………….. I first read of this idea of choosing books that represent your country on Savidge Reads and subsequently on Annabel’s House Of Books. I liked the idea of it from the start. Both of their lists were fascinating and ranged to every part of the British Isles. But doing it myself for the UK was never an option for me – partly because they’d both done it better than I could have but mainly because I think of Scotland, rather than the UK, as my country – even though I’ve not lived there for over 30 years! This isn’t a tub-thumping, Scottish Nationalist thing, for I’ve been an exile for far too long to have any right of opinion on the politics of independence. It’s just how it is – I’ve lived more of my life out of Scotland than in it, but it’s still my home, my country. So the notion of a Tartan Ten, was already in my head when Annabel mentioned it in her comments to me – after that I began making up a short list almost instantly!
The parameters set by Simon originally were
1. Books set in your home country (I think I’ve followed that rule if you allow me a bit of poetic license here and there!)
2. Books by authors from your home country ( I think I’ve followed that rule).
3. Books that represent your country geographically ( I’ve followed that rule sometimes but where it didn’t suit me I ignored it!)
4. Books written post World War 2 (I’ve ignored that too!)
5. There should be ten. ( I didn’t exactly ignore that rule but I may have miscounted!!)
So two out of five isn’t bad – though admittedly it might only be one cos I’ve no idea if I followed Rule 2! So in the list below the caveat is I think they were born in Scotland, but if they weren’t I’ve decided to unilaterally adopt them into the race known to one and all ( well mainly known to ourselves) as Gods Chosen People – the Scots!
And I managed to avoid one rule that I set for myself – no mention of the greatest film of all time – Braveheart (unless you count that one just there!).
My Ten (or so) Books To Represent Scotland
Lanark by Alasdair Gray
If there is such a thing as the great Scottish contemporary novel, then I think this might well be it. It tells the story of Lanark and Duncan Thaw, moving between Glasgow of the 40’s and 50’s and the hell-like other-world of Unthank. At the time I read it, in the early 1980’s, with Scotland in the vice-like grip of Thatcher, the novel was just stunning to read. What fascinated me at the time was the contrast – and at times lack of contrast, between Glasgow life and Unthank life. I remember wondering if Unthank was a kind of vision of Glasgow and Scotland’s future during and post-Thatcher. I don’t think the collapse of morality and decency at the hands of capitalism that I’d imagined at the time came to fruition, though the banking crisis of recent years is a pretty sobering lesson! But outside of that, Lanark is a wonderful read,. It was called “the best book in 20th Century Scottish literature” by Iain Banks – and I’d wholeheartedly agree!
Ian Rankin’s creation, Detective John Rebus is so much a wonderful depiction of the Scottish psyche for me. He’s a kind of William Wallace for today in my eyes, albeit without the kilt, the saltire war paint and perhaps carrying a bit more weight than Wallace did!! And of course his books are a wonderful tourist guide to Glasgow’s posh neighbour over the road – the good city of Edinburgh (although in fairness as a tourist guide it won’t necessarily show you much tartan or shortbread or castles in this tour!)
Rebus does represent so much of the Scottish character for me – on the surface he’s all sharp edges, curmudgeonly, argumentative, cynical – what we in Scotland call “thrawn!”. But underneath he’s absolutely human – there’s his generosity of spirit, the kick back at authority and posturing, his down to earthness and above all his appreciation of a decent pub! I love every Rebus story and there are many to choose from but I’ve gone with “Black and Blue” because it wonderfully weaves together a fictional story and a true life unsolved mystery – the “Bible John” murders in Glasgow in the 60’s. It’s simply Rebus and Rankin at their very very best!
Iain Banks is simply my favourite Scottish author. From the first novel to the last I loved his books. His death in June of this year was a tragic loss to Scottish writing but he left a wonderful legacy. So I can’t envisage my country in books without an Iain Banks novel. I picked Espedair Street for three reasons – firstly Daniel Weir the main character is the most fantastic of anti-heroes, secondly it’s a brilliant tale of sex, drugs, rock and roll so what’s not to love about it and thirdly I used to live near Espedair Street in Paisley!! We have a word in Glasgow for something that’s wonderous in every way – we call it “gallus”. However, being Glaswegians, we can add to that to make it EVEN MORE wonderous in every way – because in the way the rest of the world uses “very”, in Glasgow we use “fuckin”! Iain Banks and all his books, but especially Espedair Street, are fuckin gallus!
