Kaiser with his deadly theory of the Divine Right of Kings and his advisers with their theory of Divine Might. Austria also accepted the Divine Right superstition, and, for the rest, pursued the imperial policy of grab, representing Bosnia and Herzegovina while Serbia was busy with the Turk. On the other side (our own) was the theory of the Balance of Power, with the French hankering after revance and the reconquest of Alsace and Lorraine. On the part of Italy there was the desire for expansion by way of the reclamation, after fifteen centuries, of Italia irredenta – extensive rather than intensive progress. On the part of autocratic Russia there was as the only decent plea the protection of the Slavs (but what a protector!), and for the rest, mere greed of French money, secured, and to be secured, in loan after loan.
All this represents Individualism in international relations – the policy of grab and aggrandisement at the expense of one’s neighbours – just as truly as competitive pushfulness and profiteering represent Individualism in the domestic life of nations. All the while the social condition of the masses in all the belligerent countries – the most important asset they had – was deplorably neglected in varying degrees of callous disregard for the essential conditions of human wellbeing. For lack of perfectly simple safeguards, our railways were like a battlefield. From the same cause the lives of miners, chemical workers, potters, textile operatives, japanners, and makers of Lucifer matches were sacrificed in battues; and when the citizen had run the gamut of industrial perils, he fell a victim to cag-mag food and the general conditions of life in the mean street. Returning to Manchester after an absence of eleven years, I inquired after many acquaintances of former days in the printing trade – careful-living men in the thirties and forties of life – and I was startled and depressed to have the answer, in case after case, ‘He’s dead.’ ‘He’s dead – long ago.’ This in a thoroughly well organised trade, where intelligence has done what it can to extract the maximum of social amenity from Individualism at its best. The results thus vividly brought home to one in the concreted had previously been but figures in the life-table – the figures, namely, which show that the average duration of life of the working class is only half that of members of the leisured and comfortable classes.
Why the Young Men?
Well, my friend was shocked and offended at my answer; but I think it will hold. This mean and sordid life, against which all men must rebel who have any instinct for decent living – what is the attitude towards it on the part of our young men? I select the young men, not only because youth is the season of hope, courage, enthusiasm and generous feelings, but because young men are the majority. The students of the Latin Quarter of Paris and of the universities of Russia, and of Poland, have always been revolutionary. When Mazzini made his impassioned appeals to the manhood of his depressed and dismembered country it was to Young Italy he appealed, and he did not appeal in vain. There were even many young men in this country who generously responded to the appeal. When the Reaction followed the Terror in France it was the Jeunesse durle who led it. When Tory Democracy tried to flower at home in response to the glittering pinchbeck rhetoric of Disraeli, it was a Young England society that was formed to foster the efflorescence. Walt Whitman, with his sure instinct for the truth as seen by a poet, describes how, in the temporary eclipse of revolutionary movements, ‘the young men droop their eyelashes towards the ground when they meet.’ The Sinn Feiners are mostly young men, and the best of them gave their lives for Ireland – madly, but not in vain, for the Right does not conquer by direct, simple, and rational methods.
But our young men did not ‘droop their eyelashes to the ground’ for shame of the lives they led as the poor thralls of commerce, the bondmen of Piagnon with the Belly and the Cheque-Book. Albert and ‘Arry were to the fore wherever there was ‘sport’ to be had by baiting a suffragette or emptily laughing at a Labour candidate. For some years I acted as a ‘perpittal parson’ to a branch of the Independent Labour Party in a northern town. We had a large and cheerful room, well lit, seated, and warmed, with good music, hearty singing, lively readings, and lectures which were at least always carefully prepared, and were enlivened by the spirit of hope diffused by the Labour victories of 1906. Our members were largely a good class of men, with a sprinkling of attractive girls and women. We made strangers welcome. We took up local subjects, such as housing (and there was a house-famine in the town all the time), agitating the subject in the press and out of doors, while a deputation waited upon the Town Council, and presented a printed and unanswerable memorial on the question.
