And The Land Lay Still
James Robertson (Hamish Hamilton, £18.99)
So much of our music, art and literature, though magnificent, is miniature. The wonderful wee works of a wonderful wee country. Not in this case: here is a seminal work of almost American amplitude and range. If it is not quite the great Scottish novel, at least it wants to be, is, valiantly and undeludedly, a contender. So,while this may not be the book Scotland has been waiting for it is a book of which the stateless nation has long been in need. And poet, publisher and polemicist James Robertson is just the man to have written it. Never parochially, always far seeingly, as a novelist and editor, Robertson has worried away at a fair few gnawable bones of Caledonian contention, thereby extending and deepening the tradition he has been exploring. His have been typically, indeed archetypically Scottish investigations, often featuring Calvinist divines obsessed with and falling victim to those demonic doublenesses loved and hated by Hogg, Stevenson and nearly any writer from hereabouts one cares to name. We may no longer believe in the Caledonian Antisyzigy, but it continues to believe in us. Among the binary oppositions brilliantly parsed and polarised in this state of the nation summa are Armalite versus ballot box, straight and gay, lowland and highland, Catholic and Protestant and, above all, Unionist and Nationalist. It is to Robertson’s credit that ambiguity and ambivalence haunt and problematise these defining dichotomies, a crisply focused dialectic, ‘either or’, blurring into a hazily human ‘but also’.
The evocation and anatomisation of private, social and political life in this country from 1950 until this very minute more or less, rings imaginatively and historically true. A gifted poet and bearer of politico-cultural tidings, ill and good and a beadily-attentive zoomer-in on the zeitgeist, this bardic chronicler eschews crude agit-prop for persuasive engagement. In telling it like it was, he steers the reader towards a notion of how it might one day be. Across nearly 700 pages, facts are cheils that winna ding. They are eloquently marshalled; and the documentarian lets them speak. Behind his beautifully crafted, scrupulously researched and compellingly convincing novel are several journalistic first drafts of history as well as some history proper. All of these sources the author gratefully and graciously acknowledges.
And The Land Lay Still has the big-boned proportions and epic sweep of a nineteenth century French or Russian novel, nipping nimbly from salon to battlefield or barricade. A book to bust blocks it is confident in historic scale yet minutely observing (and observant) in conveying the plausible particularity of lives that are rivetingly idiosyncratic but also representative. The fostering and finessing of such dual purposeness of character is any fiction writer’s most exacting challenge. That feat is managed across a vast cast of principals, supporting actors, players of cameo roles and mere spear carriers in the busy pageant of this novelistic ‘spectacular’.
If I revert to the terminology of film it is because this truly magnum opus expectantly awaits the eliding genius of a benignly ruthless screen writer to do a ‘Crow Road’ or ‘Our Friends In The North’ on it. And The Land Lay Still, does not, even for a second, stop moving. Taking its title from one of Edwin Morgan’s superlative ‘Sonnets From Scotland’, reproduced in full before the story gets underway, the novel is perfectly paced. James Robertson knows when to break into a sprint as he measures out his marathon. Mordant wit, satirical set pieces, eye-catching and ear-caressing descriptive writing (which no reader will wish to skip), ‘snappy’ dialogue, expertly tautened dramatic tension, political analysis and historical synthesis are on masterly display, often within a few sentences of each other. Robertson can even make psephology if not sexy then at least suspenseful!
This technical expertise and psychological insight, when applied to a plot (about plots and plotters) spanning a half century and more and implicating a roll call of characters of almost Powellian proportions, yields much readerly reward. Serenely homosexual, Michael, not so well known photographer son of strenuously straight and very well known photographer Angus, the closest we come to a central character or protagonist, is a memorably unremarkable figure, all the more transfixing for that very ordinariness, quite a coup to pull off. Jean, queen of the ceilidh scene as latterday salon is an Edinburgh fixture out of Eric Linklater (or Stuart MacGregor) by way of Maupassant, Tolstoy or Henry James. The song writer, folk club founder, novelist and carousing doctor, MacGregor is just one of the many real people who pepper the narrative, lending an air of veracity to what we are told about their fictional counterparts. Thus MacDiarmid (and his begetting doppelganger Grieve or vice versa) is as hologramically palpable as if we were at a Barrie or Conan Doyle séance so that it’s not just his hair that stands on end. Willie MacRae is permitted here to perturb from even further beyond the grave. The passage in which Robertson’s stream of consciousness torrentially advances and then cancels the various conspiracy theories and official naysayings surrounding the Nationalist lawyer’s mysterious demise, is a tour de force of comic agglomeration – contradictory doubleness once (or twice!) again.
