This is a book review I wrote for the American Historical Review, which I’m republishing here with permission (and some pictures). A full citation for the published review follows at the end. As ever, I’m struck by how the formal tone of an academic review jars in the context of a blog, but there it is.
JAMES GREHAN. Twilight of the Saints: Everyday Religion in Ottoman Syria and Palestine. New York: Oxford University Press, 2014. Pp. x, 341. $74.00.
In 1747, when a plague of locusts threatened the harvest, the Ottoman governor of Damascus dispatched a delegation of Sufis to an enchanted spring in Persia. The water they drew there, carried carefully back to Syria, would lure a magical black bird – the samarmar – to consume the locusts. Their return was greeted with parades and popular celebration.
The bird never appeared. But the fact that everyone thought it would, including Ottoman state officials and urban religious elites, is the starting point for James Grehan’s richly detailed historical ethnography of everyday religion in Ottoman Syria and Palestine. Grehan argues that histories of religion, especially in the Middle East, have focused excessively on textual traditions. They have overemphasized the salience of religious difference in everyday life, and the ability of religious institutions (the main generators and guardians of textual sources) to determine everyday religious practice. Attempts to go beyond this by studying “popular religion” have only helped up to a point: the dichotomy between “popular” and official religion still grants normative status to text-based orthodoxies, and cannot account for the prevalence of “popular” practices among educated urban elites.
Grehan sets out to offer a more nuanced account of what he terms “agrarian religion”: everyday religious practice in a predominantly rural and illiterate society, where “even the towns” – and their literate elites – “were sunk in an essentially agrarian milieu” (15). His local and western sources include topographies, travel narratives, memoirs, and (for the later part of the period) Ottoman statistical surveys. The scholar and Sufi Abd al-Ghani al-Nabulsi (1641–1731), whose writings figure often, is a particularly genial guide.
Common to all religious traditions in Ottoman Syria and Palestine was a weak infrastructure of sacred buildings and educated personnel outside the towns. Ottoman state surveys from the late nineteenth century show that mosques, churches, and synagogues, ulama, priests, and rabbis were all concentrated in towns; where villages had them, they were large ones like Jenin or were close to larger towns. Having established the weakness of institutional religion, Grehan explores the everyday religious life of the population through five thematic chapters looking at saints, tombs, sacred landscapes, the spirits that haunted the land, and the magic of blood and prayer. The chapters focus on the countryside, but return often to the towns and cities whose own religious culture was profoundly connected to that of the rural hinterland. Sunni Islam provides the richest body of evidence for Grehan’s account, but there are frequent references to other Muslim, Christian, and Jewish communities. These furnish ample material to support his argument that the lines of sectarian difference, however sharply defined in normative religious texts, were blurred to the point of indistinctness in daily life.
Saints, living and dead, were venerated by everyone. It was not uncommon for a holy man to be revered beyond his own faith community: Christians as well as Muslims would stop to kiss the hand of Ali al-Umari, a renowned Sufi in nineteenth-century Tripoli (63). In a landscape where religious buildings were rare outside towns, the tombs of saints provided a focus for religious practice, both as social institutions – places of sanctuary or mediation – and sites for worship. Different religious traditions often shared the same sites, though they sometimes disagreed over the attribution of the tomb, and even educated townsmen like al-Nabulsi saw no contradiction in reporting uncertainty over the identity of a tomb’s resident saint while praying at the site. Tombs were important in towns, too, like the shrine of Ibn al-Arabi in Damascus: there was no doubt about the identity of the person venerated there, though the actual site shifted over time (113).
Tombs belonged to a sacred landscape where stones, caves, springs, and trees were also imbued with religious meaning. Caves often became the nucleus of a church or mosque; saints’ shrines often featured holy trees, but whether the tomb or the tree was the original focus of veneration remains moot. Sacred sites generated scriptural justifications to domesticate them within one tradition or another, but nature itself was “more compelling than scripture” (116). The spirits that haunted these landscapes were familiar to all: talismans, charms, or icons could mediate human interactions with them, and dreams and visions grant more direct access to a spirit realm. Blood sacrifice and prayer offered ways of gaining saintly intercession, and not just for peasants at the limits of the state’s reach: when the Beirut–Damascus railroad was opened in 1895, “religious officials presided . . . with the usual sacrifices” (174).
