A Very Scottish Centurion

I’ve never managed to complete A Century in Books. For a start, I have gluts of books for certain years (post 2010 is particularly strong, perhaps something to do with the fact I’ve only been in well-ish paying jobs since then), but hardly anything from between 1850 and 1950, Hardy and Dickens excepted. I am also dreadful at sticking to things – or remembering to stick to them at least! books

So perhaps it is a fool’s errand to try something like this again, but The List’s list of 100 Best Scottish Books has caught my eye. I am partly persuaded by the fact my job requires me to know about Scottish literature, and I don’t. Well, I know a bit about Burns and the Blackwood’s group, and a smattering about Scott and Stevenson, but that’s about it. Everyone else in my office (both of them) is hugely well-versed in Scotland’s literary output, particularly that of the last 50 years, and I just ain’t. So I think it’s probably time I donned my reading specs (who am I kidding, I need these bad boys for everything from walking across the room to knitting) and began to address my gaps in knowledge.

Of the 100 on the list, I have aleady read the following:

The Citadel, A.J. Cronin (1937) – I seem to remember that this was set in Wales, though Google informs me the protagonist and the author were both Scots. Apparently the book helped secure the landslide Labour victory of 1945: no small achievement on anyone’s part.

Confessions of An English Opium Easter, Thomas De Quincey (1822) – a very familiar friend, Thomas De Quincey has been an almost daily part of my life since I first came to work at Dove Cottage in 2009. The manuscript of Confessions is kept in the Wordsworth Museum, heavily dewed with mysterious brown stains. Scholars had long hoped that these drops were of laudanum, but following tests they were found to be nothing more than coffee, no doubt spilled when De Quincey was writing in that most fashionable of Regency dives, the coffee house.

Electric Brae, Andrew Greig (1997) – I adored this book, the first of Greig’s novels I encountered. I read it whilst living in Ayrshire, and sought out the eponymous brae, just south of Ayr – which does indeed do strange things to ones perceptions of where roads should go. Greig does likewise with his writing.

Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone, J.K. Rowling (1997) – I remember when this book came out: I was 11 and I was given a copy as part of our middle school book group. I hated the first couple of chapters, and gave it up as a bad job. Then, as the series became stratospherically popular, I returned to them and fell in love, reading each one in pretty much one sitting as they came out. Deathly Hallows was published just after I finished my undergraduate English degree, so I was very much of that generation growing up alongside Harry, Hermione and Ron.

Imagined Corners, Willa Muir (1931) – a friend who moved to Scotland a few years before I did recommended this book to me when I was struggling to fit in to life in a small Ayrshire town – and boy did it resonate with me, even 80 years after it was written.

1984, George Orwell (1949) – I first read this in my second term at university, struggling to write a coherent essay on dystopian fiction. It made me feel uneasy but it is quite amazing to think that it was written over 60 years ago, making its prophecies all the more remarkable.

The No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency, Alexander McCall Smith (1998) – my mum and grandma are huge Sandy fans, and I galloped through the series (eight books strong as it was at the time) in a few angsty summer weeks whilst living back at home after university. Funny, buoyant, jolly – just the tonic after an Oxford education.

 The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie, Muriel Spark (1961) – I live about 200 metres from Muriel Spark’s old house (well, flat), and walk past the inspiration for Marcia Blane’s every day. I loved this book, and also adored Spark’s recent biography by Martin Stannard.

The Memoirs and Confessions of a Justified Sinner, James Hogg (1824) – ahhh Confessions, the book which first drew me to the Blackwood’s group and upon which I based my undergraduate thesis. I’m currently planning a pilgrimage out to Tibbie Shiel’s

The Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde, Robert Louis Stevenson (1886) – I’ve just read this book twice, once in preparation for my recent job interview, and then again on the suggestion of my boss once I had started. Suffice to say there was plenty I had skimmed over on first reading!

Sunset Song, Lewis Grassic Gibbon (1932) – I adore everything about this book, and indeed the whole trilogy. I found the Scots surprisingly easy to read – in fact it really made the book more beautiful. Now I just need to own a copy which hasn’t been printed on something like lavatory paper in a size 8 font.

Trainspotting, Irvine Welsh (1993) – a friend from Ayrshire lent me this, and it made my stomach churn in ways both good and bad. Like Sunset Song, the Scots is such an intrinsic part of the book that it would be unimagineable in standard English.

12 down, 88 to go… I’ll keep you posted!

Mapping literary landscapes

litlong

Lit Long map page

Today’s post is just a brief one – up to my eyeballs in work-related reading, which no doubt will get distilled into a post or two once I’ve had time to think and digest. Getting my head round all of Edinburgh’s literary history is no small task, but I have a found a wonderful thing to help: Lit Long.

As part of the Palimpsest project, the universities of Edinburgh and Aberdeen have created a huge literary database of place-name mentions from books set in Edinburgh, visually mapping this onto the city: in their words: ‘you can walk your own path through the resonant locations of literary Edinburgh.’ Click on the link to have a go – it is fascinating, particularly for those who love Edinburgh and her literature.

