Landscape for a decent bloke

James Robertson And the land lay stillIt was the cover that caught my eye, actually: a street of sombre tenements retreating into pale murk, one side lined with the dark silhouettes of lamp-posts in tight perspective. There are plenty of people about—three men clusted around the lamp-post in the foreground, one with his head twisted to look not towards the camera but a little past it to one side; two young girls crossing the street in lockstep from the other side; a little further back, a man who seems to be in military cap and coat striding purposefully the other way, but with his head turned to look down the street away from the camera; other figures deeper into the background, too. But there’s a lot of space between all these people, partly because to the modern eye there are barely any cars about—just one, almost invisible, parked way up the road and on the other side of the street. The road is wet, and as roads without cars do it looks broad and spacious, even between the high enclosing walls of the tenements. To a black and white original some muted colours have been added.

It’s a fine, beautifully composed photograph, but as a cover it’s slightly misleading. Taken by Bert Hardy, it shows a street in the Gorbals in 1948. (Reading up on Hardy was a pleasure: pictures here and here.) It’s probably about a mile from where I’m sitting as I write, though I don’t recognize it and wouldn’t know how to find it: postwar ‘slum clearances’ mean few streets in the area today look much like they did in the late 40s. And it’s misleading—though not gravely so—because almost all the action in James Robertson’s novel And the land lay still takes place after 1950, and most of what happens in the 1950s and 60s happens away from big cities, in smaller, fictionalized places: a village, Wharryburn, expanding with council estates to relieve overcrowded single-ends in the nearby town of Drumkirk, where prosperous rural Perthshire gives way to mining communities and the Central Belt; a small coal town called Borlanslogie, a bit further south and east on the Fife border. The novel doesn’t follow a simple chronological narrative—it has a satisfyingly complex, interwoven structure that moves back and forth in time—but Edinburgh and Glasgow don’t show up till later on. The many scenes set in Edinburgh, from the first section of the novel to the last, occur between the 1970s and about 2008. Glasgow, despite appearing on the cover, has more of a supporting role: a big part of one section is set there in the late 1960s and 70s, but even this bit is recalled through alcoholic tremors by a character now sitting in a filthy flat in Edinburgh.

Robertson's landscape
It happens here

The novel, in other words, follows a trajectory like Robertson’s own, from small towns on the northern fringes of the Central Belt—he grew up in Bridge of Allan and went to school in Perthshire—to Edinburgh and Glasgow. Most of the characters inhabit this terrain. Those who are already adults at the novel’s chronological (but not narrative) outset, like Don Lennie, who we meet as a young father one Saturday night in 1950, stay in Wharryburn or Borlanslogie. Their children’s generation, born after 1945, move into the cities. Michael Pendreich, the photographer son of a better, more famous photographer, leaves Doune (one small town that’s not fictionalized) for Edinburgh; Peter Bond, from Drumkirk way, briefly gets to London before a long, seedy decline as an off-the-books MI5 spook in Glasgow and Edinburgh. The same goes for lesser characters like the Tory MP David Eddelstane, prospering between Westminster and Edinburgh, and his sister Lucy (radical, if one-dimensional, left activism in Glasgow and Edinburgh); Don Lennie’s older son Billy, teaching History and Modern Studies in Glasgow; and a contingent from Borlanslogie—the journalist Ellen Imlach and her cousins Adam and Gavin—who also end up in the orbit of Edinburgh, where Adam becomes Michael Pendreich’s long-term boyfriend. There are a few glimpses of the far north coast and a single one of an elderly Hugh MacDiarmid’s home in rural south Lanarkshire, but for the most part both the highlands and islands and the southern uplands are absent, as are Aberdeen and Dundee, the other cities that count.

This is the landscape in which Robertson’s exploration of modern Scottish history is rooted, and if it’s not quite the state of the whole nation it’s still an expansive canvas, richly detailed. The first half of the book is made up of three long parts, each—it seems—largely self-contained, touching the others only lightly. In the first, Michael Pendreich, planning a commemoration of the father who has overshadowed his whole life, returns to Edinburgh in 2008 from self-imposed exile in the far north and reflects on his own past, most of it spent in the city. The second follows Don Lennie through 1950, as his second son is born and his friend Jack Gordon, deeply damaged by his experience as a prisoner of war, disappears. In the third, Peter Bond, also in Edinburgh in 2008 but a decade older than Pendreich, looks back on his own much shabbier life at the grubby fringe of the UK secret services. Parts four, five, and six get gradually shorter, move more steadily from past to present, and slowly map out the many connections between all these stories, no longer with one character as the only focus of each part. Characters who earlier on had smaller roles, or were just barely mentioned, get a bit of time and space to develop, though some get more than others. The final part brings the threads together in an Edinburgh gallery, and anyone who enjoys a long, intricately plotted novel will admire the way this is done.

