- King Cameron by David Craig
Carcanet, 212 pp, £12.95, May 1991, ISBN 0 85635 917 3
- The Hungry Generations by David Gilmour
Sinclair-Stevenson, 194 pp, £13.95, August 1991, ISBN 1 85619 069 2
- O Caledonia by Elspeth Barker
Hamish Hamilton, 152 pp, £13.99, August 1991, ISBN 0 241 13146 4
David Craig has an unfashionable concern with truth-telling in fiction. In his earlier role as a literary critic, he wrote a book called The Real Foundations in which he showed how some of the most respected 19th and 20th-century novelists and poets had blatantly falsified social reality. If a work of realistic fiction is to be convincing in general, according to Craig, it ought to convince us in particulars. Now he has written a historical novel which opens with the solemn affirmation that ‘many of the people, incidents and other items in this story are real. Where a fact existed, I have never knowingly substituted an invented item for it.’
One novelist who could scarcely have inscribed ‘never knowingly invented’ on his banner is D.H. Lawrence. The Real Foundation contains a chapter scrutinising Lawrence’s description of the re-organisation of the Beldover collieries in Women in Love, and more recently Craig’s findings have been confirmed in much greater detail by the notes to the Cambridge edition of the novel. Lawrence drew on the history of the modernisation and electrification of the pits in his home town of Eastwood on the eve of the First World War, but he suppressed all mention of the militant resistance that these measures met with. Far from being members of a servile and disciplined army of labour, the miners of Eastwood staged three strikes over the new machinery between 1907 and 1912.
If we seek to explain why Lawrence turned to invention at this point, we need to remember not only his broad Carlylean beliefs about men becoming mechanical, but the circumstances of his writing Women in Love in 1916 at the height of the carnage on the Western Front, His narrative structure was necessarily prewar, but his horror at the fatalism with which working-class conscripts were daily facing death and destruction seems to have been displaced into a story of industrial relations in peacetime. Gerald Crich, the ex-army officer turned colliery magnate, exerts the same kind of command in the coalfield that he would have done on the battefield. For Lawrence the dehumanisation of modern war was an inevitable result of dehumanisation in the workplace, and the mass psychology involved was the same in each case.
Lawrence was both an incorrigible generaliser and a novelist with scant respect for democratic values; and the same could be said of a number of his predecessors in the ‘great tradition’ of English fiction. The Real Foundation offered, among other things, both empirical and political grounds for questioning their work. King Cameron, rich in historical implication but deliberately restrained and local in its grasp, seems impeccable on both counts. The novel falls into two parts, moving abruptly from a popular rising in Strathtay in 1797 to an account of the Highland Clearances in North Uist which comes to a head in the late 1840s. A more expansive, less fastidious writer would easily have filled two melodramatic volumes with this material.
Craig’s central character, Angus Cameron, is a resistance leader who steadfastly confounds the heroic stereotype. A carpenter inspired by the ideals of Tom Paine, he is not so much daring as thoughtful, and this is the quality that brings him to prominence in the campaign against the Militia Act of 1797, which led to the setting-up of new Highland regiments in the British Army. For speaking out against conscription the ironically-named ‘King of the Rebels’ is arrested as a ringleader of the revolt, though what he really longs for is a community of equals in which everyone is a leader. Later he is allowed to jump bail rather than face a show trial which might have been embarrassing for the authorities. He then takes refuge under an assumed name on North Uist, an ageing man, no longer an outlaw, living on a starve-acre croft from which he will finally be brutally evicted.
In each of the rebellions in which he takes part Angus Cameron is defending the right of people to live in peace on their own land, but this is a right that he himself has never enjoyed. What chiefly differentiates him from his neighbours, both in Perthshire and in the Hebrides, is that he is already an exile. His history of emigration and flight foretells their need to emigrate and to become refugees. Originally he came from Lochaber, where his grandparents were put to the sword by the English hussars in the massacres that followed the Forty-Five rebellion. His father survived by hiding until the blue-coats had gone and it was safe to emerge to bury the dead. Angus’s hatred of the English is tempered by the knowledge that the old clan loyalties have disappeared, and that in any case a group of unarmed villagers is powerless against a battalion of soldiers.
