Joseph Knight by James Robertson

Joseph Knight cover

Joseph Knight by James Robertson was published in 2003 and it won the Saltire Scottish Book of the Year Award 2003.

This book flips backwards and forwards from 1746 to 1802 and dates in between. The locations range from Drumossie Moor – the Battle of Culloden – Dundee, Edinburgh, Perthshire, Fife, London and Jamaica.

James Wedderburn is a young man, a Culloden survivor and at the beginning of the book he’s hiding from the English authorities, if they catch him he’s a dead man. His father, who also took part in the battle has already been captured. Eventually he and his brother make their way to Jamaica and in time become very well off landowners, making their money from the sugar cane fields that are worked by their slaves.

James had always planned to return to Scotland when he had made enough money and he does exactly that. He isn’t willing to part with his slave Joseph Knight whom he has trained up to be his personal house servant. Joseph will be seen as a prized possession and proof of his owner’s success in life. Joseph has become a Christian and is obviously an intelligent man, he wants to be free to make his own decisions in life.

The upshot of that is that he marries and goes away to live with his wife in Dundee, of course he’s a ‘kenspeckled’ figure and eventually he is arrested as a runaway. However, slavery had been outlawed in Scotland long before then so surely as soon as Joseph got to Scotland he should be a free man. A court case ensues.

The author couldn’t resist the idea of having Boswell and Johnson as minor characters, both apparently being against slavery. I suspect this was to pep up the storyline as inevitably boozing and bawdiness was the result, I’m not sure that was necessary but others might dispute that. There are scenes of brutality in Jamaica, slave owners who regarded themselves as being fair-minded were far very from that.

This is a really good read, it’s based on a true story, if you’re interested you can read more here.

The blurb on the back says: ‘A gift for witty re-imagining and a canny understanding of the novelistic and its conduits to the worlds we live in now mark Robertson as a marvellous novelist and Joseph Knight as a work of cunning and great assurance,’ Ali Smith, Guardian.

You can read Jack’s much more detailed review of this book here.

Bookshelf Travelling in Insane Times

I missed out on doing Bookshelf Travelling in Insane Times which is hosted by Judith@ Reader in the Wilderness last week, I had every intention of doing it at some point during the week and then found myself at the next Friday with it still undone, a bit like me!

It’s a very weird thing but despite the lockdown and obviously being nowhere at all apart from house and garden and a walk for the Guardian every morning, I seem to have less and less time for doing stuff. How did I fit in visits to interesting places before the lockdown? It’s a mystery.

Anyway, I’m so behind with things I’m using the same shelves as last time and highlighting just three books, still Scottish ones obviously as they’re from some of our Scottish book shelves.

Scottish Books 1

Scottish Books 2

Trumpet cover

Trumpet by Jackie Kay was published in 1998. The blurb says – Joss Moody was a celebrated trumpeter, he has just died and the jazz world is in mourning. But in death Joss can no longer guard the secret he kept all his life, and Colman his adoring adopted son, must confront the truth: the man whom he believed to be his father was in fact a woman.

Jacky Kay was herself adopted and is better known as a poet nowadays. Trumpet was her first novel and it won the Guardian fiction prize, she is the third modern Makar. (Scottish poet laureate) You can read about her here. I find it hilarious that she says that Scottish people still ask her where she is from – as if having dark skin means they must mean which country she is from. I’m always asking other people with Scottish accents where they are from and other Scottish people ask ME where I am from. We just mean – which part of Scotland (town) do you come from!

Joseph Knight cover

Joseph Knight by James Robertson was first published in 2003. This is historical fiction which is I believe based on fact.

After the Battle of Culloden young Sir John Wedderburn is exiled to Jamaica where he makes a fortune as a sugar planter. Returning home to Scotland to marry and re-establish his family name , he brings with him a black slave, one of the first in Scotland. But slavery was illegal in Scotland and there’s a big court case to prove that slave laws of Jamaica do not apply in Scotland.

This story is based on a true situation, but this tale is full of enslavement – of the colliers, spinners, women and even the imperialists – it sounds interesting.

Glitter of Mica cover

Glitter of Mica by Jessie Kesson was first published in 1963 and it’s Kesson’s second book. It’s an autobiographical novel and the setting is rural Aberdeenshire. Helen Riddel is the daughter of the head dairyman at Darklands farm. She has just returned from university where the world has been opened up to her, will she cut off the ties to her family and opt for a new life away from the narrowness of her previous rural existence?

As ever I hope to get around to reading these books sometime soonish although I must point out that I didn’t buy any of these books – they’re all Jack’s fault!

Library Closures in Fife – The Battle Commences

We went along to a meeting in the Salvation Army hall in Glenrothes last Tuesday, the meeting was about the intended closures of 16 libraries in Fife. I was quite amazed at the turn out, there were over 100 people there, much more than the organisers had hoped for. The very definitely ‘not bad’ author James Robertson spoke of what libraries mean to him. If you haven’t already read his books – you should.