Winifred Ewing election leaflet 1967
Winifred Ewing swings Hamilton for the SNP, 1967

The history Robertson is excavating here is political, social, and cultural: it’s a history of the Scottish present, and more specifically the history of the rise of Scottish nationalism. In 1950, Jack Gordon’s ideological nationalism seems inexplicable to the Labour-voting Don, a slightly suspect—and certainly unhelpful—curiosity. Through the 1960s and 70s, an increasingly coherent Scottish Nationalist Party dances a double waltz with the movement’s own radical fringe and with the other parties: on one side, the oddballs, visionaries, and occasional gunmen monitored by Peter Bond, who knows—or guesses—that he is also one of the strings the British deep state tugs on to prompt agents provocateurs to violent action, so discrediting the SNP; on the other, the Conservatives and above all Labour, gradually shifting their respective containment strategies. As North Sea oil begins to flow and the Conservatives’ 1980s stranglehold on Westminster takes hold, underlying political dynamics and more basic self interest push both parties towards accepting the idea of devolution, though grudgingly, while a steady buzz of cultural and political activism continues: Michael Pendreich’s milieu in Edinburgh (‘soft-left, soft-nationalist’, Bond calls him). The devolutionary moment of the 1990s doesn’t end the ebb tide of nationalism, though. The Conservatives’ very success in England wipes them out in Scotland, David Eddelstane’s kinky boot fetish taking him down just before the 1997 general election. And the Labour party that dominates UK politics at the turn of the century—and makes devolution a reality—has lost its raison d’être in Scotland. The book was published in 2010, before the SNP won a majority in the Holyrood parliament that had been designed to make an SNP majority impossible, before the 2014 referendum, before the 2015 general election and the collapse of Labour in Scotland. But it fills in a lot of the background on how we got here.

Alex Kapranos in a duffle coat
Someone else in a duffle coat

Although politics infuses the novel—not without a certain amount of info-dumping, usually done with a trowel rather than a spade—it isn’t a dry examination of party political combats and entanglements. The book is about lives lived through the social and cultural changes that brought this political shift about: ordinary lives, but emblematic ones. Don Lennie, who may not have had much of an education but is thoughtful in both senses, represents common, socially-minded decency—he benefits from the post-1945 transformation (a council house, an NHS birth for his son, and gradually increasing if always modest prosperity), but he’s also part of the generation whose wartime sacrifice and postwar mobilization made it happen. Michael Pendreich belongs to the baby boom, a generation of greater social freedoms, wider horizons, but a nagging sense of not living up to their parents’ achievements. Peter Bond is the most compelling, and tortured, character in the book, though you want to take a bath for every page you spend with him: a failure by any judgment, including his own, his life as a servant of power has brought him no reward. His parents, he thinks as a young man, are ‘a case study in being oblivious to the bigger picture’, but the words apply to him. First motivated, then strung along, by his desire to be ‘in the know’, ‘on the inside’, he has in fact always been on the outside, always ignorant of the bigger picture, and as an alcoholic shouting at the walls of a Tollcross flat he seems to know it. In his adult life he has been recognized for what he is by the people he spies on (who call him ‘Dufflecoat Dick’), despised by the mother who was once so proud of him, and ruthlessly controlled, manipulated, kept in ignorance, and discarded by those who really are on the inside. Lennie and Pendreich, of different generations and social classes, share a tendency to self-doubt. But Bond, in whom that tendency was quite absent, ends up as a portrait of whisky-breathed Scottish self-loathing.