The young men came to the meetings, laughed at the jokes, listened to the lectures, and were quite respectful and well behaved in the merely passive scene; they must have largely understood and accepted the facts and arguments; but – they attended only on stormy days, when the weather prevented walking or hanging about out of doors. We brought lecturers including one brisk and capable M.P. to the town; and were in all respects a live political organisation. We even made an attempt at developing some sort of club life by the introduction of games and music on week-nights. But the young men held aloof – except when we had a social reunion and dance – and long before the war the branch had practically ceased to exist, owing to the departure from the town of some of us older men.
That is an experience which must have been repeated in hundreds of cases; and when the organisation has not actually petered out it has existed only in a languishing condition, the door being kept open, not by reason of the essential objects of the association, but because of a bar or billiard tables which the premises might contain. If you have given years of your life (and soul) to the fostering of political organization and education, and have given those years largely in vain, have you not rather a grievance against the young men?
Anyhow, the young men are now paying the penalty. We have no pleasure in their punishment. We would have saved them; would not only have averted war, but would also have made the world a gracious and beautiful place to live in. It is not we who have made the situation. It is inexorable fate. As I said here some time ago, ‘Duties neglected are as crimes committed, and may be even more deadly in their consequences.’ The Socialist movement has everywhere been initiated and kept alive by the older men. Henry Mayers Hyndman, the father of Militant Socialism in Britain, is over seventy. William Morris’s most active years as a propagandist were when he was in his fifties. For years Socialism was represented in Manchester by old Bill Horrocks, a labourer; old William Farres, a compositor; old George Evans, a tailor; and when the Clarion men took up the cause, and Nunquam first presided at a great public meeting in Hulme Town Hall, poor Evans wept tears of joy at what he regarded as the great awakening, at last, after years of neglect and occasional actions of ill-usage, as when old Massie, the banner-bearer from Salford, had been kicked across the market square of Blackburn.
The only steady and reliable men are still the old men, such as Dan Irving in Barnsley, Ben Turner in Batley, Riley and France Littlewood in Huddersfield, and Glasier, Tom Mann, and Benson in Manchester. Young men come in and flash, meteor-like, across the horizon of the movement for a brief spell. Then we no longer know them. One result of the long struggle which the older men have maintained is that many of them have become embittered, even when a measure of personal success has at last somehow overtaken them
The propaganda of collectivism is one of the most thankless branches of missionary effort upon which a hopeful man can enter, and the returns, when they do come tardily, and in smalls, are the least direct.
What about Germany?
But, it may be said, surely all this does not apply to the German Empire. Are not the Social Democrats, with their four and a half million voters, the largest single party in German politics? Have we not been told that, after the great German army, the Social-Democratic Party is the best organised aggregate in the Kaiser’s dominion? Are not Berlin and Potsdam represented in the Reichstag by Socialists? Is not the Social Democratic press – daily, weekly, monthly, and quarterly – a powerful weapon? All that is true; but the fact remains that the Social-Democrats had no actual power. They were a very large minority, but still they were a minority even in the Reichstag; and even had they possessed an overwhelming majority there, they might still have been without effective control of the makers of war. We are fighting Germany because she is not a democracy, not a country in which the people control their rulers through their elected representatives. Four and a half millions represent, after all, hardly a third of the German electorate, and in Germany population and representation have less to do with each other than in most countries. It is the crime of the German nation that they are a notoriously non-political people. It is their crime that they were content, during centuries, to leave their destinies in the hands of rulers over whom they had no control. Alone now among the nations of Europe, the Austrians and Germans are not masters in their own house but are still ruled by two families, who derive this enormous and fatal privilege from ‘times of fetish fiction.’ Alone among the nations of the world, Germany has had no political revolution, and has not practised blood-letting at the expense of its kings, though the Austro-German States have had more than the usual proportion of madmen and bad men among their monarchs. Is it any wonder that German psychology is a puzzle to us? I have recently browsed the voluminous history of the Hohenzollerns in order to find out by what personal alchemy this extraordinary ordinary family had succeeded in hypnotising the Prussian people during so many generations; but not one of the line except Frederick the Great and his mad father seem to have deviated in any way from the well-known boorish Prussian type; and indeed Frederick William’s deviation only took the form of an exaggeration of the boorishness into positive savagery.
