James Robertson, And the Land Lay Still (Hamish Hamilton 2011)
Before the meeting: The Book Group had a run of Russian novels last year. This year we’ve moved to Scotland, though as with Russia any fears of sameishness would have been misplaced: a bigger contrast between this book and Janice Galloway’s The Trick Is to Keep Breathing would be hard to imagine. Where that book is introspective, claustrophobic and grim (though some disagreed about that), this one is expansive, multifarious and in the end upbeat.
Among other things, And the land lay still is a history of Scotland in the second half of the 20th century, with a focus on the growth of Scottish nationalism leading to the yes vote for the Scottish Devolution Referendum in 1997. The book’s title comes from ‘The Summons’, a 1984 sonnet by Edwin Morgan who was to become Scotland’s first national poet in 2004: the poem marks a moment when the Scottish electorate did not vote for the – it ends, ‘a far horn grew to break that people’s sleep.’ The book relates the slow and tortuous response to that summoning horn. It traces the lives of a diverse score of characters: a Tory member of the UK Parliament, the photographer son of a photographer, a war veteran, a boring spy, a vicious thug, a woman who hosts a bohemian salon, an English nurse who moved to Scotland when she married a Scot and stayed, a rich girl who becomes addicted to a string of radical causes, an investigative journalist who gets into serious trouble and, appearing in italics between the main chapters, a wandering tramp-like figure who takes on an uncanny symbolic identity in his own mind and in the mind of the novel.
At the end of the first of the book’s six parts, just as I was settling into one story, I was shocked to realise that a whole new narrative was beginning, with new characters in a different time and place. And the sharp breaks continue with each new part, and then within the parts. Perhaps the spy’s story dragged on a bit (his name is Jimmy Bond, but he changes it to Peter to avoid bad jokes, and the dragging on is partly intentional, making the point that spies can be very boring people). The depiction of the Tory politician’s sexuality may involve a slightly blunt satirical jibe about Maggie Thatcher’s appeal. And the eventual fate of the hideously violent thug may be too kind, too neatly conveyed. But if those are faults, they’re minor ones. This is a terrific book, with some spectacularly good writing. And it’s very Scottish.
Here’s the passage where the music of Scottish language first asserts itself and where I became totally hooked. The speaker is Walter, a minor character who is a folk singer:
In thae days, if ye were a working-class boy and ye wanted a better kind o life than the one that was mapped oot for ye, there was just two ways o daein it: ye could become a professional footballer, if ye were skilled enough, or ye could become a professional boxer, if ye were hard enough. And then this third opportunity came along: ye could form a band and sing your way tae glory if ye were bonnie enough. Weel, I wasna skilled or hard or bonnie enough for any o thae things, sae I become a plumber. But then something amazing happened. I was on a job doon at Lauder, on the road tae England, and I was there for aboot a week wi a couple o other boys, up and doon the road every day, and on the last day, when we'd finished the job, we went for a few pints in a pub afore we came back up the road. And there was this auld man there, and he just started singing. There was a wee lull in the general noise, ye ken, and he started singing intae that space. The haill pub went silent as he sang, he didna hae the best voice, it was auld and quavery and a bit flat but by Christ he had us aw spellbound, we aw listened, even the guys that were wi me, on and on he went, verse efter verse efter verse, a story aboot a sister and her lover, and her brothers killing him because he wasna good enough for her, and her defiance when the faither tried tae mairry her aff tae another man. Weel I'd never heard anything like it in my life, and when he was done I went over and bought the auld fellow a drink and asked him aboot it.
After the meeting:
Sadly, we’re still meeting remotely, but we are meeting. One person couldn’t make it because he’d had his first Astra Zeneca shot in the morning and was feeling wiped out, which led to a lot of comparing of post-shot symptoms at the meeting.
Those who’d finished the book loved it. No one had stopped reading from lack of interest. Some felt that at 670 pages it was too long, but no one would say which character they would have cut. Some felt that now and then they were being treated to a lecture on Scottish history that they could have done without, that the vividly realised characters, their relationships and life stories made the detailing of broader history unnecessary. I disagreed. I loved the interplay of those elements. The English-born group member said he too loved the explicit history, as it led him to revisit his young understanding of what was going on in Scotland and see it afresh.
We spent a lot of the meeting reminding each other of the good bits. One or two chaps had to clap their hands over their ears now and then as we discussed parts they hadn’t read, but someone pointed out that Rule 738B says that books may be discussed in their entirety regardless of whether everyone in the room (or zoom) has read the whole thing.
Some responded strongly to a sweet romance (if you’ve read the book, you’ll know what I mean if I say ‘the kiss’), others to the relationship between the salt-of-the-earth father and his wrong-‘un son. Someone reminded us of the way now and then a character tells a story that stands alone as a kind of parable. We didn’t get as far as the way one such story is told early in the book as a kind of folk legend, then again as an eye-witness account, and yet again as a brief newspaper story.
There was some discussion of gender fluidity, but I can’t remember how, or even if, that related to the book.
I got some advice about a dilemma to do with lockdown hair and my barber having shut up shop, which definitely had nothing to do with the book.
It looks as if our next meeting, in six weeks time, will also be on screens.