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Philosophical histories

A Review by Ian Stephen

Rose Nicolson: Memoir of William Fowler of Edinburgh: student, trader, makar, conduit, would-be Lover in early days of our Reform
Andrew Greig
riverrun (2021) £18.99

News of the Dead
James Robertson
Hamish Hamilton (2021) £18.99

Review by Ian Stephen

Andrew Greig trained as a philosopher and James Robertson as a historian. In this year both have published a historical novel, set in mainland Scotland with some excursions to sea or over borders. Both work in full knowledge of a literary tradition. If Scott was the inventor of the historical novel then his contemporary, Hogg, could be seen as one who set a premise then watched as his characters tested that. If you are ‘justified’ in that your name is already in the book of the saved, by belief only, then it follows you can do what the hell you like. Issues of faith and ambition are strong themes in both novels but time is a major player.

            Let me say from the start that both novels have been a huge pleasure to read. They are grand stories first of all, with many layers but all to the purpose. I’m not going to tell these stories, bearing in mind that I can no longer read a Peter Bradshaw film review because he insists on retelling the stories in the films. With a few weeks space from the full-pelt journeys through them, I’m still sensing so much in common. But in hindsight, it ’s possible that the philosopher has written a mainly historical novel and the historian a more philosophical one.

            That’s my starting point as I return to the texts, another kind of pleasure because both writers use language expertly. Both include a range of Scots voices. Andrew has a concurrent reputation as a poet but James has also written strong poems, mainly in Scots and edits and publishes poetry, also mainly in Scots.  This manifests itself in both novels, not as ‘poetic’ flights of language but as wit in the wording and in memorable turns of phrase.

            The story of Rose Nicolson and the lives touching hers begins with an explosion of cannon fire. The King’s Men are making an assault on those of Queen Mary.  Wee Will Fowler is caught between his father’s and his mother’s beliefs to mark him from the start as one more example of the Scottish character, wavering between two selves. This is sketched from the dramatic start and naturally recurs as the story unfolds:

            ‘I swithered atween selves, as I have all my life, following the dark horse and then the light.’

And later, as the regent stands down and everything is in the balance Will’s personal switherings exemplify those of the nation. It is commerce and finance which drive political actions by enabling them but it is heart, spirit and creativity which generate passion. In his own poetry Will finds some resolution as his wit can thrive on tension:

            ‘I sat in a dwam, between my orderly ledgers and the scored-out page. Perhaps the course of one’s life is made by the particular manner in which we never quite resolve ourselves.’

            There are sea-adventures to echo Stevenson and border raids to nod to Scott. There is the judicious use of skilled examples of verse written in character. But I’d say it is character itself which really drives this book and the central female one imprints herself on you as a reader. In this respect, she is an heir of Scott’s Jeanie Deans, admired by Balzac and Tolstoy. Although the novels are completely different in time and tone she is also akin to Agnes, the beautiful, flawed, failing and mesmerising pivotal person in Douglas Stuart’s “Shuggy Bain”.  Both have a struggle to be seen as other than a bonny woman.

            Rose’s admirer, Will, is a penman as well as a poet and he can imitate as well as create.  Such actions have effects beyond his own circle, overlapping with historical characters such as the scholar George Buchanan – a myth in Scottish folklore as well as the actual author of plays and treatises in the international language of Latin.  However, it is the near-impossible love for Rose Nicolson which forms the central story.

            James Robertson takes forgery one step further. It is the driving force of the over-arching narrative in his equally mesmerising “News Of The Dead”. But when does a version become a forgery? Any translation will be slanted by its time but when does that slant become ‘spin’?  This is a writer who has moved fluently between the physical and political landscapes of a post-World-War -II Scotland (“And the Land Lay Still”) and the fathomless moral issues explored in his study of the judicial process following the explosion which brought devastation to the air and land at Lockerbie.

            Now he has invented a glen, somewhere in the Angus area, complete with its own saint. I did have to look it up just to make sure it didn’t exist. That saint may have left his own mapping of a spiritual journey but how far can you trust the original as a fair record? And what of a 19th century very free translation? A near-contemporary attempt to make sense of the history of the glen adds a third layer of time. In the hand of a lesser maker, the elusive threads could so easily have become a boorach. What we have instead is interlocking narratives of those who have tried to live their lives in this place through the tensions and dangers brought by the political machinations of the day.

            Complex personal passions and ambitions are made real. Characters don’t just jump through the hoops placed for them by the author. They come alive for you and so you feel for them as they try to work things out for the best.

            So, after re-reading, how does a working premise of the leanings of one writer to the historical and the other the philosophical, hold up? Not that well. Even though the wording is playful as a reflection of the art of ‘flyting’ there is a sustained undertone in Andrew’s novel. When a question of faith, the issue of the day is posed, here’s an answer, in character:

            ‘Dinna ask me,’ he said, ‘I’m a philosopher. I can only tell you how to bear it.’

            I think it is fair to say that James’ book is driven by fascination with history. He persuades us to try to imagine what the life and work of an 8th century missionary monk might have been like, seen through the mists of a 12th century literary transcription of the oral history, later rendered into  the vernacular (like the bible during the Reformation).

            However, the multi-layered form (brilliantly controlled) seems to me to have kinship with the exploration of duality in both Hogg’s justified sinner and Stevenson’s Jekyll and Hyde. Graeme Macrae Burnett made stark drama from conflicting assessments of the psychology of his main character in “His Bloody Project”. Here, the motives behind the slants on the ‘translation’ of the chronicle of Cronach change with the day as well as the character.

            Despite this exploration of such ideas in the narratives, it’s the effects of the times on the lives of folk which moved me most. James is with Jonathan Swift in his despair at the inventive means of producing pain and terror by ‘advances’ in weaponry. The Napoleonic wars bring disaster, rather than advancement to the folk of both the big house and the satellite cottages. As with Andrew’s book, there are strong female characters. The elderly artist, Maja, is conscious of her own  sands running but builds an honest trusting relationship with a troubled youngster of two generations on. It is Maja’s inner voice which expresses the most sustained meditation on the passage of time. She takes the comparison with the movement of the deer from Sorley Maclean’s “Hallaig”.  The thought goes beyond her own personal situation:

“When I used to meet the deer it was like meeting time. I didn’t know that then. I know it now. It was like meeting time and then Time fled and left me on my own. But time never goes far. It is in the wood behind my window, it is in the churchyard behind my garden wall.  If I am very still I can hear a twig cracking under its weight.”

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