Bond isn’t the only character who lives in the shadows. Don Lennie’s younger son Charlie is the dark principle incarnate, angry, derisive, and limitlessly violent from early childhood. He’s a terrifying character, glittering with a kind of dark light, amplifying wickedness in the bad and sucking or crushing the life out of the good. His father assumes, and often attempts to articulate, common decency and shared humanity—he tries to behave decently, to live decently—and his politics rests on these assumptions too. But Charlie’s very existence contemptuously refutes them. He’s such an intense presence that the way he gets written out of the plot feels too cursory: in such a tightly-woven novel, a thread this important shouldn’t be pulled out and snipped off so neatly. But it would have been hard to bring this one together with the others in part six without spoiling the party.

Charlie, it becomes clear, has touched many of the other lives in the book. The only other supporting character who approaches him in darkness is the MI5 handler Croick. He is Mephistopheles to Peter Bond’s Faust, promising knowledge but bringing damnation. He doesn’t play as important a role in the plot as Charlie because Bond’s is, with a minor exception, the only other character whose life he touches directly. But Croick is playing a larger symbolic role, too, though a lightly sketched one. As a young man, Bond, who is working hard to smooth the edges off his own, tries to place Croick’s Scottish accent—somewhere in the northeast, he thinks. Eventually, years later, and just before his own (less cursory) exit, Croick explains: he was born in Kenya to a father from Aberdeenshire, a policeman in the Colonial Service—his accent comes from his father, and from a schooling in Aberdeen. It’s worth taking a moment to think about what’s going on here. Croick is the British deep state personified, and for all his Scottish accent he hates Scotland, muttering ‘What a shithole this is’ as he strides around the more imposing parts of central Glasgow on one of his rare visits. In him, Robertson sketches a different variety of Scottish self-hatred, but it’s telling that he places Croick’s origins not in Scotland itself but in the British empire. There are Scottish unionists in the book—Don Lennie is one; the Tory David Eddelstane is another—but the one who actually hates Scotland, who does the (very) dirty work required to preserve the union, turns out not to be Scottish at all. Robertson here comes close to accepting the glib get-out-of-imperial-guilt-free card that Scottish nationalism sometimes waves about. He implies that the British empire was something that was corrupting for Scotland, and that may be true. But it wasn’t something that can be separated from Scotland in this way, as my first-year students taught me last year.*

One last character to consider for his symbolic role: Don Lennie’s vanished friend Jack Gordon, who, we slowly learn, has also touched many other lives in the book. From a slightly higher social class than Don—not much richer, but better educated and better travelled, within Scotland, before the war—he survived a Japanese prisoner-of-war camp by grim determination and by remembering the Scottish landscape.

It was home that kept me going really. Scotland. I dreamed about it, and when I woke up I thought about it. I tried to remember everything I could down to the finest detail. Mountains I’d climbed, rivers I’d fished, towns I’d visited. I thought of walks I’d done and I did them again.

An uncomfortable and self-isolating figure in postwar Wharryburn, with a fearful English wife and a silent young daughter, Jack is also the only Scottish nationalist Don knows. But with his disappearance he turns away from a political nationalism towards a more mystical connection with the land: he is the silent figure who, in short passages before each part of the book, walks the Scottish landscape through the decades. The thread that ties the whole novel together, he also plays the role of spirit of the nation, its link to the land through his life and death, one of Neal Ascherson’s stone voices in more than one way.

The novel is a great way to learn about modern Scottish history, which is one reason I read it—though literary enjoyment was as powerful a reason, and there’s plenty of that, not just in the plotting and characterization (there are plenty of well-drawn minor characters I haven’t even tried to justice to here) but particularly in its use of Scots, which peppers the English language of the narration—from bairns and breeks to cooncillors and high heid yins—and takes over more fully in swathes of dialogue between characters like the Lennies or Adam Shaw. It places different characters, regionally and socially, too.

‘I doot we’ll no fash aboot the Lord Lyon. His heid’s ower big for him tae come doon here and arrest me. If ye ask me, the Lord Lyon maks things up in his heid as he’s riding alang on his muckle horse. I’ll gie ye some advice, Ellen, that’ll mebbe stand ye in good stead when ye’re older. Never trust onybody whase name has a “Lord” in front o it. Beaverbrook, Lyon, Nelson, it disna maitter. He micht hae a voice like silk and a bonnie wee wife and a parcel o deeds and documents in ablow his oxter but he’ll steal the shirt frae your back if ye tak your een aff him for a second. Oh, and while I’m aboot it, that applies to the Lord tae. Aw ye need tae ken aboot kirks is that the folks that gang intae them are aye gaun aboot crying their god the Lord. As if we owe him rent.’

