Posts Tagged ‘Lewis Grassic Gibbon’

Emilybooks of the year

December 19, 2012

Looking back on the year, I see that I’ve developed a strange habit of reading in threes. There have been three Elizabeths, three lives, three children’s books, three of all sorts of things. Strange indeed.

So here are my favourites of the books that I’ve read over the past year, clumped, conveniently, into threes.

The Walking Book Club at Port Eliot

3 Elizabeths

I began the year reading Elizabeth Bowen’s intensely atmospheric wartime novel The Heat of the Day which set me up for a year of Elizabeths. Start as you mean to go on, I suppose. Well I went on to read Bowen’s The House in Paris, an entrancing, bewitching novel, which made a whole afternoon disappear. Best of all, it was a year in which I was given a very special edition of Bowen’s Court – EM Forster’s copy no less.

I loved Elizabeth Taylor’s Angel, a novel which every aspiring writer must read not just because it describes so brilliantly different moments of writing – the strange feverish stuffiness of writing non-stop, and the anti-climax of finishing, for instance – but because it will make you laugh hopelessly at yourself, at the sheer vanity of being a writer. We also had a splendid Walking Book Club discussing Taylor’s poignant novel about getting old, Mrs Palfrey at the Claremont, for which we enjoyed the illustrious company of Clare Balding. You’ll be able to listen to it on Radio 4’s Ramblings in February… watch this space!

The third Elizabeth of the year was Elizabeth Jenkins. The Tortoise and the Hare had me in tears, and Harriet had me in a nightmare. Both are utterly compelling, hellish portrayals of marriage – the first is a heartbreaking portrayal of its death throes, and the second is about a situation so horrific, it’s hard to believe that it was based on a true murder case.

3 houses

My novel, as those of you who read last week’s post will know, is centred on a house and the stories that lie within it. As a result, I have grown quite addicted to books with houses at their centre. I’ve already mentioned Elizabeth Bowen – her Bowen’s Court really is a great portrait of a house.

Rebecca is one of my all time favourite house novels. From that memorable first line, ‘Last night I dreamt I went to Manderley again,’ the house threatens to overwhelm the new Mrs de Winter. The most memorable moments of the novel are firmly rooted in the house – when she comes down the stairs for the ball, looking like the ghost of Rebecca, or when Mrs Danvers nearly makes her throw herself out of Rebecca’s old bedroom window. This was one of the books we discussed when I took the Walking Book Club to the splendid Port Eliot festival, not so far from Menabilly – the inspiration for du Maurier’s Manderley. I’ve read this novel so many times now, and each time find it utterly gripping, thoroughly brilliant. Perhaps I should allow myself one du Maurier a year.

But my house of the year has to go to the ‘convenient little house’ in Hampstead, which is the focus of Vita Sackville West’s All Passion Spent. Lady Slane’s husband, a great statesman, has just died when we meet her. She defies her foul children, who want to parcel her off between them, and retires to a pretty Hampstead house that she last saw thirty years ago. This perfect, slim novel, a fictional counterpart to Woolf’s A Room of One’s Own, is beautifully written, and I especially enjoyed the way Sackville-West’s love of gardening – as attested to by the magnificent gardens at Sissinghurst – periodically surfaces, when she can’t resist arranging a few flowers here, or a ripened peach there.

3 lives

The best non-fiction I’ve read this year has been about the lives of people. The strongest presence has been the poet, Edward Thomas. I read Matthew Hollis’s biography of him, Now All Roads Lead To France – a fantastic book, which managed to turn his rather quiet life into a series of cliffhangers. There was also Robert Macfarlane’s majestic The Old Ways, in which this literary lover of landscapes wrote about journeying on remarkable old paths, haunted by Edward Thomas who was a great walker as well as a great writer. And there was Nick Dear’s powerful play at the Almeida. My favourite Edward Thomas moment of the year was walking with some friends around (the aptly named) Steep, where Thomas lived, and up Shoulder of Mutton hill. It was very special to feel we were walking in his footsteps. Towards the end, we sprawled across a leafy glade and read out some of his poems, accompanied only by birdsong, the wind in the trees, and our steady chomping of Percy Pigs.

I loved reading Penelope Fitzgerald’s letters – a wonderful thick collection, which was a steady and inspiring companion for many months. And now I am reading West with the Night by Beryl Markham, who became my new heroine by about page five. She tells of her childhood in what was then British East Africa, a childhood which included such instances as hunting warthogs with local tribesmen and being mauled by a lion. She grew up to breed and train racehorses, and then became a freelance pilot. This is an extraordinary memoir, bristling with the spirit of adventure, full of the romance of a lost way of life, and somehow Markham has combined a great lyricism with edge-of-your-seat thrilling tension.