There are lots of shades to Glasgow like all cities – this novel includes what I think of as the dark heart of the city and the slightly more upmarket part of Glasgow – or what my mother might call the “all fur coat and no knickers” part of the city! It tells the wonderfully black tale of Rilke – he’s an “auctioneer” – which sounds dreadfully “Home Counties and BBC” – but in Glasgow “auctioneer” is simply a posh word for someone who clears crap from other people’s houses. He’s employed by the wonderfully named Miss McKindless to clear the house of her dead brother. Rilke starts by thinking he’s found a treasure trove including some lovely old porn novels in the old man’s study – however hidden in among them is a brown envelope stuffed with photographs of a woman being sexually tortured and murdered. From there on, as Rilke turns into a sort of amateur sleuth, you journey with him through a Glasgow awash with bent coppers, transvestites who’d fancy their changes of beating the shit out of Mike Tyson and a kind of inner sanctum of pornographers! It’s a wonderful portrayal of the Glasgow that all the stone-blasting of buildings, all the city regeneration schemes and all the investment in being European City of Culture and the like never had a chance of washing away!!
Swing Hammer Swing by Jeff Torrington
This is another tour of Glasgow in some ways – but this one is of the city working class in the 60’s, the bars they frequent and their love lives. Thomas Clay is a failed novelist/artist/philosopher – but then everybody in Glasgow is a failed novelist/artist/philosopher – even the ones who are a success at something are usually tormented by the novel that got away! Clay is being tracked by a sinister presence so he tries to stay one step ahead of whatever it is that’s coming his way. His wife Rhona is pregnant, his bit on the side, Becky McQuade is a form of sex-on-tap and much of Glasgow is waiting on something better – it’s just not sure what! In some respects there isn’t really a plot to Swing Hammer Swing – it’s more a diatribe of every thing Thomas thinks, says, hears and does. It’s shot through with Glasgow dialect – Christ knows how anybody from anywhere outside of the M8 motorway is able to read it. At one part of the novel Thomas predicts that someday, bingo will be on offer in public libraries! I loved the idea then and still love it. I work in local government – if there’s ever a brainstorming session about the future of our public libraries I won’t be able to resist chucking this in!
This collection of stories focuses on the working class communities, people who are socially very much on the periphery of life. They are mainly about young men who are rootless, directionless and lost and they are all in some way or other waiting for something – usually for a pint in a pub, or their turn at a snooker table or for their “dole money” in the post. I chose this because above all it reminds me of my home town in Greenock. As a young man in the early eighties I was unemployed at a time when much of Scotland was in the same boat! There has always been a debate about whether or not Kelman’s books are literature at all never mind whether or not they are good! Even when he won the Booker, his book was famously counted as having used the word “Fuck” 4000 times throughout it’s pages and one of the judges described it as “crap really!” But there is no debate for me – these stories are part of my growing up and I adored them!
We are not all gritty kitchen sink social realism in Scotland! Neil Munro’s tales of the crew of the ‘on-its-last-legs’ boat “The Vital Spark” sees Para Handy, the skipper, (if I remember rightly ‘Para Handy’ is the Gaelic name for the skipper, Peter) and his crew of Dougie the first mate (a man who puts the super into superstitious”!), Dan McPhail the engineer and Sunny Jim the deck hand, who lives up to his name in name only! The Vital Spark plies its trade (barely) on the River Clyde, and up and down the West Coast of Scotland. It visits all the Firth of Clyde places of my childhood – Dunoon, Rothesay, Inellan, Millport etc. !! The desperate barely seaworthy state of the boat is pretty much matched by their sea-skills! But much as the chaotic and shambolic situations they get themselves into are hilarious, what is really special about the stories are the characters themselves from the tight-as-a-duck’s-arse, crafty, Para Handy to the slightly camp, slightly effeminate engineer Dan, with his mutual love of engines and bodice-ripper paperback stories!! They made it into a television series in Scotland and the Para Handy role was played by a masterful Scottish actor called Roddy McMillan. When I re-read the books after the TV series all I could see and hear in my head was the indignation on the face and in the tone of the voice of McMillan at the latest scandalous remark from the hapless Dan McPhail!