The only explanation of Germans tolerance of German princes is a singular incapacity for politics. The very word politics, from polis, a city, implies the participation of the citizens in government. Politics means ‘the science of government’ but what use would there be for a science of government if none of the divinely elected were to govern?
This month, in addition to his unco calendar slot, The Orraman gives us the benefit of his opinion on, among other things, Muriel Spark and why we need to stop reading Brands and start reading authors...
It's been a veritable cultural battle ground as we entered 2018. Well known literary figures have been involved in stramashes about Burns and his 'reputation' as the fall out of the gender 'equality' argument sparked not so much by 100 years of votes for women and more by the actions of one Hollywood Producer, has continued to rage. As the dust settles I'm minded to ask: Has Muriel Spark knocked Rabbie Burns off top spot in 2018?
I like Muriel Spark’s writing. That’s the best place to start. Start positive. Like everyone else I read ‘The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie’ – well before my prime, I think I was about fourteen. I didn’t get it then (though I thought I did) and I didn’t read anything else by her, simply because, well, life goes on. Read the book, seen the film… move on.
But the literary marketeers have been out in force recently and in the land o’ ‘you’ll of hud yer culture’ it’s been impossible to miss Muriel over the past month or so. Like Hogg’s Brownie, she’s here, there and everywhere. Always one to stay ahead of the curve, I started reading her work back in October and I’ve been consuming it ever since. I’ve now devoured most of the novels/novellas – all free and gratis from the library because I’m damned if I’m going to pay out £9.99 per title x 22 for the ‘new’ editions on which this Muriel lovefest is based. It’s been a thoroughly enjoyable experience. I can, without fear or favour, recommend Muriel Spark – for people who like that sort of thing it will be the sort of thing they like. My eyes have been well and truly opened to her writing in all its glory. So I guess I can thank the marketeers in one respect for bringing her ‘above the radar’.
However, spoiler alert – the spoiler being the crushing of your response ‘it’s life affirming that one of our ‘great’ Scottish authors is finally getting the recognition she deserves’ - in bald terms Muriel means money for marketers. And that, dear reader, is I suggest the main driver behind this wall to wall Muriel Spark extravaganza to mark the centenary of her birth, rather than an altruistic desire to ‘big up’ one of wur ain.
I have been ruminating on why it is that other dead Scots writers haven’t been given the same treatment. How about J.M.Barrie (1860-1937) Did his 150th get this kind of appreciation in 2010? Yes it was marked but beyond Kirriemuir and Dumfries I’m not sure he hit the radar. As for S.R.Crockett (1859-1914) due to an overlooked typo many years ago regarding his year of birth, his 2009 centenary was more or less entirely overlooked. Thinking it was 2010 the boat was very firmly missed. Not that anyone much cared. I was there for the centenary of his death in 2014 which saw a wee flurry of interest and the application of the soubriquet ‘Scotland’s Forgotten Bestseller’ but he’s still pretty invisible in the world of Scots literature/culture. He cannae get arrested in the hallowed portals of the canon. (or Canongate.) Robert Louis Stevenson (1850- 1894) had a 150th in 2000. The Milliennium was more important. Certainly I don’t recall much about it. If he’d had the Muriel treatment I’d not have missed it. And it’s not just down to the rise of social media, I’m sure (though of course that plays a part).
