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.

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