Agrarian religion “pervaded everyday piety, paid only lip service to orthodoxy, and casually embraced customs and beliefs that had no warrant in scripture or law” (165). Grehan’s argument for dispensing with notions of “popular” religion is persuasive; his argument against the salience of sectarian divisions deserves to be taken seriously, too, particularly in public rather than historiographical debate, though in regard to the latter, more explicit engagement with recent scholarship on sectarianism (189 n. 126) would have been welcome. There are other points of criticism: Grehan argues that agrarian religion’s “immense stability” also permitted “discreet adaptation and invention” (16), but – because he explicitly decides not to reconstruct these patterns of change – the picture presented here is one of timelessness, though it covers two and a half centuries. Gender is not considered in any depth, nor is the survival into the present (as I have witnessed myself) of many of the beliefs and practices Grehan describes. On the editorial side, a list of images would have made the fine illustrations more accessible.
Nonetheless, this is an evocative, thought-provoking, and richly textured work. Grounded in the comparative history of religion as well as the history of the Middle East, it deserves a place on a wide range of postgraduate and advanced undergraduate reading lists.
Click images for links to originals,
which are all from the Library of Congress
It 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.
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.
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.
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.
When I was a teenager, I wrote a story, perhaps as a homework assignment, that began with a long paragraph in italics. (We’d recently got a computer with a ‘word processor’ that could do italics.) This paragraph was extraneous to the story itself, and described a sunny afternoon in a wood—it probably talked about ‘shafts of sunlight’ and ‘leaf-dappled shade’. The only actual event, or the only one I can remember, was a woodpigeon taking off with a clatter from a branch high in a tree. It was probably intended as atmospheric scene-setting. I’ve retained no memory of the story that followed—I don’t think it was ever finished—but writing it made me realize that if starting a story with a long paragraph of self-consciously fine writing is a bad idea, putting that paragraph in italics is even worse.
Anita Amirrezvani’s The Blood of Flowers starts with two-and-a-half pages in italics: a story within a story, a fairytale with a happy ending. This, it transpires, is an attempt by the main character’s mother to fictionalize the sequence of events they’re caught up in, in a way that leads her daughter to a ‘life… written in the brightest of inks’ rather than their current predicament, stuck in a storm somewhere in an inadequate shelter with a group of unidentified fellow travellers, mother coughing ‘from deep in her lungs’ and daughter shivering in a ‘thin blue robe… so threadbare it looked grey’. We know this because the daughter interrupts—breaking us out of the italics—and insists on getting the cold and threadbare truth, ‘the way it really happened’, sad parts and all. When the mother, Maheen, hesitates, her daughter decides to tell the story for herself.
‘The way it really happened’: that wouldn’t be a bad translation of wie es eigentlich gewesen war, von Ranke’s much-quoted dictum about what historians should be trying to understand about the past. The Blood of Flowers is set in seventeenth-century Isfahan, when under Shah Abbas I the city became capital of the Safavid empire and one of the largest cities in the world. The unnamed narrator is a teenaged girl who, after the sudden death of her father, leaves her small and remote village and travels with her mother to the city, to be taken in by a relative who has become carpet-maker to the Shah. There, after the usual trials and tribulations, she finds success—apparently there’s a happy ending. I didn’t get that far, however, because this is a profoundly irritating novel and I gave up on it after reading through my fingers for a hundred and twenty pages. (I only made it that far because we were reading it for a book group.) The problem with the book is that nothing about it is remotely plausible: not as history, not as fiction. This isn’t the way it really happened.