If you want a faster overview of the dynamics that propelled the rise of Scottish nationalism, though, you could read Tom Nairn’s short essay of the late 1980s, ‘Tartan Power’, more relevant than ever today. And that shares a weakness with And the land lay still: it doesn’t talk about women.

Okay, this is a bit of an exaggeration for Robertson’s novel. But here are the main female characters, none of whom get anything like the page time of the main men—see if you can spot a pattern. Jean Barbour, storyteller and nationalist folk-salonnière, is Michael Pendreich’s friend and a kind of alternative mother, not just in the role she’s played in his life but as his father Angus’s former lover. She’s much more fun than Pendreich’s beautiful, shallow, purse-lipped mother Isobel, as the reader—like Angus Pendreich—is meant to agree: Isobel never gets the chance to speak for herself. Liz Lennie is Don’s wife; their warm relationship steadily cools into mutual misunderstanding after Charlie is born, though Don is always a dutiful husband. We never see the marriage from Liz’s point of view, though we do occasionally get to see her by herself, working as a cleaner in a big house at the posher end of the village. (Marjory Taylor, a nurse Don meets briefly on the night of Charlie’s birth, also plays a role in the drop in the marital temperature.) There are no important women in Peter Bond’s life, which reflects his character well enough—a few prostitutes here and there, his mother, some disapproving aunts, all of whom size him up for the worm he is—so none feature prominently in part three, though no doubt the milieu of the security services in the 1970s was pretty male at that. Jack Gordon’s wife Sarah follows him out of Wharryburn once he’s declared dead-in-effect, taking her silent daughter Barbara with her, though Barbara returns as the girlfriend of Don Lennie’s older son Billy, who’s nice but boring (for the reader as well as the author).

You see the pattern. They’re all women in men’s lives, even Jean Barbour. The men drive the plot and interact with each other; the women interact with the men. David Eddelstane’s sister Lucy crops up here and there, and eventually, through Peter Bond, triggers his public humiliation. But she then drops out of the novel, while her brother is offered a kind of redemption. Two men who are off stage for almost the whole novel—Jack Gordon, and Michael Pendreich’s father Angus—play a more important structural role, as unifying elements and plot drivers, than any female character. The novel would pass the Bechdel test, but it’s a close thing.

It’s instructive to think about the subordinate position assigned to women by the novel’s structure. The first three parts, as I’ve said, each centre on a male character. The fourth part begins with Mary Murray, employed in the tracing room of the Borlanslogie coal mine in the 1950s. With impressive economy it outlines the narrow possibilities available to her in small-town Scotland, and her dextrous expansion of them. But no sooner have we begun to get a sense of this vivacious and determined young woman than the narration shifts away from her—partly to introduce her daughter Ellen, but mostly to start bringing together the stories of Michael Pendreich, Don Lennie, and Peter Bond. Though she lives into the twenty-first century, Mary is no more than a bit-part player for the remainder of the novel.

So for the first half of a long book, the novel sustains a viewpoint-character structure that is both bold—it takes confidence to set up a complex narrative centred on one character and then leave it on hold for hundreds of pages at a time—and successful: each of the first three parts draws you in on its own merits. But the author is only confident enough to do this for his male characters. As soon as part four begins from a female viewpoint, he blinks. The men get the first three parts to themselves. The women have to share the final three parts with the men. What makes this even more of a shame is that Robertson could obviously have done better. Jean Barbour is a memorable character, but we never see things from her viewpoint (though we hear a couple of her stories). But Liz Lennie is a well-drawn character, and we sometimes see thing from hers. Ellen Imlach, like her mother, deserved more space. These are characters with depths and stories that are effectively sketched out, but not fully explored.