I’m cheating just a little here by including this in my ten as it is actually three books, Sunset Song, Cloud Howe and Grey Granite, that tell the story of Chris Guthrie, a young woman in the North East of Scotland, moving from the hard, rural life of her adolescence to adulthood and marriage. It’s a wonderful depiction of rural Scotland at the beginning of the 20th century and describes the development of the working class of Scotland up to, through and beyond the horrors of the 14-18 War. There’s such a strong socialist feel to much of the books and this is hardly surprising for Gibbon (real name James Leslie Mitchell) was a committed Marxist. But for all the politics and social commentary in the books, Chris is simply a wonderful heroine. I read her first as a young man, not long after I read Tess of the D’Urbervilles, which I loved. For me Chris Guthrie was, and remains in my head, the Scottish Tess! Although she’s not as lost or as vulnerable as Tess she still made me feel that all I’d want to do would be to wrap her up and protect her! Generally the first book, Sunset Song, has long been regarded as a classic of Scottish literature but for me Cloud Howe was the best of the three – and together they are wonderous!
In the same way that I couldn’t even begin to contemplate listing 10 books that represent my country without Iain Banks and Ian Rankin, equally I couldn’t envisage it without Carol Ann Duffy. Although she spent much of her life in England she was born in Glasgow so I’m happy to claim her as one of our own! Rapture isn’t about any part of Scotland, but it is about love – especially the twists and turns of it and the highs and lows of it. We do that as well as anybody else – and from the days of Robert Burns we’ve been bloody good as a nation at writing about love. Rapture is a collection that seems to capture love at every turn and in every facet – it goes from the longing to the downright creepy in places! As she writes “Falling in love is glamorous hell!”. It certainly is – maybe that’s what we love about it more than anything else!
For all that Carol Ann Duffy is the best loved and the best known of Scottish poets, she’s not for me as naturally and wholly Scottish as Liz Lochhead is. Perhaps that difference between them isn’t so surprising when you think that Duffy is the poet laureate for the UK whereas Lochhead is the Makar, Scotland’s National poet. I first came across Liz Lochheads work as a student more than 30 years ago when I read two of her poems “An Inventory” and “The Choosing” – I loved them back then and I love them still – and I’ve loved everything she’s done in between. And besides, anybody with a double “h” in their name is properly cool in my book! There is always something intimate and up close in Liz Lochhhead’s poetry – she seems to me to get under the skin of people and their thoughts, motivations, hopes, frustrations. She’s a sharp and wry observer of the world, but in particular she sees people, especially women, with such insight. She often takes up a cause in her work, be it the rights of working class girls in Glasgow to the rights of the Scottish dialect itself. But she never gets sucked into soap-boxing – everything she writes always seem to me to have such an easy, chatty, conversational, feel to it. And perhaps ultimately that’s why I chose her – we Scots have a love of chat and conversation!
Having been round some of our geography, and some of our history and even perhaps parts of our psyche in the books which I’ve chosen to represent my country so far, it’s right and appropriate that I end in Ayrshire with Robert.
Burns is so ingrained in Scotland’s past and present, and no doubt future, that he is everywhere. His poetry is the soul of much of our subsequent literary heritage. He captures the essence of the “lad o’ pairts” – the working class boy made good. He represents the origin of the Scottish working class for me – I romantically think that Robert symbolises Scotland punching above its weight in the modern world for here is the ploughman’s son who conquers the world!! But underneath all that, Roberts work is wonderful and the “Kilmarnock edition” encapsulates his genius. When it was first published in 1786 it sold out in a month! A first edition back then would have set you back about 15 pence. Today first editions of the Kilmarnock Edition will set you back £40,000! Above all though Robert just gets us, he gets the Scots and he captures us wonderfully. My Dad’s name is Willie Stewart. Burns wrote a song for one of his best mates – who was called Willie Stewart. In one verse he wrote “And may she whose arms shall enfold thy charms, posses a loyal and true hairt,for to her be given, tae ken the heaven, she holds in Willie Stewart!!” My mother might not agree but I think my Dad would! And that’s what is special about Robert – he writes a love song to a male friend and it’s beautiful and effusive and charming! And so I think anybody and everybody in Scotland can find their own little bit of Robert that means something to them – he’s in all of us so of course he represents my country and he does it wonderfully!