Jon Gower pays tribute to the nation-defining work of one of Scotland’s most celebrated authors, James Robertson.
You’re pretty much spoiled for choice when it comes to reading telling and entertaining material about modern Scotland, of course. There are the four books (written over thirty years) which make up Alasdair Gray’s Lanark and Irvine Welsh’s jacked up and hyper-oxygenating Trainspotting. One might usefully, say, read all of Ian Rankin’s Rebus novels, in body-count sequence, perhaps, or gainfully listen to Neal Ascherson’s Stone Voices: The Search for Scotland, the book in which the veteran and ‘shamelessly erudite’ writer comes home. But if I had to choose one book that manages to concertina the whole teeming tumult of twentieth century Scottish experience I’d have to plump for James Robertson’s And the Land Lay Still, a magisterial, multi-voiced novel which sings both true and beautiful and beautifully true. It may not have the frenetic energy of Welsh’s heroin shenanigans, or the surreal luminosity of Gray, but it does have a great big, human and humane heart, as it slowly introduces the carefully delineated folk of the novel… wounded, often fuelled by, or in thrall to booze, confounded by the present. Throughout this ambitious, sprawling volume, Robertson moves confidently through society’s strata, from the corridors of power to the rancid underbelly of urban life. He knows his subject most intimately well, down to the very granite.
This magisterial work weaves bright threads of tales into a Tartan tapestry, mapping a Scotland which includes ‘the wastelands of de-industrialised Scotland, a tour of devastation called Uddingston, Bellshill, Cleland, Shotts, Fauldhouse, Breich, West Calder, all those places nobody outside Scotland thinks of as being Scottish, the Scotland so real it defies the imagination’. The novel takes its shape and architecture from an attempt by the son of successful photographer Michael Pendreich to curate an exhibition of his late father’s work. This device, this arrangement gives us the chance to see the characters Pendreich photographed through a new lens and catch up up with their stories beyond the still frame, and they include a Pakistani shopkeeper and a World War Two veteran. The considerable cast list of other characters include Tory MPs and Home Rule activists, a pebble-collecting peregrinator and an alcoholic intelligence officer, with the various narratives dovetailing into a very satisfying whole. It’s one of the few books I’ve read in recent years which compelled me to write a fan e-mail to the author, both by way of thank-you note and mark of respect.
Two thirds through the book there’s a fantastic pièce de résistance in the form of a two-page long list which sets out what constituted 1950s Scotland…
This was the land recovering from war, the land of nationalisation and council-house building, its old grease-thick reeking industries reinjected with a kind of grim, tired kind of hope, the last grinding surge of steel and shipbuilding before Japan and Germany got up off their knees.
Ah, yes, shipbuilding. Sixty years ago Scotland had twenty-eight shipyards on the Clyde, employing no fewer than 60,000 men. By telling us what there was the novelist forces us to consider what there is, decades on, after neo-liberalism hammered heavy industry in Scotland as in Wales and on Tyneside.
Robertson marshals his material brilliantly, mapping his country, shaping a telling litany, moving from the Highlands and Outer Isles to the crumbling tenements of inner-city Glasgow:
The land of old folk in Harris and Wester Ross and Sutherland with no electricity yet and barely a word of English; the land of tatties and herring, of oatcakes and shortbread, of anthrax on Gruinard and no hedgehogs in the Uists. This was the land of Shetland fishermen who despised the mackerel, of children in Skye who grew bored of plentiful scallops, and crumbling, condemned crushed-in Glasgow, desperate to disperse its people and breathe a new breath…’
It’s a country changed in so many ways between then and now and Robertson’s very fine novel gives us a yardstick of sorts, a pulsing, complicated portrait of a country and nation in the throes of transition by which we can measure the changes wrought in the past half century. A country which may, in a brief week’s time, indeed, breathe a very new breath.