Not even that much can be said of Lucy Eddelstane and Barbara Gordon, the two women in the book who are radical political activists rather than gentle cultural nationalists. Lucy Eddelstane is a poor little rich girl, flitting from one hard-left cause to another with the attention span of a butterfly, who becomes a sour and vindictive middle-aged woman. If you espouse a progressive politics, and it’s clear that Robertson does, it’s a problem when your narrative is much more sympathetic to a Tory MP with a shoe fetish than to the sister he’s connived in cheating out of her inheritance. And Barbara Gordon is a killjoy caricature, always seen from the point of view of others—usually Billy Lennie, presented as a nice chap whose rightful enjoyment of his male pleasures is wrongfully constrained by the boringly political Barbara. When a male novelist writes a feminist woman whose only three-dimensional characteristic is her ‘delicate, bulb-like breasts’, he demonstrates that we need more radical feminism, not less.

There’s only one moment when Barbara Gordon briefly becomes a real character, in an electrifying confrontation with Charlie Lennie. She is the only person in the novel who successfully stands up to him—everyone else, from his father to Ellen Imlach, is either beaten (usually literally) or backs away in fear. The irony is that to do this, the narrative requires her to be a radical feminist: she sees the bruises under his girlfriend’s make-up and calls him out—to her, to his brother, and to the rest of a crowded bar—as an abuser. This is exemplary bravery, and a character who’s given a task this important deserves better than to be reduced to a sexist stereotype and briskly written out of the plot once it’s done.

It makes this problem worse that Robertson calls attention to it. When Don Lennie goes to see Psycho in 1960 with Liz and another couple, he’s deeply uneasy about it, and unsure how to react. ‘And what if you were a woman?’ he thinks, ‘How different would you feel then?’ This is just about in character—Don is thoughtful and self-questioning enough that you can imagine him asking himself this, even in 1960—but the author’s hand feels heavy here. More problematic is a narratorial aside that comes after Margaret Thatcher’s second election victory in 1983, when Michael Pendreich and his boyfriend Adam attend the depressed (and depressing) ‘Which way now for the Scottish left?’ conference:

Various pompous, contrite, humble and not-so-humble MPs, councillors and union leaders—almost all male—came to the microphone.

Almost all male, indeed. It would have made a good alternative title for this post.

There’s a similar point to be made about the cursory role given in the novel to Saleem Khan and his family, who arrive in Wharryburn in the 1970s to take over the village shop. Saleem gets a bit of back-story, and a couple of chances to speak for himself, but as with most of the women characters we never see things from his perspective. You might think that the Khans are here to represent a changing Scotland, or to demonstrate that the virtues of old-fashioned decency and thoughtfulness—Don Lennie’s virtues—are the antidote to racism too.

Mr Lennie said, ‘Please call me Don.’
Mr Khan said, ‘Please call me Saleem.’

But Saleem Khan’s main function in the novel is to enable one key plot-point and one smaller one, both of them for white people rather than himself. His shop’s windows are smashed, which enables the author to bring Don and Charlie Lennie together for their final, decisive, father-and-son collision. And it’s a photograph of Don and Saleem by Angus Pendreich that, decades later, will bring Don to Edinburgh at the end of the novel—but not Saleem, who prefers not to go, and thereby conveniently excludes himself from both the novel’s finale and the Scottish present. You can’t write black and brown people into modern Scottish history by writing them out like this.

This is a big, intelligent, likable novel, and a thoughtful enquiry into modern Scottish history and the rise of nationalism. It’s convincing as a portrait of changing times, and as a stock-taking of what has changed—much better as both history and literature than the last historical novel I read (even if it too begins with a passage of fain writing in italics, argh). But it raises many questions. Whose story is worth telling? Which of your characters do you invest narrative time and energy in, and whose viewpoint do you adopt? Which subjects do we choose to explore, and how do we structure our narratives? These are fundamental questions for historians as well as novelists. I’m glad I read And the land lay still, for the pleasure of a good novel and for the lesson in Scottish history. But I’m also glad it got me thinking about these questions, which I need to keep asking myself as a historian. Meanwhile, to overcome some of the blind spots in Robertson’s view of Scotland’s present and recent past, I’ve loaded up on older and newer novels by Janice Galloway, AL Kennedy, and Leila Aboulela.

*I asked them to name three things in Glasgow that wouldn’t have been here if it weren’t for the British empire. Their answers were so comprehensive as to demonstrate that without the British empire, Glasgow as it is today (and as it has been for over two hundred years) could never have existed.

Click images for sources,
some of which have a CC-By licence.
Apologies to Alex ‘Dufflecoat Dick’ Kapranos.

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