In the circumstances, events and places linking the respective periods, and people shaped by and giving shape to them, from post-war to post-Yes Yes vote in the referendum, there is an unforced inevitability that avoids melodrama or soap operatic unfeasibility. A pebble passed on and palmed on page one will prove satisfyingly portentous at novel’s end. Revealing light will be cast on the temporary disappearance of one of two army veteran friends in a small mining town at the time of the Korean War. Unsurprisingly, 1979, that convulsive year of bitter memory, that scuppered and scunnered Scotland whilst visiting Thatcher upon us, looms large and pivotal. For those of us proposing a parliament and opposing the poll tax, James Robertson’s superb synopsis of what happened will bring back memories and refresh our grasp of detail from that transfixing period drama. Readers who are younger, or from furth of Scotland will derive knowledge and aesthetic satisfaction from the putting on novelistic record of the doings of Messers Cook, Forsyth and Sillars in those divisive days of constitutional yore. If the melder of all this immensely detailed ‘faction’ or ‘infotainment’ can occasionally be glimpsed putting up the hood of his anorak, a grateful nation will forgive him.
For this is historical fiction and the story in the history is told through, between and across genres. And The Land Lay Still is a family saga, an oedipal psychdrama, a story of artistic formation and a coming of age narrative, a bildungsroman in the fullest sense, a testament to coming out, a ‘buddy’ or ‘bromance’ narrative, pit disaster ballad in prose, a love story, a national foundation myth, a spy story and a mystery novel. That is a very generically rich and thick Scotch broth, most things to many people. It is these things excellently however. There is no hint of post modern hodge-podge in the book’s six substantial sections, each preceded by an incantatory, highly poetic interpolation of heady lyrical lushness, each distinct, yet linked, those connections being gradually established and elaborated as characters develop and plots thicken. For me, the espionage component was the most satisfying element of the intricately interleaved narrative. Secret service assets going rogue and or native. Agents provocateurs infiltrating revolutionary cells and fomenting illegal activity. Suspicious suicides. Treachery amongst friends. Not much fiction in any of that, a trawl through the newspapers of the recent past would quickly suggest. Robertson’s undercover operatives, maverick military men intelligence officers gone to seed and ground are wonderfully believable. The story of the repatriation of the Stone of Scone is given a terrific new twist in a Scotland as tense and riven as the ‘Ulster’ of the ‘Troubles’.
In important ways James Robertson’s history really is his story. He is not as far as I know gay, nor was he, I am pretty certain, a republican ‘terrorist’. But, born in 1958, he did live through this extraordinary epoch, helping make, by his cultural activism and literary engagement, the history he writes. He has succeeded me as President of Scotland’s most Scottish book festival, that held in Ullapool, where, in instalments separated by two years, he read mesmerically from his outstanding then-work in progress. One scene centred on a gay pick up gone wrong between Sandy Bell’s and Greyfriars’ Kirkyard. Another described two furtive agents of the crown settling down to subvert civil society over tea and digestives in a sordid rat trap bedsit more redolent of cowp than coup. Each is virtuosically intact in the novel as published. And The Land Lay Still has already carried off the Saltire Book Of The Year Award, been read on Radio Four and gone through a number of printings. It is Alex Salmond’s favourite contemporary novel (make of that what you will). A political primer, a page turner of a thriller, a meditation on Scottishness, indeed a search of the renascent nation’s soul, this is an ambitious book that works on many levels, instructing and memorialising as it enthrals. The other week on Andrew Neill’s late night television show Michael Portillo and a Labour MP whose name I have gratefully forgotten were agreeing that, “these devolved assemblies are often out of their depth”. If I even half thought they would quarter read this timely and indispensable master work I’d post them each a copy. A book that entertains Scotland as it explains Scotland; and a work of significance far beyond these shores.