RLS has had a slow burn over the past twenty years, but he’s getting there. #RLSDay (which now lasts a week) might be seen as a prototype of the Muriel Spark 100. But as regards money spent and ‘coverage’ it’s not in the same league. And he’s certainly in her shadows right now. I am actively engaged in trying to find out if there’s going to be a RLS 125 ‘year’ to match Muriel for the 125th anniversary of his death, which falls in 2019. No sniff of it yet. Perhaps the appropriate people need to crunch the numbers and do the feedback evaluations on the success of Muriel before they commit? Perhaps it’s the Treasure rather than the Island that they hope to Kidnap.
Also overlooked are James Hogg, Walter Scott, John Galt… the list goes on and on. You might argue that their ‘dates’ are wrong – but I don’t remember celebrations in the 70s or 80s for any of them. Of course we didn’t ‘do’ that sort of thing then. It was before computers and credit cards never mind smartphone apps. But watch out for James Hogg 250 in 2020 and Walter Scott 250 in 2021. Aye, right. I conclude that in Scotland we are pure pish at giving credit or recognition to our ain. Most of these men have ‘missed the boat’ as far as promotional branding are concerned. The dates don’t match up. I wonder, is that a good enough reason to overlook them? Lewis Grassic Gibbon was given a wee heft up with the film of his book, but it all goes quiet soon enough after the main marketing event has left town. And yet Outlander? It’s enough to make a reader of dead Scots authors weep.
It seems that unless it’s Rabbie Burns we don’t want to know about celebrating or commemorating the lives of our dead authors. Bring on the haggis every January and that’s more than enough Scots culture for the year. And when, apart from at a Burns supper, did you actually read any Burns? Burns is a cash cow that keeps on giving. He’s quintessentially Scots. And he’s a poet. For some reason I can never fathom, poetry is unreasonably privileged in Scots culture. It it’s said that everyone has a novel in them (some best left there) I think that in Scotland people believe that everyone is a poet simply because Burns existed. It gives us ‘the right’ to be poets – as a job… now, even Burns struggled to do that.
It is, of course, quicker and easier to engage with poetry than 18th or 19th century prose fiction. So are we just lazy? Or just pure ignorant. Be it ‘A man’s a man’ or ‘Peter Pan’ we seem to prefer our Scots culture in soundbites. We rarely explore beyond the bestseller. That is such a shame. There’s so much more to enjoy from the history of Scottish prose – yes, even the 1890s that much maligned ‘dark ages’ of Scottish fiction which, ironically, happened to occur the last time marketing was king of the castle and the masses were being sold to hand over fist. But those ‘celebrities’ were looked down on by the young turks who came after, dismissed as the ‘next great thing’ struggled to find market share. And we, the reader, lose the plot.
The cynic in me suggests what we are looking at here is the fickle finger of fashion in the world of publishing at work. Combine it with the fickle finger of fashion/ come political and social agenda of academia and Muriel Spark provides us with the perfect storm.
Because you’ll notice that all the above named authors are MEN. And Muriel Spark is a WOMAN. And the times being what they are, it’s about time for a WOMAN to be recognised, isn’t it?
While there’s no doubt that Rabbie Burns still sells, the modern world of publishing needs more than Burns to keep it Scottish. Tartan Noir is an emerging brand. But publishers are all looking for that ‘killer app’ aren’t they? I doubt that content is king or queen any more.
It’s handy that Muriel Spark’s work is still under copyright. That makes it potentially lucrative for a publisher – but only if they can ‘shift units.’ And to shift units you need hype, right? You need a kick ass marketing strategy – and that means BRANDING. Muriel Spark 100 is the brand of the year in literary circles. This seasons Empress. I’m not suggesting that she’s naked but I am suggesting that there is naked greed at the root of the fashion festival that is dressed as a cultural renaissance (we Scots should be very wary of that term) for women Scots authors. I hear murmers about Susan Ferrier coming out of the closet, (a 150th anniversary in 2004 doesn’t spring to mind) and I suspect Margaret Oliphant would be an even harder sell. (200 in 2028 – get prepared, publishers).