I’ll start with the history. The novel is spattered with historical solecisms: things that people do, or, particularly, say, that a person in that time and place simply wouldn’t have done or said. ‘How many people live here?’, the narrator’s mother asks as they arrive in Isfahan (p.30). ‘Hundreds of thousands’, their escort replies, ‘More than in London or Paris; only Constantinople is bigger.’ Well, an educated Isfahani in the seventeenth century would certainly have known about Constantinople, capital of the Safavid empire’s great neighbour and rival. They might have known it was a bigger city, though that knowledge would have been anecdotal at best: like other states of the time neither the Ottoman nor the Safavid empire collected detailed population statistics, whether at the level of the city or the empire. (The British government, for comparison, began keeping a regular census at the turn of the nineteenth century, and educated observers were surprised when it rapidly disproved the widely held notion that Britain’s population was declining.) But why on earth would they compare it with distant London and Paris, capitals of states that from the point of view of the great Islamic empires of Eurasia were, at this time, both remote and of strictly regional importance? Madrid or Vienna, possibly; Venice or Cairo, Baghdad, Shiraz, or Delhi, much more likely—these were cities that one way or another probably featured in the mental geography of the Safavid elite. But not London or Paris. This isn’t a plausible exchange involving fully imagined historical characters: it’s a clunky bit of info-dumping for a modern (American) readership, hence the choice of comparators. In the voice of an omniscient narrator, not claiming to be fixed in time or place, it could work. But a seventeenth-century Isfahan merchant wouldn’t have made that comparison, and if he had, a peasant girl just arrived from a dirt-poor village in the mountains wouldn’t have known what he was talking about anyway.
This kind of thing is all over the place, at least in the third of the book I read. A silk merchant boasts that ‘it’s our biggest export, and we sell more of it than the Chinese’ (p. 70). This is a statement that a person could only make after states started collecting and comparing reliable macroeconomic data (which in turn requires a sophisticated and fairly interventionist standing bureaucracy), and disseminating them through an educated public sphere via media like printed statistical yearbooks, newspapers, and economic journals. When, if ever, did the Safavid empire start collecting that kind of data—and when did China, for the comparison to be made? When was a national consciousness sufficiently well developed in Iran that a merchant in Isfahan could say ‘we’ and mean ‘the Safavid empire’ rather than ‘my family’, ‘merchants in this city’, or ‘the Muslims’ (or more likely ‘the Christians’)? Probably never.
This is quibbling, but it’s not just quibbling. The novel claims to be depicting a particular time and place, but errors like this show that Amirrezvani hasn’t even begun to think about the differences that separate us from that time and place. The characters are stock characters of suburban American literature, crowbarred awkwardly into an ‘exotic’ setting. The Shah’s favourite concubine, Jamileh, is described as a pert little thing in ‘a lacy undershirt slit from the throat to the navel, which showed the curve of her breasts’ and ‘a thick saffron sash round her hips, which swayed as she walked’ (p. 64): you can picture her in the movie adaptation, but whether this description bears any relationship to pre-twentieth century ideals of beauty in Iran is questionable. The romance of the narrator’s friend Naheed and her polo player doesn’t show a daring and impetuous young woman breaking the conventions of her time: she’s a cheerleader falling for a sports jock at the game, showing an author utterly bound to the conventions of our time. Characters in the novel actually do talk about going to ‘the game’; Naheed actually does get grounded for going without permission. The self-consciously exoticising dialogue—‘May God rain his blessings on Shah Abbas!’—doesn’t transport us to Safavid Iran: it just goes clunk.
The place and time don’t come alive because the author can’t imagine any place and time but her own. ‘My beloved was not Naheed’s handsome polo player’, says the narrator, ‘nor the powerful old Shah, nor any of the thousands of sweet-faced young men who congregated on Isfahan’s bridges, smoked in its coffee houses, or lingered around Four Gardens. The one I loved was more unknowable, more varied, and more marvellous: the city itself. Every day, I bounded out of my bedroll, longing to explore it.’ (p.111) This orientalizing nonsense, with its ‘thousands of sweet-faced young men’, has nothing to do with Safavid Iran. It draws on the nineteenth-century exotic kitsch that gave America the Shriners, but also on a tradition of overwritten twentieth and twenty-first century city-guides that pretend that any city can be penetrated by the eyes, feet, and intellect of the flâneur, after the model of Baudelaire. But flâneurs, if they ever existed at all, were high-status men of independent means: the male gaze on foot. A low-status girl barely surviving on the charity of a distant relative in seventeenth-century Isfahan wouldn’t bound out of her bedroll and start cruising the pavements as though she had a Lonely Planet in one hand and a selfie stick in the other. She’d get to work around the house, and she’d work all day. She wouldn’t explore the city, and I doubt she’d even think of ‘the city’ around her in those abstract terms.