There’s real anger amongst locals, especially when we realised that as usual the council has a completely different idea of the word ‘consultation’. In their dictionary it means ‘cut and dried’ or fait accompli if you want to be cosmopolitan about it. There’s always more than a hint of The Hitchikers Guide to the Galaxy about these so-called consultations in my past experience. All of the community councils are closed over the summer and their next meetings are scheduled to take place after the ‘consultation’ period. Mobile libraries have been suggested as replacements for areas where libraries are to be closed. However they are also planning to get rid of one of the three mobile libraries which Fife own, so how the remaining two are supposed to cope with the extra work I have no idea.

I was vaguely aware of the words Cultural Trust being used in recent times but I didn’t really realise what it was. It seems to me that Fife Council have handed over the running of the libraries to this third party as a way of dodging the flak when cut backs are mooted. They can wash their hands of the whole thing and say – it’s nothing to do with us, it’s the Cultural Trust who say these places must be closed.

To add insult to injury it transpires that the paltry sum of £21 per head of population in Fife is all that is being spent on library funding at the moment. Considering the service given by the local libraries that’s what I call an absolute bargain already. How anyone can think of spending even less on what is an essential service is beyond me.

It seems that borrower numbers have been looked at and the powers that be have come to the conclusion that the libraries under threat of closure are not worth the cost of keeping open. In these days of austerity with huge unemployment in Fife, society can’t afford NOT to keep libraries open. It’s as if the people who have made the decision to close libraries have no idea themselves of the roles which a modern library fulfills.

Apart from the computers which are vital for people who can’t afford one of their own, there are also job clubs which meet in the libraries, a vital link for people desperately trying to find work. Those people may never borrow books so they don’t appear on any borrowing statistics but they need the libraries more than anyone.

Modern society can be a lonely place for a lot of people, the elderly in particular and the libraries are lifelines for people who might never speak to a living soul otherwise.

In another place and time I worked in a large county library, one of the many Andrew Carnegie libraries, a large Victorian building which had been designed to accommodate a large reading room. In the winter time I would say that half of the reading room users were people coming in to get out of the cold, and who would grudge them that? Not me anyway. I suspect the same is true now, especially among the unemployed and disabled.

The extra pressure which would be put on to the remaining libraries would be intolerable if any libraries were closed, the library in Glenrothes town centre is very small and the computers are always all occupied, there must be some sort of time limit to people’s use of them. There’ll be queues of people waiting to get on to a computer.

Many of the libraries under threat are in village locations, places which already have very little in the way of amenities. Women are often stuck there with no way of travelling elsewhere as public transport is dire/non existent or very expensive, especially if they are having to take children on buses to visit a library.

As it happens I’m reading George Orwell’s The Road to Wigan Pier at the moment, written in 1934 he mentions using the libraries, and despite living conditions and life in general being dire for the ordinary working person, there was no mention of libaries being closed down. They obviously had more sense back then.

If you want to help with the campaign to keep the 16 threatened libraries open, please sign the petition.

And the Land Lay Still by James Robertson

It was Jack who recommended that I should read And the Land Lay Still by James Robertson, he thought it was great, and I have to agree. It was first published in 2010 and it’s quite a chunkster at 671 pages. It’s written in six parts and it involves quite a lot of characters who at times don’t seem to have anything to do with each other but their stories all link up eventually. (You can read Jack’s much fuller review here.)

I loved it because it’s the history of Scotland since the 1950s although it does dip back into some old soldiers’ World War 2 experiences. It brought back so many memories, particularly the unexplained death of Willie MacRae, a solicitor and SNP activist which I had forgotten about (how could I have?) and the rise of Scottish Nationalism in the early 1970s. In reality I’ve always hankered after an independent Scotland, but never thought it was worth one person’s life or any acts of violence at all. There were a few complete nutters who did try campaigns of violence. I remember standing waiting at the station for the train to come only to be told that it wouldn’t be coming because there was a bomb on the line just outside the station – really! Even crazier it turned out that the bomb had been put there by someone I was at school with and his brother, and ‘we’ all knew that they didn’t have three brain cells between them! Since the successful devolution referendum in 1997 there has thankfully been none of that sort of nonsense, not that it ever amounted to much.

Anyway, I digress, although this book is about ordinary Scottish people, it’s also sprinkled with politicians, pressure groups and spies.

It was only recently that some ex high heid yin admitted that even the CIA was involved in dirty tricks during the first devolution referendum campaign, in 1979. Never mind, we’ll get there eventually.

Some blurb from this very good book:

Bold, discursive and deep, Robertson’s sweeping history of life and politics in twentieth century Scotland should not be ignored. – Ian Rankin, Observer, Books of the Year

Brilliant and thoughtful. Eminently readable, subtle and profound
– Independent on Sunday