Comprehensible Disorders

David Craig

  • Before the oil ran out: Britain 1977-86 by Ian Jack
    Secker, 271 pp, £9.95, June 1987, ISBN 0 436 22020 2
  • In a Distant Isle: The Orkney Background of Edwin Muir by George Marshall
    Scottish Academic Press, 184 pp, £12.50, May 1987, ISBN 0 7073 0469 5

The item which seems set to stay longest with me from Ian Jack’s alert and precisely-written record of British life in the Seventies and Eighties comes from the opening memoir of his father, which supplies a deeper soil, or subsoil, to the son’s coverage of more recent matters for the Sunday Times and (since Wapping) the Observer:

Few of his workplaces survive. The cargo steamer went to the scrapyard long ago, of course, but even the shipping line it belonged to has vanished. The coal pit is a field. Urban grasslands and carparks have buried the foundations of the mills. The house he grew up in has been demolished and replaced by a traffic island. The school which taught him the careful handwriting has made way for a supermarket.

Such is the life of the industrial heartlands, and has been ever since the upheavals of the early 19th century when the factory towns mushroomed. There is the difference now that bulldozing and ‘landscaping’ have led to a blander and more complete effacing of the old landmarks and the old eyesores, and the further difference that for Scotsfolk loss, disinheritance and emigration feel all the more undermining because they so often leave their native places far behind. Ian Jack’s father went back to his native Fife after years in Lancashire, but that is rare, and the son now lives near London. I left north-east Scotland for good in 1959, to live in Yorkshire, Lancashire, Cumbria, and three of my four children are London-based. For most of this century the annual loss of people from Scotland by emigration was between twenty and thirty thousand, rising to 45,000 just before North Sea oil was found, halved by that short-lived boom, and rising again since ‘the oil ran out’ (or, more precisely, slumped in price during the world recession).

This seismic, or tidal, lapsing of people from our native land has given our human nostalgia – the yearning for some original innocence immune to the witherings of time and the disrupting of change – a peculiarly heart-sore quality. We call our migrations ‘exile’ (a chapter-heading in George Marshall’s lucid and thorough study of Edwin Muir’s native culture), although the individual choice is usually our own. As Stevenson wrote in The Silverado Squatters, ‘I do not know if I desire to live there, but let me hear in some far land a kindred voice sing out, “Oh why left I my hame?” and it seems at once as if no beauty under the kind heavens, and no society of the wise and good, can repay me for my absence from my country.’ What grows up to sustain us in our displacement is an almost anxious preoccupation with the past. Jack says that his family’s life in the Lowlands was underpinned by ‘some folk memory of a fall from grace ... My father ... embodied it and spoke of it continually; so much so that for me the past sometimes seemed inseparable from the present.’ That ‘fall from grace’ is also quintessence of Muir. His family’s flight from the Garden of Eden belonged to the tragedy of the peasantry in the 19th century.

The family farm in Wyre was self-sufficient, they ate bannocks, butter, cheese and milk made by themselves from their own fields and their own animals, they sent the wool from their own sheep to a Border town to be made up into clothes, and they ate so much crab and lobster from the sea channels nearby that Edwin was sickened by it for life. His father, James, ‘took a special delight’ in sowing barley by hand and the whole family ‘felt the first day was a special day’ when ‘the black fields glistened, and a row of meal-coloured sacks, bursting full like the haunches of horses, ran down each one.’ But the landlord, an army hero from the siege of Lucknow, behaved as a capitalist, regarded farms as investments, and exacted a rent of £60, which left James almost nothing to buy stock with. Muir, in full nostalgic cry, wrote in his autobiography that the island life had ‘remained almost unchanged for two hundred years’. In fact, the farms incessantly changed hands, rents rose, arrears were no longer allowed, half the population left Orkney between 1861 and 1901 and a third left the three islands in the Muirs’ group during the thirty years which surrounded Edwin’s childhood. Small farms were amalgamated, the families evicted. The local saying was that the laird had ‘blawn the reek frae forty lums’ – put out the fires in forty hearths.

Although James Muir ‘chose’ to leave – first for the next island, then the Orkney mainland, then Glasgow, where father, mother and two brothers were dead within four years – the poet saw it as a merciless exclusion. In an afterthought to his first autobiography, an essay called ‘Yesterday’s Mirror’ (1940), he wrote: ‘the Fall drove me out of my seven years’ Eden.’ In keeping with this mythology – whose language was second nature to him and at the marrow of his poetry – he says in his Glasgow chapter, ‘I had come into chaos,’ and of his youthful football-going: ‘there was a grimy fascination in watching the damned kicking a football in a tenth-rate hell.’ The life of the brewers’ lorry-boys, the unmarried mothers, the children toothless at fourteen was not chaos: it was a highly-patterned and coherent human-social life – injured and deformed by ghastly deprivations. ‘Chaos’, and ‘the abyss over which we lived’, are words wrung from Muir by the trauma of adolescence which coincided with the uprooting. ‘The old sense of security was gone,’ he says, although the Orkneys had been racked by those economic ills which the child knew nothing of, cocooned in his extended family, playing between the cows’ legs during the ‘motionless blue summer’.

