Total Secret

Norman MacCaig

  • Neil M. Gunn: A Highland Life by F.R. Hart and J.B. Pick
    Murray, 314 pp, £15.00, November 1982, ISBN 0 7195 3856 4

Though this satisfying and thoroughly documented book isn’t, and isn’t meant to be, a critical survey of Neil Gunn’s novels (28 of them, no less), it contains many judgments, many of which are quoted from letters and reviews. The authors tend to avoid making ‘value-judgments’ of their own, though their admiration for the books and for the man can’t help revealing itself.

I met Neil Gunn pretty often (but only after 1950) and we got on fine – no boast, he got on fine with everybody. I thought of him as a man of the same kind of simplicity – the kind that’s related to a total honesty and integrity – that Edwin Muir had. This, of course, has nothing to do with shutting your eyes to this and that and being a kind of holy fool. Neither was to be taken in by elegant hypocrisies and well-dressed pretensions. And each had confusions and complexities that made them far more tangled personalities than a mere acquaintance could guess at.

Gunn’s case is made more difficult because he had, unexpectedly, the most stubborn reticences. He knew this, and even took a delight in it. Secrecy intrigued him. In his young poaching days secrecy was a very large part of the pleasure, as any poacher knows, and that pleasure stayed with him throughout his life. The most astonishing revelation in the book is that he had what must, I suppose, be called a ‘relationship’ with a lady, Margaret MacEwen, for over thirty years, and that nobody knew about it (though Margaret suspected that Gunn’s wife had her suspicions). Margaret has allowed this to be known and is quoted on this extraordinary situation. Not only did they meet secretly, and only very briefly, and often with long intervals between their meetings, but Gunn never said he loved her and his letters to her might have been written to any ordinary friend. Yet he must have loved her, or why the secrecy? To put it down to puritanical or Calvinist guilt, or to a humane determination not to hurt Daisy, his wife, isn’t enough. They don’t explain the extraordinary reticence of the words he wrote and, apparently, spoke to her. She accepted this situation with an equally extraordinary patience and generosity. She wrote: ‘For Neil, Daisy always came first, and any knowledge of his relationship with me would have hurt her badly and perhaps harmed his marriage irreparably. It would have hurt Neil too, and I knew it without any need to discuss it.’ All right. Admirable. But why did he never say he loved her, when he obviously did? This is carrying reticence a bit far, it seems to me. It should be said that his marriage to Daisy, except for one rocky spell, seemed to his friends an ‘ideal marriage’ in the very best sense of that dubious phrase. They were a ‘devoted couple’ – another cliché, and equally true.

So although the first adjective that comes to mind in describing him is ‘honest’, he was a hard man to pin down. I once called him a slippery customer and he smiled at the compliment. On top of the reticence, the secrecy, even the deviousness, come the contradictions. If I were brutally to force them into two categories, the one would be labelled practical, objective, pragmatic, and the other romantic and (to me) irrational: and the public appreciation of his novels depended very much on which of these contradictory elements in his nature had the upper hand.

Take the first one first. For many years, he took a very active part in public affairs, especially in furthering the cause of Scottish Nationalism and in trying to improve the degrading lot of fishermen and crofters in the Highlands. He was on numerous commissions and committees and he wrote many articles on that woebegone subject: and he always showed a great gift for collecting facts, marshalling them and expounding on them with clarity and persuasiveness. A good ‘committee man’. And there was no submissiveness or fecklessness in his relations with publishers, editors, BBC men or film directors. Immensely hospitable and generous as he was, he knew what a penny was worth and how many pennies he ought to get. This practicality saved him from the seductive self-indulgence of extremism. ‘That extremism in general stands for purity and courage is a species of self-delusion practised by the ego on itself a’ for its glory. Division has been Scotland’s arch-fiend and has always stood on “doctrinal purity”. It may be that we are like that and therefore any hope of our ever misgoverning ourselves may mercifully never be realised.’

The wry note in that last sentence wouldn’t have endeared him to the likes of MacDiarmid, and it must have been partly his commonsensical attitude to the problems faced by the Nationalists that caused the split between them – the split, of course, being savagely gashed out by MacDiarmid. ‘Neil Gunn is wrapped in the cottonwool of bourgeois respectability,’ he wrote, and in a letter to Gunn, after taking a violent swipe at the notion that novels are of any importance whatever, he starts a paragraph by saying that between himself and Gunn there was ‘a radical psychological difference’ which ‘need not be taken personally’, and ends it with a typical MacDiarmidism: ‘I can afford to indulge in all manner of personalities because I proceed from an altogether abnormal basis of impersonality in regard to Scottish matters.’ How about that, MacDiarmid fans? (I’m one.)

I don’t, in fact, think that Gunn was very much a political man in the narrow Lib-Lab-Tory sense. In the admirable foreword to this book, the writer, Gunn’s nephew Dairmid Gunn, says: ‘He has been described as a benevolent anarchist – a description of him with which I would agree.’ And so would I. Gunn, too, would have agreed with it. What dragged him from his study into the grotesque hurly-burly of politics was his sympathy for the suffering underdog. There was absolutely nothing in him of the political careerist climbing up the greasy ladder towards a floodlit job in the Cabinet and tea with the Queen. He was far too independent for that, even when the independence worked against his best interests. When, after a number of books that drew something less than fanfares and accolades (or big sales), The Silver Darlings appeared, his publishers gleefully reported its success and urged him to write another of the same. Did he? He wrote Young Art and Old Hector, and it’s to the credit of Faber that they jumped at the chance to publish it because of its quality, not for its prospective sales.

The second of my crude categories, labelled romantic, irrational, even mystical, is the real crux for an understanding of the man and an appreciation of the novels. As such, it is a running theme in A Highland Life. He wrote once: ‘I knew with an absolute conviction as I stood at that window gazing out on the old Spanish garden that there exists an order of things outside our conception of time.’ The difficulty, of course, is to define or describe that order without losing yourself in waffle. Always present in him, the notion became little short of an obsession. His conversation began to circle tirelessly round it, and from his lips would fall phrases like ‘the truth behind the truth’, ‘the unheard melody’ (which somehow you can ‘catch’), ‘the reality beyond reality’. He unfortunately wasn’t afraid of the word ‘magic’ – which even led him at times to despise the discoveries and analyses of the intellect. When you perceive these imperceptibles, he claimed, you achieve a condition of delight (a favourite word), which he tried to convey to his readers once and for all in The Atom of Delight. Interests like these took an increasing hold on him after he began to study Zen Buddhism (the Chinese branch), until I came to wonder what I’d do if he said ‘the Way’ one more time. That honest woman Margaret MacEwen wrote: ‘Neil was becoming more and more preoccupied with what he called “all this esoteric Eastern stuff”. I was glad in that it seemed to help him to a greater serenity and peace of mind. But insofar as I could understand it, it was wholly alien to my temperament.’ For me as for others, beliefs of this sort seriously damage many of his novels, even though, for different others, they are precisely the reasons for any claim to greatness these books may have.