The protest against the Militia Act is a spontaneous outburst of popular anger, but it is soon spent. Many of the rebels eventually served with the Highland regiments in Spain and India, we are told – enlistment in the ranks was their only alternative to a prison sentence followed by banishment. Angus, however, is able to preserve the mental independence that he has learnt as a child. When languishing in prison in Edinburgh, he is shown remembering some lines by the ‘lowland poet, Burns’ which he happens to have read in a magazine a friend has sent to him. Is Burns, too, a disciple of Tom Paine, he wonders? This sounds like a neat question for a modern university seminar, and there is no doubt of the strategic juxtaposition that Craig intends. Angus is Burns’s ‘honest man’, strongly egalitarian, and anticlerical to boot. In fact, Angus in his black coat is constantly usurping the role of the minister, preaching to the Sunday crowds at a political meeting, carrying out his wife’s funeral without benefit of clergy, and twice conducting a wedding. The Church is shown in a uniformly bad light in King Cameron, and the novel’s secular spirit is summed up in the ‘grace’ pronounced by young Archie, who turns to cattle-rustling for the benefit of his starving neighbours on North Uist: ‘For what we are about to receive, we have only ourselves to thank.’
But these words prove to be bitterly ironic, since neither the draft-dodgers nor the crofters are allowed to be independent on their own land. Angus might have done better to have taken the landlord’s bribe, first offered in 1828, and to have left the Hebrides for Nova Scotia or Manitoba. After twenty years of declining fisheries, malnutrition, potato blight, and forced labour exacted to pay off the rent, the villagers mount a last-ditch stand against eviction, and then the able-bodied survivors are shipped off to Australia. Their lands are fenced and turned over to pasture. ‘The estate was determined to burst the last fibres of community and break the people’s hearts,’ Craig writes.
In the second part of King Cameron, as in much naturalistic fiction, the breaking of people’s hearts is painfully and vividly conveyed through their physical frustrations, and above all through their mounting hunger. It is interesting to contrast Craig’s bleak canvas with the much lusher landscape of another recent work of historical and archaeological reconstruction, Raymond Williams’s unfinished Welsh novel-sequence People of the Black Mountains. On general principles the two writers have much in common. As novelists, they both involve us in the struggles of marginal peoples, whose cultural resistance is partly a matter of preserving a certain linguistic difference, although the use of dialect words found no favour with the LRB’s reviewer of People of the Black Mountains. (Craig’s ‘smeddum’, ‘souming’, ‘strakes’ and ‘stramash’, however, are all in the OED.) The difference, and it is a very great difference, is the reverse of what we might expect from the misleading titles of their novels. David Craig can draw on the strength of a national tradition which long ago spawned the heroic fantasies of Stevenson and Scott, so that there is every reason for the serious novelist to write in a different grain, and no temptation to repeat the kind of falsification of history that they represent. Scotland, thank goodness, is already well provided with schoolboy romances. Craig’s novel deserves admiration and respect for its wholly adult exploration of the past.
David Gilmour’s The Hungry Generations takes a serious look at modern Scotland, but for someone coming to it from Craig’s work, the choice of a merely symbolic title taken from Keats’s ‘Ode to a Nightingale’ might look perilously like an error of judgment. Who are the ‘hungry generations’? Hugh Gordon, a contemporary nobleman who is politically and ideologically a product of the Sixties, has just inherited the estate of Starne overlooking the Firth of Forth. The people by whom he feels trodden down are his well-heeled ancestors. One of them is Uncle Alfred, of whom it is said that on a single day he killed a stag before lunch, shot a grouse before tea and caught a salmon in the evening.
To sell up, or not to sell up? Hugh does not particularly want to see Starne converted into a hotel or golf club, however lucrative these might be: but his attempt to settle at Starne might have been more successful had he been capable of heeding his grandfather’s sensible advice (given to him in his teens) that time would hang heavily in middle age unless he took up shooting again. Hugh does not shoot, not does he have any other real use for Starne, which he decides to keep for sentimental and romantic reasons. Above all, he seems determined to re-live his childhood. Though the Gordons of Starne were unheroic Whigs, as a boy Hugh identified with the underdogs and beautiful losers, including the ‘men of Lochaber whose courage nearly won the throne for their Jacobite prince’. The Scott tradition is partly to blame for his habit of living in the past.