Muir sometimes uses modern language for what had happened to his people: ‘we had sunk into another class ... We were members of the proletariat, though at that time we had never heard the name.’ Although Ian Jack was born into the proletariat and most of his elders worked in the linen mills, he is reluctant in a very Eighties way to accept the label ‘working-class’: ‘I still can’t be sure ... I feel dizzy with sociological abstraction.’ His grounds for doubt are that his family chose to read comics and listen to wireless programmes which featured a genteel lifestyle and that they were much better behaved than their dreadful neighbours downstairs who spat phlegm on the path and smashed coal on the kitchen floor with an axe-head. But that is only to say that there are more and less educated workers, more and less tidy families on council estates. What fascinated me, as a scion of the Aberdeen middle class, was how time after time Harry Jack’s tastes, as recorded humorously by his son, were precisely opposite to my family’s. Harry ‘clung to ... a wide range of prejudices and mini-bigotries which included heroes from history, toilet articles and rival makes of bicycle’. In the ‘Good’ list were Robert Burns, Amundsen, and the Raleigh. My family favoured the counterparts from the ‘Bad’ list: Sir Walter Scott (‘would-be aristocrat, eventual bankrupt’), Captain Scott (‘English gent who took ponies, came second, died’), and the BSA.

Deep allegiances are at issue here. Harry Jack, ‘like most people, had never read Scott ... Instead he would take out Burns from the bookcase and read aloud “The Twa Dogs” or “Holy Willie’s Prayer”.’ Burns’s poems were in our bookcase, but they stayed there. I had to discover Holy Willie for myself as a research student at Cambridge. What my father read, and reread, was the Waverley Novels in a fine edition with blue-leather spines. Harry Jack ‘took steady aim at the nearest approach to a class enemy: Edinburgh Scotsmen ... Leeches and perverters of history, off with their heads! ... Edinburgh Scotsmen did not make anything, other than wills ... ’ My Aberdonian elders were not exactly fond of Edinburgh, they liked to call it ‘East-windy and West-Endy’, but it was a paragon of style and behaviour compared with their bête noire, Glasgow, whose people my parents dubbed ‘keelies’ when they arrived by the thousand in open-necked shirts for the dreaded Glasgow Trades Week, whose accents they mocked as the type of the barbarous and uncouth, whose go-ahead graduates and businessmen they looked on as invasive Goths from the wrong end of the country.

Such social matters rarely come explicitly within Edwin Muir’s range, because of his allegorical or mythopoeic habit of mind. His poem on the laird’s shoots –

Early in spring the little General came
   Across the sound, bringing the island death – is a rarity.
It is instructive to see how he transposes the scene into a timeless agon –

    ... a wordless tale where all were gathered
    (Hunter and quarry and watcher and fabulous field) –

before attempting a clinching moral in which the laird’s regime is opposed, as distinctly as the fabling mode will allow, by the genius loci of the islands:

    Perennial emblem painted on the shield

Held up to cow a never-conquered land
Fast in the little General’s fragile hand.

The method of Marshall’s book – to deal in turn with the facts of Orkney life, the island, the farm, the estate, the church, the school, and relate them where possible to the imagery and legends of Muir’s poems – sometimes forces the relationship a little. A poem called ‘The River’ offers a vision of destructive militarism: ‘This vision of the end of the world relates easily to the eye-witness accounts that survive of the Sutherland clearances.’ How do we know Muir had this in mind? What criteria of relevance have been applied? Might not those images of ruin have come equally well from other origins (Great War, civil war, revolution) and may this not be more relevant, since the broken bridge and the cleft hill don’t belong at all to what was done to the crofting townships by the lairds’ thugs, nor do tiles, glass or china, none of which were in use there?

But usually Marshall is relevant and exact, loyal to Muir’s poetry but not too much so: near the start he allows that the ‘generalised and heraldic’ imagery may be a weakness. Typical of his many sure insights into Muir’s imagination is the argument that islands were fundamental to it but not in a topographical way: ‘His landscape, however vivid its effect on the reader, is a semi-abstraction in the manner of Expressionist painting, in which the image moves a step nearer to the idea than one finds in representational art ... In Wordsworth and in Hardy the landscape is an essential presence. In Muir it is something different again: it is a space marked out from the rest of the world, a space defined as an arena for the particular action ... setting the rest of the world at a distance ... [a] few sparse features used again and again.’ The only thing this lacks to make it definitive is some more attention to the inborn temperament through which the island experience was mediated: it would, after all, have been used very differently by someone less vulnerable to traumatic shocks. Muir was easily troubled. When his father, who was exceptionally mild and benign, ordered the children to keep well away from a sack of poisonous sheep-dip, Edwin became possessed by a fear that maybe he had touched it and washed his hands incessantly for weeks, until they were unnaturally white, out of a ‘frenzied longing to cleanse myself’. From this readiness to feel guilt sprang the many dreams, often of dragons and other monsters, which drove him to be psychoanalysed and gave rise to material for mythopoeia.