I’ve not come across a literature-centred project like this before, only historical ones like Locating London’s Past or decorative ones like Geoff Sawers’ Literary Map of Great Britain (which is beautiful and unowned as yet by me…just sayin’!) and its little sister, Literary London. I find it fascinating to bring together the written word with the phsyical space, making the psychogeography of places visually apparent.

Literary London

Literary London

Does anyone else know of projects elsewhere which directly connected specific locations with their geographic counterparts? I can think of a few more locations ripe for the mapping: Grasmere and the central Lake District (one for you I think, Wordsworth Trust), Paris, Norwich… any other suggestions?

Rooted in the distant past

Shepherds: not a group of people we often hear from, not a group of people many of us really know. The term is an archaic one, as there are few people in the UK who simply look after sheep these days, yet they crop up again and again in our culture and language. Our word ‘pastoral’ is taken directly from them (the Latin pastor meaning ‘shepherd’); they can be faithfully found draped in tea towels every December in school and village hall nativities; we make pies named after them; and those of us who are that way inclined are familiar with a drop of Shepherd’s Neame to boot.

John Clare portrayed their lives in the 19th century in The Shepherd’s Calendar; a few years earlier, Wordsworth had taken a early punt at popularising the pastoral way of life as he saw it, on the cusp of being subsumed into those infamously satanic mills of the industrial revolution. Not that either poet was a farmer himself, though Clare was far closer to the land, having worked as an agricultural labourer.

Newland's Valley. shaped by 100 years of farming

Newland’s Valley. shaped by 1000 years of farming

As the son of a lawyer, Wordsworth preferred to spend his time wandering about the landscape on which his fellowmen worked themselves to death, but Michael shows that he understood the yeoman farmer’s deep tie to the land. Their life and work utterly rooted them, and once that tie between themselves, their land and the next generation had been broken then something would be lost for ever.

Shepherds today, whilst being fewer than ever, are certainly much more vocal. Alison O’Neill has carved out a niece as The Shepherdess, and top of the Times best-seller list a few weeks ago is The Shepherd’s Life, the tale of the life of Cumbrian farmer James Rebanks. If you haven’t read it yet, you can listen to it on BBC 4 (albeit in abridged form). It is a fascinating read (or listen), being much more than simply the life story of 21st century man. Rebanks is well aware of his historical and cultural place as a shepherd: Wordsworth and ‘those tourists’ both get a nod as he stands ‘daydreaming like a bloody poet or day-tripper’.

Sunrise over Rydal, Cumbria

Sunrise over Rydal, Cumbria

He effortless elevates the language of his farming life to a quasi-religious state: ‘making good hay is like a commandment from God’. He follows those ‘threads of understanding’ which link him not just to his own forebears but to a thousand years of history and culture relating to the land which he farms. It is the book of a lifetime and no doubt will be as popular with those who have never met a shepherd and those who spend every day heaving sheep around alike.

I am intrigued by the book because one particular shepherd had a definite influence on my life. When I was five my father’s business collapsed and we had to move from our own heavily-mortgaged house to a rented cottage, tied like a tired balloon to the edge of an old family estate. In years gone by one half of it had been a dairy, and the house still had two front doors, one for the milk and one for the people. The whole house was only one room wide: a single stroke of flint, bricks and mortar. My bedroom was directly over the old dairy, now used as a kitchen, and on winter days the wind rustled up through the floor boards, which had nothing but newspapers packed below them for insulation. The house was called Farm Cottage: for that’s what it was, a cottage on a working farm.

In this cottage, the kitchen might now hold an abandoned or orphaned ‘pet’ lamb, one so tiny that it needed the warmth of our cooker and milk dispensed from a grubby bottle. Whilst I made my breakfast it might urgently head-butt my leg until I fed it, and would then proceed to pee all over the floor, carefully missing the newspaper laid down for soaking up these torrents. I loved these lambs because they needed me.

Herdwick sheep, raddled

Herdwick sheep, raddled

I was scared of the huge cows which ambled past the window every day, shit streaming from their tails, and I wasn’t too keen on the adult sheep with their vacant eyes and propensity to drop down dead at any given moment, but the lambs I adored. I would get up in the night to help with the lambing, trudge through thigh-high snow to feed them in the winter, and stripped down to my vest to helping out with the shearing (the men did it topless but I wasn’t encouraged to follow suit.)

My parents did not run the farm; it was tenant-farmed by an old Herefordshire farmer who seemed absolutely ancient to me at the age of 5, but since he is still farming 21 years later he can’t have been all that old at the time. He had an almost impenetrable accent: in Suffolk, one didn’t meet many (nearly) Welsh people and I couldn’t understand why he sounded so odd. (I had a similar problem with my uncle who was from Yorkshire. We didn’t travel much at that time: holidays were invariable taken on the Norfolk coast.) He smelt funny, his clothes were covered in holes – I was sure I could see his underpants through a tear in the seat of his trousers – and his trousers were held up with a knotted piece of thin orange string. I was soon to realise that holding up trousers was only one of the many uses for the ever-present bailer twine!

We have never once, in all the years our family has known him, called him by his first name. We know it, of course, and his middle names too, which were carefully printed inside his glasses case, held together with sticking plaster. No-one else I knew had any one of those names, let along all three – they were imbued with a sense of spell-like strangeness and we steered clear of speaking them. He had had three wives (two simultaneously, we were told), was a Mormon, and saw women as inferior to men, so that when my brother was big enough to help out on the farm he was paid £5 a day, whereas for the last three years I had done the same work without a penny. This didn’t bother me at the time, but it infuriated my mother!