3 new novels

Deborah Levy’s Swimming Home seemed to lodge in me like a shard of glass, painful, unforgettable and darkly beautiful. Susie Boyt’s The Small Hours was a peculiar and powerful novel. It is about a strange, larger-than-life woman who decides to open a nursery school. It soon transpires that her own childhood has been difficult, to say the least. I suppose it’s what you might expect from Freud’s great-granddaughter. Emily Perkins’ The Forrests follows a family over several decades. What really stood out about it was the quality of the writing, richly detailed, making every mundane moment sing like a poem.

3 children’s books

Like everyone else I read The Hunger Games, and I loved it. It was alarmingly addictive – I have friends who began reading it one evening and had to take the next day off work, as they had to stay up all night to finish it. Cynics dismiss it as a horrid teen novel about children killing each other, but I found it thick with ideas – about CCTV, celebrity culture, society and more.

I reread The Wind in the Willows, which was truly joyful, and even inspired a walk along the Thames, for which we strove to bring all the ingredients in Ratty’s notorious picnic:



And I reread A Wizard of Earthsea, an exciting quest about the battle of good versus evil, and – interestingly – the importance of language.

3 of everything else

There were of course other brilliant Emilybooks of the year, which don’t fit into these clumps of threes so neatly – Dorothy Whipple, Patti Smith, and it was certainly a year of Ali Smith, whose new book Artful – not quite a novel, not quite a collection of essays, is something entirely new and mind-poppingly impressive. It was a year of many great ladies, and, lest I forget, a few great men, (like the aforementioned Edward Thomas, Lewis Grassic Gibbon and L.P. Hartley). It has been a year of feeling terrifically happy that there are so many wonderful books to read.

Thank you for accompanying me through a wonderful year of reading. Now I have only to wish you a happy and book-filled Christmas and New Year. Emilybooks will be back in January.

Sunset Song

August 13, 2012

There was no post last week because I was up in the wilds of Ardnamurchan, staying somewhere so beautiful and remote that there was no electricity, let alone an internet connection.

I have often mentioned my predilection for reading books that match the setting. This wee trip to Scotland was a welcome opportunity to revisit the pile of Scottish books I bought when we went to Harris last year, and I got too caught up with Gavin Maxwell’s wonderful Ring of Bright Water to read any of the rest of them.This time, I picked Sunset Song by Lewis Grassic Gibbon. And so I embarked upon one of the most enjoyable reading experiences of my life.

Every day, in the late morning – once we’d blearily risen and tidied the mess from the previous night’s drunken antics, which in a caravan swiftly becomes mountainous – I poured a mug of coffee and climbed up on to the rocks where I sat and read, the breeze snatching my hair, alone apart from the occasional gull and eagle. Every very few pages I looked up and saw Arnamurchan lighthouse, marking the most Westerly point on the British mainland, poised over a sandy white beach, on which the boys were usually playing Frisbee or beach golf.

In the other direction, loomed the Lord-of-the-Rings-like islands Eigg, Muck and Rhum, and – if it was really clear – there was a glimpse of the Outer Hebrides too. What a view! (The artfully placed book marks the very spot where I sat.)


Admittedly, Sunset Song is set in a different bit of Scotland – in the fictional Kinraddie, just inland from Aberdeen. And when Gibbon writes so lovingly of the land there, he is writing about the hills, not the sea. But still, I felt I was breathing the same fresh Scottish air, experiencing the same feel of the landscape – far more dramatic than anything England’s got to offer.

Sunset Song is about Kinraddie and its community. It was written in the 1930s and – aside from a whistle-stop, bonkers, Danny Boyleish historical tour in the Prelude – set in the few years preceding the First World War. These years, although harsh and tough, are portrayed as something of a golden age before war comes and wreaks destruction on the community. The story centres on Chris Guthrie, who we meet when she’s just sixteen, torn between pursuing an intellectual life of studying English books or a more visceral appreciation of the Scottish land:

Oh, Chris, my lass, there are better things than your books or studies or loving or bedding, there’s the countryside your own, you its, in the days when you’re neither bairn nor woman.

That tight inversion ‘your own, you its’ reveals just how close Chris’s connection is with the land, as indeed is everyone’s who works their croft in this community. It reminds me of John Donne’s line in ‘The Good Morrow’, ‘my face in thine eye, thine in mine appears’ and perhaps this mingling of people and land is not unlike that of lovers, without wanting to get too D.H. Lawrence about it.