Before I’m accused of being unreasonably cynical, or torn down on social media by Muriel fan frenzy, I will reiterate that I am a ‘fan’ of Muriel Spark’s writing. She is complex, intelligent, she’s definitely a writer’s writer – she had me at this in The Comforters: ‘it is as if a writer on another plane of existence was writing a story about us.’ A sentence like that can sustain my thoughts for hours. She writes about identity, she’s dark, she’s light, she really has a lot to recommend her to all kinds of reader. And plenty for the academics to get their shark like teeth into. That’s not the issue. The issue is that she’s being branded. Marketed. One might say pimped out. In order to make money.
So read Spark. Go to the exhibitions. Engage with the celebrations. But retain enough integrity to realise you’re being sold. Read her in spite of that, please. But read Muriel the writer, not Muriel the brand.
In conclusion, the proof of this pudding will be in the eating. Let’s see whether this same strategy is employed in the coming years to other Scots writers – especially those out of copyright who do not fit in with the zeitgeist – or whether the dust settles and we are back being force fed Rabbie Burns ad infinitum. Because he’s easy to market. Don’t get upset about tartan and shortbread, or see you Jimmy hats. They are all just employing the same strategy. Brand Scotland. You are not just a target market, you are a reader. You have a choice. And you can add the meaning to the marketing. You can turn reading into a personal journey of discovery. And it needn’t cost the earth – especially if you support your local library!
I'd like to say there's something for everyone in this month's Gateway, but an aversion to the cliche prevents me.
Instead, I'll suggest that if you are looking for a pattern amongst our pieces this month (as Editor this surely is part of my task) it might be the suggestion that we should read because (and what) we want to rather than what we are told. And that we may find 'friends' in some unusual places.
There's been a lot of ill-mannered behaviour from women (and some men) over Rabbie Burns. There's been rather too much gushing from women (and some men) over Muriel Spark and there's been some reflection from women (and some men) about the Suffragettes.
And who says women don't have the whip hand? (pause while I await the accusation of mysogyny to fall on my brow) I take precedence from James Leatham. I've read arguments of his in various places which suggest that women are seriously deficient in many of life's skills (including the capacity for serious reading and thought.) Either he was a serious mysogynist, or perhaps, just perhaps something is lost in the translation of 70+ years. I think it behoves us to be pretty careful how we a) interpret and b) retrofit those from the past. Certainly, Leatham had a 'strong' mother, a wife and four daughters and he must surely have known the strengths and weaknesses of the 'fairer' sex. Perhaps he understood and engaged in 'banter' in a way that we cannot culturally condone these days? Perhaps times were just different then? I'm not sure it really matters. It is perhaps less important to change the past than to try and change the future.
One finds strange bed-fellows when attempting to go beyond the 'mainstream' and I think it's always worth remembering that these people were people first. Do you only have friends who share all your views? Do you condemn those with differing views in this wonderful age of tolerance? I, personally, cannot thole Radio 3. Many folk have been Sparking up there this month... I've missed them all. I'm a Radio Scotland man. And this month one of Leatham's better known pals is getting an airing. Since Deveron Press last year published a book on Cunninghame Graham - An Eagle in a Hen-House (by Lachie Munro) it seemed fair enough to give it a wee plug... so here goes the promo...
DON ROBERTO Begins Tuesday, February 20, 2018 at 1.30 pm on Radio Scotland and available on the BBC iPlayer world wide for 30 days thereafter.
A five part series written and presented by Billy Kay which includes the original four archive programmes from 1999 and a new introductory programme for 2018 - The Adventure Begins.
A portrait of R.B. Cunninghame Graham - A true Scottish romantic hero and founding father of both the Scottish Labour Party and the National Party – forerunner of the SNP.