Farm fence at dawn, Grasmere

Farm fence at dawn, Grasmere

What I instantly recognised in the shepherds in Rebanks’ book were the same complicated contradictions and inherent antagonistic behaviour that I’d seen in this farmer. The passionate love of animals (one oft-repeated phrase my whole family still use is ‘if I see a sheep, I have to have it’) combined with a hard-edged realism when it came to life and death decisions. The intense competitive need to rear sheep which were better than everyone else’s, juxtaposed with a huge amount of fellow-feeling displayed both at market day over a cup of tea and a greasy bacon roll and whenever another farmer was down on his luck. The desire to be right, to have the courage of your own convictions, but also to take the losses and hardships of the farming life philosophically, to recognise that there is a power beyond the individual when comes through farming that land. Farming allows strong characters to shape their own world, to immerse themselves in the physical rough and tumble of life. It certainly seems to be more than just a way of earning a living; it is a chosen path, and one that cannot be easily turned away from.

Sherlock, Invictus and pirates galore

Having finally settled in to the flat, unpacked the last box and had our first guests round for dinner, the time has come for a little literary update on my new surroundings. On Sunday the husband and I decided to go on a walking tour of literary Edinburgh, partly to get our cultural bearings and also because I had a job interview with UNESCO City of Literature Trust on Tuesday.

Edinburgh's iconic streets

Edinburgh’s iconic streets

Nothing like a bit of interview prep that can be done whilst having a sunny city stroll! The tour was a fascinating 90 minutes of anecdote threaded through the city’s south side, and galloped through the life and works of Robert Louis Stevenson, Arthur Conan Doyle, Ian Rankin, J.K. Rowling – with a fair sprinkling of bookshops and publishers to boot.

My husband has spent much of the last five years working in the Geosciences Building on Drummond Street and was amazed to discover from our guide that not only had it once been a hospital but that W.E. Henley had spent nearly three years of his life there under the watchful eye of a certain Joseph Lister. Now, when we first heard the name Henley neither of us recognised it, but the guide soon brought it to our attention that this was the man behind the poem ‘Invictus’:

Henley had had his leg amputated as part of his treatment for TB, and together with his beard and crutch was the inspiration for literature’s most famous pirate, Long John Silver – Stevenson had apparently carried an armchair on his head through the streets of Edinburgh to sit at his friend’s bedside. But he wasn’t the only member of his family to be immortalised in literature: his daughter Margaret, who died at the tragically young age of five, was the self-anointed ‘Fwendy-Wendy’ to a certain J.M. Barrie – and thereby Peter Pan’s ‘little mother’ was born. We couldn’t believe that there wasn’t more made by of these connections by the university – how great would it be to have ‘I am the master of my fate/ I am the captain of my soul’ emblazoned on the gates of the building that hundreds of students and staff use every day?

Behind the Geosciences school lie the Old Infirmary buildings, ranging round a quiet and almost entirely hidden courtyard providing little more than bicycle storage for today’s university students. But 150 years ago this had been the haunt of Dr Joseph Bell, the renowned surgeon and medical lecturer – and was the alma mater of a certain Arthur Conan Doyle, who (like Stevenson) took direct inspiration for his fictional characters from the people he saw in that corner of Edinburgh. Sherlock Holmes, his characteristic coat and hat and his incisive diagnostic skill, were based on Conan Doyle’s old lecturer.

At the end of the Drummond Street we come to two further literary links: the bar Hispaniola (named after the barque in Treasure Island), which until recently traded under the name Rutherford’s Bar, and had done so since at least 1836. Just over the road from Edinburgh University Law School, it provided a handy watering hole for such eminent alumni as RLS (him again!), Conan Doyle (and him), and Walter Scott.

And then on to J.K. Rowling, William Topaz McGonagall, Alexander McCall Smith, Paperback Books: it seems like every corner of Edinburgh teems with literary life past and present. The tour is a great romp through Auld Reekie’s history, but it really only has time to scratch the surface: what of Burns, Ferguson, and those Blackwood’s Edinburgh Magazine boys?

And, just so you know, I got the job – so that’s a pretty good recommendation for the effectiveness of the tour!

Memoir, Men and Madness

A Year in Provence (Penguin)

A Year in Provence (Penguin)

Peter Mayle’s A Year in Provence has sparked a million copycat narratives of the idyllic and sometimes riotous (only ever hilarious rather than destructive) life English ex-pats can un/reasonably expect if they decamp to la belle France. From time to time I am a sucker for this type of jolly escapism, but as a genre these stories often leave one with a curious feeling of jealous disillusionment: jealous of the vin, pain et campagne, disillusioned with the idea that this could ever be one’s own reality.

When I picked up Gully Wells’ The House in France (2011) from a charity shop in Penicuik for the princely sum of 50p, I was expecting just such a narrative. Gently seductive, a little mild lifestyle pornography: the word ‘memoir’ in the title bespoke as much as the subject matter. But Gully’s life, ramshackle and chaotic and tinged with anger and violence and love, certainly wasn’t cosy – though the vin and pain are copious, along with the bouillabaisse, ormandes and the huitres. Money must have been plentiful – the Wells/Ayers household certainly seemed to live like it was.