In his myths Muir characteristically strives to make himself at home in a good place, which again and again is identified by ripe harvest, ‘hills of grain’, ‘the loaded sheaves’, ‘on the harvest fields of time/The mountains heaped like sheaves’, ‘the golden hills of corn’, ‘these centuries/ Of harvest-home uncounted’, ‘wine and corn and cattle,/Byre, barn and stall, sweat-sanctified smell of peace’. But the good place is in perpetual jeopardy, the ‘yellow harvests lie forlorn’ and the tractors rust there ‘like dank sea-monsters’, because the people flock readily to war, fighting blackens the fields, a traitor lets in the enemy during the hay harvest to overthrow the citadel, the ‘battle for the land’ bloodies the vineyards, disasters and victories alike send the tower ‘toppling in the field’. In ‘The Good Town’, which has always seemed to me the central poem of The Laybrinth,

                      The land looked all awry,
The roads ran crooked and the light fell wrong.
Our fields were like a pack of cheating cards
Dealt out at random ...

Who or what is responsible for such breakdowns in civilisation? Muir chooses to answer this in the personae of ‘the old citizens’, pained, decent, self-critical in a bewildered, half-uncomprehending way. The terms are purely moral: ‘evil is restless,’ ‘once the good men swayed our lives’ but ‘now the bad are up,’ and ‘when evil comes/ All things turn adverse.’ The non-explanation ends in a tautology, as the poet fails to see – or would think it shallow to insist? – that what undermined the ‘good town’ of Prague, when he was working for the British Council there in the Forties, was not its ‘growing wicked in a moment’ but a specific agency – Stalinist politicians in the service of an empire-building Great Power; that what turned the fields into a gamble and a cheat for James Muir and his generation of crofters was not ‘Disorder inexhaustible, strange to us,/ Incomprehensible’ but the lairds Traill and Burroughs and the factor Scarth.

In the ‘England and France’ chapter of his extended autobiography, Muir, explaining his differences with the Marxist poets of the Thirties, allows that they ‘knew a great deal about the present (which we did not)’. And he ends the chapter staying briefly on Damsay and harking fondly back to ‘the same beauty I had known as a child’ and ‘the simplicity of an early world’. Unfortunately it’s hard to write really well unless you ‘know a great deal about the present’, which is one reason why too many of Muir’s poems tend to the vague and archaic. Ian Jack is highly knowledgeable about the present and this helps to make his essays, especially those which look deeply into the disfigured countenance of the northern cities as they are today, painfully trenchant. In ‘The Repackaging of Glasgow’ he mentions a brainwave of the Scottish Development Agency to move a Victorian church stone by stone a mile north of the river to improve the view from the foot of Buchanan Street – a move suggested by the American publicists who have been hired to investigate the city’s ‘image problem’. Jack acknowledges his own nostalgia: ‘wouldn’t it be marvellous if the fish market still sold fish ... if the docks had ships, the church a congregation. A hopeless thought; one might as well go to Venice and expect to find quinqueremes on the Grand Canal.’ But his humane conscience is never in abeyance. He taxes the planners with doing little for the 60,000 Glaswegians on the dole, then rises to a piece of scalding satire, two imaginary timetables for the ‘aspirer’ and the ‘non-aspirer’. The aspirer gets up at 7.30, breakfasts on muesli, and jogs, before going to the office to market software and in the evening to the opera to see Rigoletto updated to the Gorbals in 1935. The non-aspirer gets up at 11, breakfasts on sliced white bread, and watches children’s television till it’s time to go out and steal a car for money to buy some £5 bags of heroin.

I began to read Before the oil ran out on the eve of the June Election, and it brought a renewed sense of Britain, its people, and our possible future. Now that we have enslaved ourselves again for a third half-decade in which the rest of the commonweal will be sold off by the Government to its friends, and the country north of a line from the Wash to the Bristol Channel will be run still further down, we had better find a more cogent explanation of the process than Muir’s ‘balance between good and evil’ or ‘disorder incomprehensible’: the running-down of the first imperialist economy, shall we say, and the skill of the transnational financiers and their media at persuading the have’s to settle for the good life while soothing their consciences with a few sops for the have-not’s.