The model for leading characters in George Bernard Shaw’s plays "Arms and the Man" and "Captain Brassbound’s Conversion". his friends included Oscar Wilde, Henry James and Joseph Conrad. The latter contrasted his own enclosed life compared to the flamboyant exoticism of R.B. Cunninghame Graham - "When I think of him, I feel as though I had lived all my life in a dark hole, without seeing or knowing anything". If ever a major Scottish figure deserved re-discovery it is surely the life and legend of Robert Bontine Cunninghame Graham.
The more you read about RB Cunninghame Graham the less likely it seems that he would have been a pal of James Leatham, which only goes to show us how little we know. Neither men is well known today of course, whereas the world still goes wild over William Morris (though not for his politics) and maybe I'm being cynical by suggesting that RBCG is privileged over JL because he is in a different class. Read on...
R B Cunninghame Graham, (1852 - 1936) was one of the most influential men in Scottish literary and political life in the 20th century - by far the most glamorous and romantic. With Scottish and Spanish aristocratic blood in his veins - he was often called the uncrowned King of Scots due to his family’s claim to the throne through their ancestor Robert II. His life spanned several continents and cultures, all of which he touched and in all of which he is revered.
A schoolboy at Harrow, his childhood was divided between London and his family estate at Gartmore in Stirlingshire. As a young man, he followed the Spanish side of his heritage to Paraguay and Argentina. In Argentina he is regarded as a national hero and the father of the gaucho - the man who rode on the Pampas then brought the glories of the South American cowboy to the outside world through his short stories. His legendary status is such that many in the Lake of Menteith area swear that gauchos have come to the Isle of Inchmahome to sing melancholic Spanish eulogies at his graveside. Married to a Chilean poetess Gabriela de la Belmondiere (actually an English actress Caroline Horsfall) his life as a cattle drover and rancher took him all over South America and up into Texas. Everywhere he went, he had sympathy for traditional ways of life under threat, and used his writing to highlight the plight of marginalised cultures. This aspect of his legacy was in the news in the late 1990’s when the body of an Ogala Sioux Indian chief was re-patriated from London to the Dakotas. The English woman who organised the event, had read of Long Wolf through the account of his life and death in the writing of Cunninghame Graham , who had befriended him.
On the death of his father, Cunninghame Graham succeeded to the Gartmore estates and he returned to live in Scotland. He became involved with the turbulent politics of the late 19th and early 20th century, and despite his background, always identified with the masses: “the damned aristo who embraced the cause of the people” as Hugh McDiarmid described him. He was Liberal MP for North Lanarkshire from 1886 till 1892, radically espousing the miners demands for shorter working hours and going to Pentonville jail for six weeks following his participation in a banned demonstration against unemployment which resulted in a riot. A close friend of Keir Hardie, he became the first president of the Scottish Labour party when it was formed in 1888. After the first World War, he became increasingly interested in the Scottish question. He became president of the National Party of Scotland in 1928, and on its amalgamatiion with the Scottish Party in 1934, he became the first president of the Scottish National Party. He died in Argentina in 1936, but his body came home to Scotland to rest in his ancestral lands in Stirlingshire.
Because of his extensive writings on different cultures, his influence outwith Scotland was extensive - the Indian story just one of many with resonances in Spain, Morocco, Argentina, Paraguay, Mexico and the U.S. His short stories like the much anthologised "Beattock for Moffat" on a Scottish exile returning home to die, are also used to illustrate the programme. His polemical writing on Scotland too is increasingly relevant, as the tension between nationalism and unionism in Scottish politics is still unresolved.
It's clear from the above that the find art of marketing and branding is alive and sparking... and also that Cunninghame Graham and James Leatham, while united in their desire for Socialism had very little else in common. Does that need to concern us, the modern reader? I think not. It's for us to wade through the hype and make our own choices. That means looking beyond the politically correct, or our own prejudices. Do our views count any more than our votes? I wonder. Here at Gateway we try to offer you choice and allow you to daunder along in your own direction at your own pace - whatever your class, race or gender preferences.
To find past articles please use monthly archives.