The House in France (Bloomsbury)

The House in France (Bloomsbury)

The book, or Gully’s life – however you see it – has a stellar cast: Martin Amis as a first boyfriend, the philosopher Professor Sir A.J. Ayer as a step-father, politicians and diplomats and journalists and senators popping up all over the place. Almost everyone in the book is famous, or slept with someone famous, or famously didn’t sleep with someone famous. Affairs are commonplace; ‘fate’s chance-lings’ likewise: arguments and debates pepper the book like chilli truffles, tempting and mouth-burning in equal measure.

Gully herself comes across as something of a cipher: the outrages and actions of others are very much centre stage, and although she doesn’t self-censor – tales of lost virginity, affairs with married men and taking acid with Martin Amis are cheerily told – any deeper emotional analysis of her own motivations always lies at a cool remove. She obviously adores her mother and multiple father figures for the fun and daring and excitement they bring in to her life (boredom is the greatest sin in Gully-world), but any more dark and dangerous feelings seem to be sublimated, lurking so far beneath the surface that barely a turn of phrase betrays them. Maybe she simply didn’t feel them: but it is difficult to believe that a life so shaped by her mother’s furious rages that she ran away to New York did not contain anger, bitterness and hurt and all those other less-than-glamourous feelings which don’t make for such riveting tales.

Not that our narrator is disingenuous: the tone is upbeat even when the subject’s bleak, and it seems that Gully knows that she simply must be able to find and cherish the good in any given situation in order to survive. For example, her attitude towards men, for Gully: ‘men were created to amuse me, love me, tell me interesting things and generally give me pleasure’ (p.19). When she meets a friend who takes this to its next logical step, believing that ‘all men had been put on this earth to do things for her’ (p.109), it is clear that (even with hearts broken and bruised), this type of attitude buoys up Gully and her friends, and gives them the impetus to throw themselves into that social whirl with joyful abandon.

This is not something I’ve ever managed to achieve, but I have watched in open-mouthed amazement (and not a little hint of envy) as a friend from university effortlessly surrounded herself with a group of boys all desperate to help her, wine and dine her, and generally be willing acolytes in her entourage. A couple of years later, as she valiantly battled through the vicissitudes of law school with a young son in tow, I watched her do it again: crowds of men to go out for a drink with on any night of the week; always someone delectable (physically or intellectually) to have dinner with. Blonde, witty, petite, aristocratic – I shared with her only the first characteristic, and surmised that it must be my lack of the other three charms which excluded me from this kind of ménage. This may indeed be true, but reading this book made me realise that my own ideas on what men are for were entirely different (there to be impressed, compete with and make laugh), and that the idea of wanting someone to do something for me that I could easily do myself was anathema to me: independence is all very well, but people like to be needed, love to be useful, and above all need to feel like a welcome part of one’s life.

The book delights in its ability to pick out all the lovely, daring, funny stories without slavish adhering to the plodding chronological structure so common to life-writing. Although the book does – roughly – follow Gully’s life, the more tedious elements (like getting a job) are just tossed into the narrative whenever they are needed to provide the context for an interesting story. When we meet the dishevelled husband of an equally dishevelled friend (who turns out to be the author Alice Thomas Ellis), he declares ‘I’m not fucking George Weidenfeld, you know.’ And that is how we find out that Gully’s job is in the publicity department of this notable publisher. It is also a book about a particular social class of people: wealthy London-centric socialites of the mid-twentieth century, and reminded me of Clarissa Dickson Wright’s Spilling the Beans (2008) – full of jolly romps (in every sense of the word), long boozy London lunches, plenty of scandal, and people we recognise: authors, philosophers, politicians, the lot. Not quite the ‘escape to the country’ plot I had imagined, but a thoroughly enjoyable spectacle none the less.

A snippet of the Mediterranean dream

A snippet of the Mediterranean dream

Bens Lomond and Ledi, Weirs Molly and Tommy

From the summit of Ben Lomond

From the summit of Ben Lomond

This weekend I doubled my tally of Munros summited. Ok, so it was only my second 3000-footer: but it really was a doubling from my previous total of just Ben Wyvis! Ben Lomond was my second, all 3195 feet of it, and it was a glorious sunny spring day as we made our way up, along with hundreds and hundreds of others, all sweating and swearing and stopping to look at the beautiful views of the sunny loch with its sparkly surface and perfect little islands. The main path on the south ridge was heaving with folk all the way up, but once we’d reached the top and started down the Ptarmigan ridge they thinned out almost to nothing, and we had a lovely stroll down this subsidiary flank in the late afternoon sunshine. We’d already pitched camp at the Forestry Commission campsite in Sallochy in the morning, so hurried back home in the evening light to make dinner on our little camp ‘kitchen’. The evening was beauteous and the shoreline sparkled with campfires glimmering in the gloaming – we hadn’t sorted out anything to burn ourselves, so walked along the shore amid the woodsmoke to keep warm before burrowing into sleeping bags and blankets for a sound night’s sleep.