This division between books and the land is echoed in other divisions portrayed in the book – brain and body, town and country, but most fundamentally, English and Scottish. And this is felt most keenly in the language:

Every damned little narrow-dowped rat that you met put on the English if he thought he’d impress you – as though Scotch wasn’t good enough now, it had words in it that the thin bit scraichs of the English could never come at. And Rob said You can tell me, man, what’s the English for sotter, or greip, or smore, or pleiter, gloaming or glunching or well-kenspeckled? And if you said gloaming was sunset you’d fair be a liar…

I think my favourite of these words has got to be ‘glunching’, which Gibbon thoughtfully translates in the much-needed glossary at the back of the book to mean ‘to mutter half-threateningly, half-fearfully’. I now fully intend to glunch at people.

Perhaps a nation’s roots are felt most keenly through its language. This would explain why we spend so much time tirelessly chatting with Americans to point out the differences between ‘lift’ and ‘elevator’, ‘pavement’ and ‘sidewalk’, ‘petrol’ and ‘gas’. Difference is more identifying than sameness and it is usually with a feeling of pride that people cling to these points of variation, especially if they are the underdog, the smaller, less powerful party. Small wonder then that the Scottish crofters in the book feel so protective over their language. Keep on glunching at those posh English chaps who rule over you and are going to make you fight to your deaths in Belgium, say I! English is seen as a snobby thing, as a way of raising yourself up above the commoners, and, moreover, it is seen as false. For as Chris comes to realise:

The English words so sharp and clean and true – for a while, for a while, till they slid so smooth from your throat you knew they could never say anything that was worth the saying at all.

Of course I disagree. But I expect that if I lived in this marvellous rugged countryside, with a language born to express it, I’d also feel that English words never said much that was worth saying.

Gibbon himself evidently felt this tug in opposing directions, one Scottish, one English. In her introduction, Ali Smith tells how he was born in the Scottish parish of Arbuthnott – on which Kinraddie was based – but then moved in later life to English suburban Welwyn Garden City. For the more Scottish of his books he used the pen name ‘Lewis Grassic Gibbon’, adapted from his maternal grandmother’s name, but his English books were written with his English name James Leslie Mitchell.

As you might have gathered from the various quotations, while Sunset Song is written in English, it is an English fused, idiosyncratically, with bits of Scots. Words like ‘meikle’, ‘bit’ and ‘quean’ (to mean respectively ‘great’, ‘something vaguely derogatory’ and ‘girl’) are used so often that they are part of the rhythm of the language, punctuating it so frequently that you take on the inflections in your head. Thankfully, I refrained from talking like this to my friends, but it was certainly an easy lilt to pick up and one that resounded in my head while I sat there on the rocks looking out at the islands.

Sunset Song revels in this unique synthesis of language. It is English enough for an Englishwoman, like me, to read, yet it is undeniably Scottish. You need the glossary, but you don’t resent looking the words up, and before long you can feel the sense of the words without having to check them every few minutes. The result is a prose that really sings and dances off the page, not unlike the Ceilidh that takes place during one of the happiest moments of the book.

It is a marvellous book – but it is for sure a book, and Gibbon takes care in Sunset Song to associate books with Englishness, as opposed to Scottishness. Is Sunset Song then a claiming of literature for Scottishness, an appropriating of this English medium into something Scottish? It has been heralded as ‘the first really Scottish novel’ and the language certainly makes an English reader think in Scots – albeit a doctored version of it. Or is it a conquering of Scottishness by English, an act of colonisation, of capturing the Scottish land within a book? It is words that describe the landscape and many of them are English ones. Most importantly it is called ‘Sunset Song’, not, as Rob would have it in the quotation above, ‘Gloaming Song’. It is a troubling paradox indeed.

As well as reading, we did a little walking up in Ardnamurchan. We climbed to the top of a nearby mountain, sat there and watched two eagles soar through the valley, while someone in the distance struck up a tune on the bagpipes. It was too perfect for words. Then we clambered down, scrabbling through the gorse and the heather. I am particularly bad at those kind of scrambles and feared that the Scottish land might take revenge on my clumsy English feet (clad in rather smart new walking boots), but somehow I got to the bottom unscathed. Not so our Spanish friend who fell off the side of the rockface and tumbled half-way to the bottom of the mountain, the offending loose piece of rock bouncing alarming after him. By a miracle he survived, but perhaps the Scottish land was indeed protesting. Fine, it said, you English scum can trample the heather, but a Spaniard too? Not likely. If nothing else, it certainly made our Spanish friend start glunching.