Gilmour, a distinguished historian and biographer, has produced an accomplished if slightly bland narrative with a marked Edwardian flavour. Starne, like Groby in Ford Madox Ford’s Last Post, has its ‘great tree’, diseased elm whose death is emblematic of the death of a family and of a political class. (Hugh’s father, the first of the Starne dynasty to break ranks, has resigned his Parliamentary seat over Suez and become a Classics don.) The ingenuous first-person narrator is sometimes reminiscent of Galsworthy and sometimes of Wells. When Hugh’s marriage goes sour and he begins to take an interest in his cousin Clarissa – who is both a country neighbour and the wife of a cabinet minister – we seem to be in the world of The Passionate Friends, though the passionate friends go a little too far. The sticky situation is resolved by a providential car crash.
At its best, The Hungry Generations begins to approach the earnestness of a Galsworthy or a Wells, though these novelists would have allowed their narrators a greater self-awareness than ever comes Hugh Gordon’s way. He has spent his time since leaving Oxford working in London for the Third World causes championed by his incongruously left-wing wife, and after the double failure of his marriage and his return to Starne he goes to help run a school for refugees in the Arabian desert. This suggests that there are indeed ‘hungry generations’ of underprivileged to whom Hugh feels responsible. But any vision of a ‘real existence’ or a larger purpose remains implicit, and the novel ends with his bitterly self-destructive outburst against the country houses and all they represent. The distraction and frustration are real enough, but he remains too close to these experiences, and overburdened by self-pity about his inheritance. A case for a sequel, perhaps?
At one point in The Hungry Generations Hugh goes with his father to scatter his grandmother’s ashes into the Water of Leith from one of the highest bridges in Edinburgh. Just as his father tips up the urn, a gust of wind blows the ashes back all over the spectators. The scene is obviously symbolic, but – a rarity here – it is also genuinely funny. And it is the sort of grotesque mischance which is described on every page of Elspeth Barker’s first novel, a black comedy which turns the story of a murdered 16-year-old girl into a sardonic celebration of Sod’s Law rampant.
If a thing can go wrong it will go wrong, and the main thing that O Caledonia portrays as going wrong is Walter Scott’s Romantic notion of a Scottish childhood:
O Caledonia, stern and wild,
Meet nurse for a poetic child!
Janet is poetic all right – she reads far more of Baudelaire and of Proust than is good for her – and she grows up in a gaunt Aberdeenshire manor-house, called Auchnasaugh, which means ‘the field of sighing’. Janet’s childhood involves constant communication with the natural world in the shape of her grandfather’s parrot, and her Aunt Lila’s bald cat, assorted slugs, snails and dead rabbits, and a pet jackdaw and a pet rat. She has a good deal more success with these animals than with her parents, relatives, siblings and schoolfellows, all of whom find her heartless, self-obsessed and increasingly odd. The novel begins with her murdered body beneath the stained-glass window on the main staircase of Auchnasaugh, and there is no shortage of people to say that she has brought her death upon herself. Despite the pet jackdaw (which is virtually her only mourner), this is more of a tongue-in-cheek cautionary tale than a Gothic mystery.
Was it too much reading that was her undoing? Her brother Francis is the only person who keeps pace with her intellectual development, but far from being a poetic child he is something of a show-off. He thinks that Poe’s poem would have been more fun if the raven had said ‘Never mind’ instead of ‘Nevermore’, and he alters Janet’s guano-encrusted copy accordingly. Neither Francis nor her long-suffering father nor drunken Aunt Lila can measure up to the increasingly unpredictable experience of living with Janet, who is a sellfabsorbed clairvoyant and near-schizophrenic saint. A good deal of her alienation and resentment are laid at the door of Scottish Calvinism, and it remains open whether Elspeth Barker, who grew up in Scotland but settled in England, is paying off an old score or two.
The chorus of ‘speywives’, ‘fishwives’ and ‘midwives’ who pronounce the final judgment on Janet surely represent the ordinary people of Scotland. Her parents seem to feel some relief when she is gone, and they prevent her from being buried in the family plot on the grounds that ‘her restless spirit might wish to engage with theirs in eternal sell-justifying conversation or, worse still, accusation.’ The unforgiving victim of too much meanness, hypocrisy and failure to love, Janet in her impiety has come to resemble her supposed opposite, Mr McConochie, the minister of Auchnasaugh, with his ‘angry glare and booming voice’. This enjoyable squib of a novel gives us Janet’s voice, sharp and satirical as the Aberdeenshire winds, making its own weird and discomforting contribution to the portrayal of modern Scotland as a field of sighing.