Ben Ledi before me

Ben Ledi before me

The next morning dawned bright and sunny again, so we consulted the map and headed for Ben Ledi – 30 feet short of true Munro status, but a big walk none the less. We parked by the roaring motorbikes on the road between Callander and Strathyre, and set off up the unpleasantly named Stank Glen: fortunately it did not live up to its name and instead was a sunny and fairly open cleft, with plenty of forestry trails crossing the valley and some long twin-force falls at the centre. Once we’d popped up above the corrie, we skirted just to the south of the Lochan nan Corp – tarn of the bodies! Keen not to add ours to it, battling on upwards in ever-increasing wind, barely staying long enough for a summit photograph before heading for a rocky outcrop to hide behind and eat our summit snack. As with the day before, the descent was much quieter and we swiftly made out way back down, and within an hour and half were back in Edinburgh.

Now, what does this have to do with biography, you may be thinking? Apart from being a snapshot of my life, it is part of my experiment to live fully in Scotland and immerse myself in as many parts of it as possible: geographical, cultural, musical, political. I so want to enjoy my time here and want to tread in the footsteps of writers and walkers like Nan Shepherd, exploring those psychogeographical relations between places and people. So for each excursion I make into the wilds, I am going to be reading a book by a Scottish author with a connection to that place.

I love a view with my reading

I love a view with my reading

So, what was I reading this weekend? The actor Molly Weir’s Trilogy of Scottish Childhood. Hardly the obvious companion for a hill walk, but it definitely enhanced my enjoyment of being there. It was pure chance that a lovely friend of mine had bestowed on me a copy of this memoir just the day before, after I had begun to read it at her house, and that as soon as we arrived at Balmaha I spotted the new statue of her brother, the writer and climber Tom Weir, leaning brazenly in a red woolly hat placed boldly on his head by a visiting pilgrim. I have not yet seen any of the Weir siblings’ broadcasts – something to rectify – but I was so pleased that the book and the place were connected in this small way.

The Trilogy is pure 20th century memoir: it bursts with little stories of life growing up in Glasgow’s tenements and its humour and tone are warm and understated. Molly Weir was born in 1910, Tom four years later, and as children lived with their mother and grandmother in what seems like grinding poverty. The narrative follows Molly’s success at school and as a shorthand typist, and then covers her early years of life as an actor. Glaswegian Scots was the children’s first tongue, and the humour of that Springburn community is familiar to anyone who has seen Billy Connolly or Frankie Boyle: tinged with darkness, full-blooded and self-deprecating. Our narrator bounces and bubbles along beside us, bringing the Co-operative shops and the trams and the tenements back to life beside us, with a terrific ear for a smart turn of phrase or a detail of domestic life. Anyone who believes Hallowe’en as an recent American invention cannot fail to notice how important a part it played in the life of these Glasgow families at the turn of the last century – its roots are deep in Scottish culture, and it provides a platform for the performances musical, rhythmical and spoken which are such an intrinsic part of Scotland’s life. Molly WeirSomething I was amazed at when I first moved to Ayr a few years ago was how everyone I worked with seemed to have a party piece – or several! Singing, dancing, playing the fiddle or flute, telling stories, putting on a party: these talents were shared at Burns Suppers and house-warming parties alike, and I loved that these folk performances were embedded into people’s social lives. Admittedly we were working at the Robert Burns Birthplace Museum, so perhaps it attracted a higher than average number of performers, but the standard was superb and I wished that English folk culture was still a much greater part of people’s lives.

Storytelling is a much more prominent part of Scottish culture than it is in England. The Scottish Storytelling Centre sits proudly on the Royal Mile, and there are storytelling festivals up and down the country. Storytelling is at the heart of life-writing, but I’ve always felt a little uncomfortable at the overly folksy associations that ‘storytelling’ sometimes has: vague middle-aged women drifting about in tie-dyed dresses warbling tales of birds and beasts getting damp-eyed over rescued birds and brave bold boys. Building and transmitting interesting narratives is such an important part of everything most of us do every day – being it persuading people to buy, invest or donate money, shaping partnerships for new projects, helping people find the resources which best fit their needs, whether those be physical, financial or cultural – that the skills of storytelling should belong to everyone. And no-one who has ever sat through a school lesson, university lecture or staff training day will underestimate the importance of someone who can make the story of their subject matter interesting, whether it be the life cycle of the frog, Middle English poetry or the importance of maintain accurate accounts!

Molly Weir’s autobiography will probably never rate among the literary greats, but it is a perfect example of punchy Scottish storytelling and is fascinating even if you know nothing about Molly Weir. It is peppered with the dialect of Glasgow – again, living in Ayr had helped me ‘get my ear in’ to those west coast vowels – and its central characters are engaging and strong, from Grannie with her insistence on hard work and perfect manners, to Mother with her busy life at the rail works and love of dancing. The stereotyped Scot is often dour, but nothing could be further from the reader’s mind as she steps back a hundred years into those lively and rambunctious Glasgow streets alongside her curly-headed ‘Flying Scotswoman’, racing everywhere and meeting everyone and soaking it all in.