This problem is literary as much as historical. The author pays no more respect to the literary world she’s created than to the history. After the narrator’s father dies, she and her mother, in their village, are reduced to such poverty that by the winter ‘we were living on a thin sheet of bread and pickled carrots left over from the previous year’ (p. 22), lethargic with hunger, selling their ‘last valuable possession’, a rug she had made. But in Isfahan a few months later, when the plot requires her to come up with a design that will persuade her relative and somewhat stingy benefactor, Gostaham, to let her participate in his work as rug-maker to the court,
I put my hand to my neck and touched a piece of jewellery that my father had given me as protection against the Evil Eye. It was a silver triangle with a holy carnelian in its centre, and I often touched it for blessings. (p. 86)
If it’s poor history to imagine that a seventeenth-century peasant could give his daughter designer jewellery in silver and semi-precious gemstones (‘as protection against the Evil Eye’!), it’s poor plotting to have someone who was close to starvation sixty pages ago suddenly remember the jewellery she’s had hanging around her neck the whole time.
This implausibility, not just in the historical setting but in the novel’s own mise en scène, is everywhere. Amirrezvani puts her narrator in a position of tenuous survival on the lowest rung of a large household, more servant than niece—but instead of working out a plot that might actually arise from that situation, she keeps sending her out into ‘the city’, as though her time (and body) were her own. Again, historically it just isn’t believable that a girl of low status like this, an uneducated peasant, would have been considered a suitable companion for Naheed, who ‘comes from a very good family’ (p.43): a servant, perhaps, but not a friend. But it’s a failure of characterization and plotting that this suggestion comes from Gostaham’s wife Gordiyeh. She’s the main antagonist of the narrator and her mother in Gostaham’s household, little pleased by the arrival of these dependent womenfolk, and presented as a snobbish and grasping social climber: the least likely person, on the novel’s own terms, to threaten her own recently acquired respectability by introducing a braying peasant child into the household of a distinguished neighbour.
And there I’ll have to stop, without engaging with the novel’s main themes (‘a quest for independence and self-reliance’, apparently, which is of course a highly original and daring theme for a book that is marketed to a western audience and purports to be about an Iranian woman) or the rest of the plot. It probably involves the sexy Fereydoon, who on p. 81 catches sight of the narrator’s hair as she shakes it free, shampoo advert style, from the headscarf she’s just unwillingly learned to wear.* But I don’t know, because all the implausibility, exoticism, and faux-naïf prose just got the better of me. I’ve read plenty of good historical novels recently: this isn’t one of them.
*Fereydoon is a soldier, just returned from fighting the Ottomans in the north, and also ‘the son of a wealthy horse trader’ (p. 84), though one who himself started out as ‘just a country farmer’. It seems unlikely to me, and a quick skim of Iranica Online tends to confirm this suspicion, that the son of an upstart merchant, however wealthy, would have been able to join the Safavid military aristocracy in this period.
David’s the reason I own a bivvy bag in the first place. He’s also the reason why I packed some history books in my rucksack: his own formidable breadth of reading has partly been accumulated thanks to his ability to carry sackloads of heavy (in both senses) books up mountains and, at the end of a long day’s walk, settle down to read for most of the night, by the light of a headtorch if necessary. I’m still getting to grips with this combination—a short trip to Mull with Giorgio Agamben in December only went ‘well’ because the weather turned so bad I was stuck in a cottage for almost all of it—but I figured I’d at least have the train journey there and back.