IMG_1478

Edinburgh’s Union Canal at night

 

Following Footsteps

Life-writing has always fascinated me because it connects lives and narratives in such creative ways. Fact and fiction are often blurred, and it always reminds me how anything we read is the product of some biased brain, to be absorbed by our own biased brains. This is not to condemn it; merely I find it useful to remind myself that all narratives and texts are subject to these same pressures. These post looks at a group of texts which very consciously explore those two realms, taking the same point of inspiration in three different directions of life-writing.

John Craxton designed the covers of almost all PLF's books

John Craxton designed the covers of almost all PLF’s books

A Time of Gifts, Between the Woods and the Water, The Broken Road: Patrick Leigh Fermor’s almost uncompleted trilogy of travelogues detailing his walk from Rotterdam to Istanbul is one of my favourite-ever autobiographical series. If you have never come across them, I insist that you do so right away. Completed years later, it details the fantastic pilgrimage he made as a man in his late teens and early twenties. Overflowing with charisma, energy and great charm, PLF’s narratives have the glossy sheen of the experienced writer with none of the depressing nostalgia for youth which so often overshadows memoir. PLF’s infamous ‘embroidery’ technique is so skilful that it serves merely to add glamour and beauty to the rich fabric of his narrative, and one is only occasionally aware of feeling a snag of annoyance at realising it would be impossible for a 20 year old to have the historical knowledge and linguistic skill which PLF claims to have displayed.

The book was eventually called 'A Time of Gifts'

The book was eventually called ‘A Time of Gifts’

Telling, too, is the fact that they were written and published many years after the event they describe: 1977, 1986 and 2013 respectively, all referring to events which took place between 1933 and 1935. Even the author was aware of this and felt he should make reference to it, however obliquely: PLF suggested calling the first book Parallax, a word meaning ‘the difference in the appearance of an object seen from two different angles’ (Artemis Cooper, p.325). The result is a tantalising trilogy possessed of a narrative which is impossible to resist, either as a reader, biographer or traveller.

As with any purported autobiography, there is always the desire to know the ‘reality’ behind it. In 2012 Artemis Cooper, who collaborated with Colin Thubron on midwiving PLF’s final manuscript into the posthumous The Broken Road and who knew PLF from girlhood, produced Patrick Leigh Fermor: An Adventure, a biography which attempts (in part) to answer those almost unknowable questions. She obviously adored PLF – as did almost everyone, particularly women, with whom he came into contact. Her father and grandfather were part of his vast social circle, and her biography feels very much like a welcoming voice from ‘inside’, calling us into his world and checking everyone’s names at the gate. Peppered with beautiful little anecdotes (gathered in ways devious and wise – you can read about it here) the book is almost as riproaring a read as PLF’s own narratives, but very much aware of constraints of biographic form, waggishly disregarded by those original texts.

Nick Hunt's stylistically similar cover

Nick Hunt’s stylistically similar cover

Another response to the books is Nick Hunt’s Walking the Woods and the Water (2014): an attempt to recreate the magic of that journey by physically retracing PLF’s every footstep. Well, almost – 78 years, one world war and the Romanian Ceauşescu-led genocide separate these two pilgrims; the changes wrought on the landscape ache with inevitability. Hunt describes a ‘cultural amnesia’ he finds in the former Soviet countries, where people will not talk about recent history which has wrought huge changes to their lives and landscapes. One poignant passage described Hunt’s search for the castle where PLf played bicycle polo and smoked an elaborate chibook alongside counts and archdukes – now it is ‘as broken as a building can be, smashed to smithereens’ (Hunt, p.170). This felt eerily familiar to me too – a few years ago I had spent a fortnight in Slovakia on a cultural exchange looking at museum interpretation (the adventures of which you can read about here), and I was very aware of the silence which surrounded Slovakia’s 20th century history, combined with the pride evident in the history of centuries and millennia before: ‘the gruesome nature of the distant past was much easier to represent than the horrors of more recent times’.

PLF’s narrative is, I think the greatest: not only because it provides the basis for the existence of the other two, and is thereby the more original, but because it actively benefits from the parallaxing between the young man and the old. Hunt’s journey is derivative by nature, and although he captures moments of Fermorian joy and beauty, it is overshadowed by the awareness that much of what PLF delighted in is gone, and therefore a sense of nostalgic loss permeates the narrative. Cooper has the Herculean task of trying to condense this immensely varied and complex life into a few hundred pages, whilst keeping up the brio associated with PLF. Both do, though, have something of the magician about them: Cooper in her ability to weasel stories from PLF’s omissions (as well as his admissions); and Hunt in being able to summon the great-granddaughter of Count Teleki, one of PLF’s genial hosts, to join him on his journey. From this point onwards, and the further East he walks from here, the more that nuns, farmers, shepherds and Roma remerge from the shadows of memory into full-bodied reality.

However, Walking the Woods and the Water, whilst ostensibly talking about the romanticisation of European history, does neatly sum up the allure of PLD’s writing:

‘…accuracy wasn’t the point. This mythologised affinity with suppressed ancient cultures spoke of a similar yearning for a long-lost age of greater freedoms, unbounded by rules, that bubbled under Europe’s surface like a buried river.’ (p.184-5)

18th century Slovakian church graffiti

18th century Slovakian church graffiti

Those yearnings and freedoms and buried cultural rivers – those are the things which PLF’s own particular brand of life-writing so vividly captures. Accuracy, whilst useful and taxonomically satisfying, is not the only goal of any writing, not even biography. Narratives drawn us closer to freedom, the hidden mysteries of other places and peoples, and it is through that we can find ‘Gemütlichkeit’ – ‘snugness, warmth, the feeling that you are accepted’. It is remarkable that our yearning for travelling and apparent freedom seems to stem from this need for acceptance, this desire to find your own kith or kin or kind and know: ‘the end of all our exploring will be to arrive where we started and know the place for the first time.’