The other inspiration came from two posts that appeared on the Modern British Studies Birmingham blog in December. As part of a series of ‘Desert Island’ posts, staff were asked to name the most thought-provoking book they’d read; and on the basis of that, the postgrad-led reading group there chose their first book. I got around to buying a copy of that last week. So as well as packing a book I have to read for a somewhat overdue review, I brought along Carolyn Steedman’s Landscape for a good woman. It’s very short, but I was still surprised that I got through all of it: partly on the train, but out on the hillside too, a long chapter sitting with my back against a rock at the top of Beinn Eunaich and a lot more once I’d pitched my bivvy bag a couple of miles along the ridgeline by the summit cairn of Beinn a’Chochuill and was waiting for the sunset. In another post David argued that ‘ideas acquired in distinctive atmospheres embed themselves in the mind and develop differently from those read-up-on in familiar surroundings’, and this should do it. I finished it on the train home.
Thought-provoking indeed. Steedman’s book is about her own childhood, and her mother’s, and their relationship. But it’s not a memoir, or not just. Steedman wrote the book out of a sense that social histories of working-class Britain had failed—or hadn’t even tried—to explain how working-class women (in particular) develop in childhood a sense of self, and a sense of their place in the social and political world: influential historical and cultural studies produced by men like Jeremy Seabrook or Richard Hoggart were interested in class, not individuals, still less individual women, and there was no place in their pages for a Conservative-voting working-class woman like Steedman’s mother—angry, secretive, dominant within her family and a confident wage-earner outside it; filled with a longing for something, material or other—or for Steedman as the daughter of such a woman.
Steedman set out to make a history that could account for women like her mother, and explain a childhood like her own, using tools borrowed from psychoanalysis. But she recognized that while this methodological toolkit could help, using it carried its own problems—because the empirical base against which psychoanalytical theory was first devised and tested represented a narrow and privileged slice of the Viennese haute bourgeoisie of the decades around 1900. So the book uses psychoanalysis to stretch and remake the social history of the English working class, but uses the lives of working-class Englishwomen in the early and mid twentieth century to stretch and test some of the classic tropes of psychoanalytical theory against a quite different empirical basis. Feminist theory makes a third side of the triangle.
This is all way outside my own areas of empirical or methodological expertise as a historian: I don’t research or teach British history, nor childhood; the subjects I’ve studied so far, and the sources I’ve used, don’t immediately offer much traction to psychoanalytical techniques. So, unlike those former colleagues of mine (modern British historians all), I couldn’t set Landscape for a good woman against a body of historiographical literature that was familiar to me, and see where it had come from or how it had shaped the field over the following thirty years—though I did do a bit of reading around once I was back in Glasgow. A quick look on Google Scholar shows that the book has been cited by other scholars—in all sorts of fields—over a thousand times. Reviews when it came out give a sense of how the book quickly marked out a place for itself, with people recognizing it was important even if they were uncertain what to make of it: a very positive review by Julie Abraham in the Women’s Review of Books; one with some important reservations by Hettie Startup (quite a name!) in the Journal of Oral History; and a really interesting one by Raymond Williams in the LRB, with praise and questions:
[I]t would be an evasion to give it only the simple acknowledgment and welcome which it deserves. What it most deserves, for its exceptional openness and honesty, is hard questioning: against some of its implications and seeking to develop others.
But before I did this reading-around, when I was still on the train back from Taynuilt, I’d already realized that it wasn’t as a historian that I read this book. I read and responded to it (strongly), first, as the child of a mother, and grandchild of a grandmother; and, second, as a product of the same history, though a generation further on. My mother is almost exactly the same age as Carolyn Steedman, and followed a comparable trajectory as an ‘eleven plus’ working-class child in the 1950s—though when she applied to Sussex in the early 1960s she didn’t get in, and I’m not sure if she realizes how keenly the disappointment still comes across in her voice over fifty years later when she mentions it. (She went to a teacher training college instead.)
And my grandmother—my mother’s mother—was born only three or four years later than Steedman’s mother (1917 rather than 1913), about forty miles away, in a different part of south Lancashire: her name, Agnes, like that of Steedman’s mother, Edna, dates her to the generation. She lived much longer, and she never migrated to London as the unmarried partner of a man who left a wife and child behind, but she did grow up in the industrial northwest in the 1920s and leave school for uncertain employment between clerical work in the Jacob’s biscuit factory, the service sector, and marriage.
There are other parallels, too. Certainly it was my mother’s complex and difficult relationship with her mother that most shaped her sense of herself and her place in the world (something I could say about my relationship with her, though I’m a son). It surprised me, looking back at the Desert Island Books page, that one of the people who suggested Landscape for a good woman said ‘Not discovered through work, this was given to me by my mum’—the two of them must have a good relationship for such an uneasy book about mothers and daughters to be given by one to the other.
It’s one of the marks of how strongly the book affected me—one of the marks of a good book—that I could immediately think of several people I wanted to give copies to, and discuss it with: my mother (though I’m a bit hesitant about that); a friend whose relationship with her mother has become increasingly difficult since she had children of her own; another friend, a historian, whose powerful and path-breaking research on contemporary Algeria has an inner (which is not to say hidden or unacknowledged) psychological motor, a need to understand the unhappiness of her father and his generation of her family. The relationships are somewhat different—the brothers and sisters were more numerous, the sibling relationships perhaps more intense, and the key parental figure a monumental paterfamilias—and the setting, Algeria at the end of the French colonial period and through the early decades of independence to the ‘black years’ of the 1990s, is much bleaker and more violent. But some of the questions are the same, and many of the methods could be the same too.
I’ve spoken to all of them about the book in the last two weeks. Now I need to send them copies, and see what they think once they’ve read it. And then I’ll need to head back into the hills with my own copy in the top of my rucksack again.
No posts on this blog since the middle of January—the first weekend of term. Now that term’s over, I have a minute to think (under the dark cloud of marking), and appropriately it’s another essay in the Guardian that’s prompted this post.
Matthew Beaumont’s book Nightwalking: a nocturnal history of London is just out with Verso, and it’s been warmly reviewed in several places. It has a foreword and an afterword by the crown prince of English psychogeographers, Will Self (the king regnant being Iain Sinclair), and there are kind words from Terry Eagleton, James Attlee, and others.* The Guardian essay is a digested version which claims to be about ‘the city’ a bit more broadly, not just about London. That’s why I read it: I’ve been teaching a class this term on Middle Eastern cities in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, and I thought it might provide some useful comparative material. I’ve also got Disenchanted night on my to-read list for the Easter break.
It’s quite a good essay, as far as it goes, and it’s got some excellent nocturnal photos of mid-twentieth century London. (Interesting to see an illuminated advert for Bovril dominating Piccadilly Circus in 1960—hard to imagine that now.) But something struck me as I read it, and became increasingly distracting as I read on.
Here’s a list, in order of appearance, of the literary and historical figures, and historians, that the essay quotes or mentions:
Ford Madox Ford
Yup: all men. The absence of women from the essay becomes even more striking when it does actually address their experience of walking the city at night:
Solitary women, because of a long history of discrimination and patriarchal oppression, have been especially susceptible to this sort of suspicion. If women appear on the streets of the city at night alone they are commonly portrayed as either predators, in the form of prostitutes, or predatees – the potential victims of sexual assault. In both cases, they are denied a right to the city at night.
Fair enough, but they’re also denied a right to give voice to their own experiences here (it’s to a man, Joachim Schlör, that Beaumont turns to interpret women’s experience), let alone make general observations about the city at night. It’s mere cant to wring one’s hands over ‘a long history of discrimination and patriarchal oppression’ against women if you can’t take the time to read a single thing written by a woman about your subject.
It’s not like it would be hard. I haven’t just written a book about walking the London streets by night, so my bookshelves aren’t crammed with relevant readings. Still, Rebecca Solnit’s Wanderlust: a history of walking is there: chapters 11–14 are about walking the city, with chapter 14 entitled ‘Walking after midnight: women, sex, and public space’. Some of the people Solnit draws on are men—she even borrows a quote from Schlör—but some of them are women too.