Slovakian painted house

Painted house, Slovakia (2011)

Longing to Name the Sea

I have always been slightly obsessed with the Nordic countries – indeed, my choice of (serious) partner has always mirrored this to a ridiculous degree: my first boyfriend is a marine engineer for ice-class ships in Finland and my husband is a glaciologist who spends months of his life camping out next to the Greenland ice sheet.

Lofoten beach

Some scenic book reading on the Lofoten islands

At university I spent a summer railing and sailing round Scandinavia, taking the boat from Newcastle to Norway and racing the summer sun up and down the gulf of Bothnia and along the Arctic circle. I rode a bicycle across the Lofoten islands and took the sleeper train to Helsinki, and spent a storm-tossed crossing from Denmark to Germany drinking whisky on a boat train full of German students.

Iceland Hesteyri

An unexpected pancake house at Hesteyri

A few years later I flew to Iceland, the mid-Atlantic meeting point between Greenland and England, wild camping on the remote Hornstrandir nature reserve and slipping down into a crack in the earth’s crust to bath in its heated waters. Even as a child I poured over my best friend’s mother’s beautiful Carl Larsson books, imagining what it must be like to fish for crayfish in streams and eat picnics at midnight in birch forests (and live in a beautiful wooden house decorated by my artist-partner!) My family’s three-generation fascination with Tove Jansson’s books (detailed here) fed into this too – how marvellous to have one’s own miniature island to spend the summer on! You get the picture.

I love wool on a cover, so I do

I do love some wool on a book cover

So when I chanced upon a book which told the story of one English family who moved to Iceland only a few years ago I was always going to fall on it like a hawk upon prey. Sarah Moss shared my obsession with all things Nordic, but has the wherewithal (and academic career) to make this dream of Scandi-living into reality. (My only experiences of the realities of this are occasional shopping trips to Ikea, where my husband scorns the Daim bars and I spend the whole time thinking about the meatballs.)

Names for the Sea: Strangers in Iceland (2012) is not a fluffy nostalgia-ridden account of time spent gazing at the northern lights from the steamy sides of a geothermal spa. It tells the real difficulties faced by people who are not Icelandic living in Iceland. First, there are the practical problems: ‘You can’t do anything without a clan, not without spending insane amounts of money.’ Iceland has virtually no immigrant population, and hardly a single second hand shop. The two are not unrelated: as Moss finds out, people are part of small tight-knit clans who are used to looking out for each other and therefore would not think of buying second-hand from a stranger.

The all-defining sea

The all-defining sea

People from útlond – the outsider’s land – are not easily assimilated into these groups, but fortunately Moss has friends at the university who seek out fridges, washing machines and high-chairs from their familial networks. But the way she is referred to as an útlendingur (foreigner) also jars – and this I can easily understand, because when I lived in Japan it felt very strange to be called a gaijin (literally ‘outside person’), and always appreciated it when people used the more friendly gaikokujin – an ‘outside language speaking person’.

Then there is the omnipresence of the Edda, Iceland’s unique record of its own history: ‘Many Icelanders can quote the sagas in the way that 17th century Puritans quoted the Bible.’ Moss finds these gnomic utterances cropping up everywhere – and it unsettles her, because of the assumed unthinking way that they are treated as a true and semi-sacred text. It is the anxiety of influence and the English professor – I have to say, I rather like that literary heritage is so interwoven into people’s lives and speech. Of course, it is true in English too – but this seems to be restricted to smaller phrases which no-one can quite be certain of their origin (my friend SiAB has done a brilliant quiz to test your knowledge on this here.)

A little Nordic shrine at home

A little Nordic shrine at home

Moss certainly doesn’t seem her time in Iceland through rose-tinted spectacles. I’m not likely to move to a new country anytime soon (the thought of choosing and transporting books alone holds fresh dread after the recent move), but I am going to continue my love affair with all things Nordic, as there is the Northern Streams festival of all music Scandi-Scottish here in Edinburgh in a few weeks and I quite fancy getting my fiddle out, or at the very least singing some new songs…

City Lights

Shouting from the rooftops

City Lights

City Lights

Whilst in California over Christmas I fell into the welcoming arms of the City Lights bookshop, hiding from the rain and the tramps and the strip clubs along Broadway Street. I took surreptitious photographs of signs which had been smirked and smiled for decades by generations of devoted readers; I pretended to read poetry books (because after all, what else could one do in the shop which kicked off the Beat phenomenon with the publication of Allen Ginsberg’s Howl); and after about half an hour I found myself tucked into a corner in the basement, eyeball deep in biography. And not just any biography – culinary biography. And not just any culinary biography, but Bob Spitz’s Dearie: The Remarkable Life of Julia Child (2012).