I also found myself thinking of the description of walking in London during the blackout in Penelope Fitzgerald’s Human voices—a novel, but Fitzgerald had lived through the second world war in London. I couldn’t find my copy of that, but thinking of it put me in mind of several other books: Sarah Waters’s The night watch, whose characters walk through the city as well as driving ambulances; two stray teenagers trying to get to shelter at Charing Cross underground during an air-raid in Jill Paton Walsh’s Fireweed (a children’s book still in print over forty years after it was first published)—in my memory that extraordinary scene lasted far longer than the four pages it actually occupied, even though it’s only a few months since I reread it; or Nenna’s nighttime walk across early 1960s London in Fitzgerald’s Offshore, when she leaves her purse behind after a disastrous attempt at reconciliation—as funny as it is painful to read—with her estranged husband and has to set off home to Battersea Reach on foot, in shoes that aren’t up to it. When she stops to try and fix a broken strap a creepy man approaches her and asks if she’s fixed up for the night:
Nenna did not answer. She was saddened by the number of times the man must have asked this question. He smelled of loneliness. Well, they always moved off in the end, though they often stayed a while, as this one did, whistling through their teeth, like standup comics about to risk another joke.
He snatched the shoe out of her hand and hurled it violently away from her into the Kingsland Road.
‘What you going to do now?’
She escapes, barefoot, and carries on down the Kingsland Road, past ‘a group at the end of Cremers Street who stood laughing, probably at her… I expect they think I’ve been drinking’. Eventually she’s rescued, feet bleeding, by a taxi driver. Taxi drivers in fiction are threatening more often than not, especially towards women—think of Elizabeth Bowen’s The demon lover—but this one is kind, in a paternal(ist) sort of way, and when Nenna dozes off in the back of his cab ‘he stopped and had a cup of tea himself, and explained to the Covent Garden porters, who wanted to know what he’d got in the back, that it was the Sleeping Beauty’. (Fitzgerald’s descriptions of 1960s Covent Garden by night in At Freddie’s are also drawn from personal knowledge.)
These are all from the twentieth century, you might say, and Beaumont’s book stops in the nineteenth; but then, the essay doesn’t (and nor do the pictures accompanying it). They’re also drawn from a quick scan of one non-specialist’s bookshelves, picking only novels that are about London. If I can do that in five minutes without even going to a library, surely Beaumont (and his editor) could have done better?
*The gender politics of who gets asked to review which books are too depressing to go into here, but it’s striking that only one of the reviews mentioned on the publisher’s website—Suzi Feay’s in the FT—is by a woman.
Stuart Elden is a professor of geography and political theory at Warwick University (UK) and Monash University (Australia). His fearsome appetite for hard books is charted at his blog Progressive Geographies*, which also includes all sorts of useful resources, from bibliographies on Boko Haram and the Ebola crisis to compilations of material by and about Foucault and Lefebvre.
He’s also recently published a Big Book: The Birth of Territory, a history of a key concept in political geography from the classical to the early modern period. I’ve just bought a copy: some of my current research on refugee camps involves thinking about them in the Foucauldian terms of population and territory that Elden explores. (I’ll be reading a lot more work in geography over the next few years, I suspect.) It’ll be interesting to see what impact it has in history departments, but it’s already made a splash in geography: published in September 2013, by April 2014 it was the subject of a special forum at the American Association of Geographers annual conference. The appraisals presented there, and Elden’s response to them, have just come out in an online pre-publication version in Political Geography (you’ll need a library subscription to read them, unfortunately).
And that, in fact, is the point of this post: not to write about Elden, but to salute Juliet J. Fall, professor of political and environmental geography at the University of Geneva (and no slouch herself), who gave her comments on the book in the form of a short animation made with her children’s Playmobil and Lego figures.
Worth watching and thinking about—and admiring Prof Fall’s bravery in doing something different in the heavily formalized context of an academic conference (‘I cannot pretend that I wasn’t shaking’). In the printed version of the forum she also has some thoughtful words about that.
We all know our academic lives and performances are largely ritualized and standardized, and that perhaps we end up believing that this familiar environment provides a safe grounding for our independent thinking. We learn – differently, it turns out, in different academic cultures – how to write, to argue, to critique. We are carefully schooled in how to behave in such a world. You don’t, usually, throw toys at a milestone.
She borrowed the children’s toys again for a presentation on feminist political geography last October.
*Charmingly, the title Progressive Geographies is a declaration of musical affiliation as well as a political statement.