Dearie by Bob Spitz

Dearie by Bob Spitz

Julia Child had hovered on the edge of my culinary conscience for years. I cannot remember exactly where I first came across her – possibly through my grandmother, who is a phenomenal cook herself and has been valiantly feeding a family of six children, thirteen grandchildren, and three fostered Chinese students for over seventy years. My grandmother had been to the States, where she picked up a cowboy cookbook (one of the first things I ever made from it was Billy-can brownies), and illustrated an expat cookery volume during her years living in Hong Kong called Cooking with Corona. She had also bestowed upon me three bound boxes full of the Cordon-Bleu Cookery School course in weekly magazines (which I am yet to make anything from), and a delight in all things extravagant, delicious, and dramatic. Her major outlets for this enjoyment of excess are her devout Catholicism (she is the only person I know who has a signed dispensation to take food before Mass when pregnant) and in her cookery. She snorts when she laughs, pronounces chocolate with three syllables, and still pickles and preserves at the age of 90. In my mind, she is a little like a short, Catholic, British Julia Child.

I devoured Dearie in a few days, all 535 pages of it, against the backdrop of San Francisco’s parks, cafes and our hostel room with its overpowering aroma of Chinese food. My husband was at a conference all day and most of each evening, which gave me ample time to read and recreate Child in my imagination. I watched snippets of her cookery shows, and cooked absolutely nothing except scrambled eggs and beans. But I fell in love with her, and a little more with America, through Bob Spitz’s writing. Although his prose tends to cliché, it is vibrant and jolly and likeable – all aspects which I immediately transferred to Child. I liked her guts, the way she made French cooking her own in America, her total commitment to fun and joy and joie de vivre. Here was a woman who didn’t want to be tiny, good, quiet, modest – she couldn’t help but be statuesque, naughty, loud and passionate. She immediately made it onto my mental list of female role models (or ‘women I wish I was more like’), where she holds court in the good company of Tove Jansson, Gwyneth Lewis, Margaret Bennett Jenny Uglow, Jack Monroe et al.

Julie and Julia

Julie and Julia

Then yesterday, on my first day without a job and living in Edinburgh, I found Julie Powell’s Julie & Julia (2005) – in hardback for £3 from the Shelter shop in Morningside, since you ask. I hadn’t seen the film, which came out in 2009, but again it had been lurking in the brain-shadows, so I snapped up the book and finished it about an hour ago.

Julie Powell feels like I do about Julia – and the popularity of her blog, book and film suggests we aren’t the only ones. For us, Julia stands for being feminine and joyous, unapologetic in her enjoyment of life and food and drink. She makes us believe that if we have any of those nascent characteristics within ourselves, then we should embrace them and shout them from the rooftops. So this is me, shouting from this virtual rooftop (although I could do it almost from our actual rooftop, as the flat’s a top-floor one): have the courage to do whatever it is that brings you joy. Share it around as much as you can, give it out, out, out. Today, this brought me joy:

Daffodils on my 'desk'

Daffodils on my ‘desk’

not just the bright colours of the flowers, but the fact it was my first day working at my new desk (well, table – but beggars/bloggers can’t and all that) and that I’d managed to write a first draft of a poem, two paragraphs on my embryonic biography project, three letters and this blog. Now, off to the lovely Meadowberry for frozen yoghurt and free Wifi to post this…

Contemplating my first Munro, Ben Wyvis

April: Memory and Desire

Apologies for the prolonged break in blogging: leaving one job, moving house, attending two hen parties, one birthday and three weddings have all been occupying spare moments over the last few weeks and months. But now I have a little more time on my hands, here is my first post of 2015!

Stove in the new flat: not a real woodburner, but at least that saves lugging logs up three flights of stairs

Stove in the new flat: not a real woodburner, but at least that saves lugging logs up three flights of stairs

As T.S. Eliot famously averred, April can indeed be the cruellest month. I’ve never been much of a fan of spring, with its unpredictable weather disappointing my expectations of sunshine, gambolling lambs and a profusion of flowers. I know it is a necessary transition, and I long for bright summer days and long warm evenings, but I much prefer autumn as a season of change. At that time of year everyone expects rain, storms and shortening days, so every bright spell is a lovely surprise and cause for unexpected celebrations.

Beautiful Victorian fireplace in the new flat

Beautiful Victorian fireplace in the new flat

But this spring is not so cruel: I am happy to have my memories and desires mixed this year. For it promises a new start: a move to a new flat in Edinburgh (complete with wood-burner style stove, beautiful fireplaces and lovely views), the chance to research and write about a writer whom I admire (details still hush-hush but I will be keeping you posted if this develops!), and who knows yet what else.

The summit of my first Munro, Ben Wyvis

The summit of my first Munro, Ben Wyvis

Something I am committing to now is writing more. Together with my friend over at Melissa’s Compass I am promising to write every day – if we don’t write, how can we be writers? I have always struggled to maintain a balance between work, research and creativity, but after reading this soul-strengthening interview with biographer Jenny Uglow I am aiming to make sure I spend some time writing, researching and working every week – and continuing all the other lovely things I do with my time too! Having scaled my first Munro in September, I am keen to make it a round 100 over the next 18 months: only 99 to go…