Bad Attitudes by Agnes Owens

Bad Attitudes by the Scottish writer Agnes Owens is a book containing two novellas. The first is Bad Attitudes, the setting is a grim council estate where the Dawson family have been moved to a new flat after their old home had been ear-marked to be condemned.

I have to say that the writing is really good, Agnes Owens has a great ear for dialogue which makes the story feel very authentic, in fact maybe a wee bit too real as this seemed a really grim read to me, and wasn’t what I wanted to read at this time, in fact maybe never as the setting just doesn’t appeal to me and the characters are the sort of people I would go a long way to avoid.

The second novella is called Jen’s Party. Jen is a young schoolgirl who lives with her mother Maude. Jen has never known her father as her parents got divorced when she was very young and as a result Jen has dreamt up an idea of her father which is far from the reality of the thieving jailbird that he is. Maude is a sad character, lonely and struggling to make ends meet, she allows her more lively sister Belle to move in with them. But Belle is one of those people who ‘say more than their prayers’ – as my mother would have said. In other words, she promises the world but instantly forgets her promises and is only interested in herself. Jen’s Party isn’t quite as grim as Bad Attitudes, it has some humour, but it wasn’t really my cup of tea either.

Ali Smith wrote in the Guardian: ‘A simple parable of harsh hospitalities and home-truths …. Jen’s Party is a beauty of a vignette; genuinely funny, light where ‘Bad Attitudes’ was dark … Owens stuns her readers, as usual with her good, blunt-weaponed clarity.

I’ve just read the Wiki article on Agnes Owens and it seems that she died last year, and she lived just a few miles from where I grew up, but I had never heard of her until this year.

This book was the 25th that I’ve read for the Read Scotland 2015 Challenge, which I think means that I’ve reached the ‘Back o’ Beyond’ As usual I have been rotten at linking my reads onto the Goodreads thingy, or even Peggy Ann’s Post, I hope to do better for the 2016 Challenge.

Murder Among Friends by Elizabeth Ferrars

Murder Among Friends by Elizabeth Ferrars was published in April 1946 and it’s sometimes titled Cheat the Hangman. It begins at a party which is being given by Cecily Lightwood, the setting is London in wartime and the guests at the party are mainly literary types. They’re all waiting for Aubrey Ritter to turn up, it seems like without him the party is never going to get going. He doesn’t have far to come, in fact he’s living in a flat just upstairs.

Another visitor to the block of flats alerts them to the fact that a murder has been committed. It seems like a very simple case to crack and the culprit is caught and convicted very quickly. But is the verdict correct?

I enjoyed this one which has a good wartime/blackout atmosphere, when it was an advantage to have a heavy drinker with you who could tell you how many steps up every pub had from the pavement, when you went out on a pub crawl.

There’s an interesting cast of characters and clothes are important in the book, with lots of descriptions of what the women in particular were wearing, such as:

Her coat was of a grey Indian lamb, worn over a scarlet woollen dress which was held in round her far from slender waist by a belt of gilded leather. She had a heavy gilt necklace round her throat and chunks of gilt screwed on to the lobes of her ears. With her fair hair done up in a gaudily striped turban, showing on her forehead in a cluster of dishevelled curls, with her fresh, fair skin, blue eyes and soft full lips, gaudily daubed with a few haphazard strokes of lipstick, she was like some magnificent doll, come to exuberant life.

In fact clothes play quite an important part in this book.

This one qualifies for the Read Scotland 2015 challenge as Elizabeth Ferrars was of Scottish descent despite being born in India and she lived in Edinburgh for 20 years.

The Road Dance by John MacKay

The Road Dance cover

The Road Dance by John MacKay was published in 2002. The setting is the Scottish Hebrides, some call it The Edge of the World, it feels like that to young Kirsty MacLeod. Between her island and North America there’s two thousand miles of emptiness. Kirsty is a twin and her sister Annie is quiet and content with island life but Kirsty dreams of a different world.

Kirsty can have her pick of the island men, Iain Ban in particular has made it quite clear that he wants to marry her and is building a house in the hope that she’ll accept his offer. He’s well off by island standards but Kirsty just isn’t interested as Iain can see no future beyond the island, a place she wants to escape from.

Unexpectedly Kirsty falls for one unlikely island lad when she realises that he has big plans to move to America, but it’s 1914 and world politics have got in the way of his plans.

This was a great read with twists and turns right the way to the end, it’s well written with a real feel of life on a Hebridean island and its atmosphere, scenery and inhabitants. MacKay has written two more books with the same setting – Heartland and The Last of the Line and I’ll definitely be looking for those ones.

John MacKay is of course well known within Scotland, he started his career as a journalist on The Sunday Post but went on to work as a news reporter for STV, where he is now the main news presenter.

It was just sheer coincidence which saw me reading and reviewing two books set in Scottish islands within such a short time – both written by well known Scottish TV journalists. I have to say that this one stands head and shoulders above Kirsty Wark’s book, and I never thought I would have been writing that.

I read this one for the Read Scotland 2015 Challenge.

Consider the Lilies by Iain Crichton Smith

Consider the Lilies cover

Consider the Lilies by Iain Crichton Smith was first published in 1968 and it appears in the list of Top 100 Scottish Books.

On the surface the book is about the Highland Clearances, a time when landowners (lairds) in Scotland decided that they could make much more money from their land from sheep farming rather than getting rents from crofters who were scraping an existence from the small patches of poor quality land which they were tending. The crofters were forcibly evicted from their cottages which were set fire to and pulled down so they couldn’t go back. Lots of them ended up emigrating to Canada, America, Australia and New Zealand, where they often ended up living equally harsh lives in an even more hostile environment. It’s often supposed that the landlords were English but that certainly wasn’t normally the case, although they may have been educated in England. Many clan chiefs were eager to make money in the very lucrative sheep/wool market and didn’t care who they damaged in the meantime. It was more of a class war than an English versus Scottish thing.

Anyway, back to the book, it’s really about the hard and unforgiving Calvinist Presbyterian religion which ruled the lives of the ordinary people. Their religious teaching and upbringing was so rigid and strict that all of the joy was sucked out of life. No singing, no dancing, just church and prayers and an almost masochistic attitude to life, Everything should be hard and cruel, or it wasn’t worth attaining. The minister was looked up to as being high above his parishioners who he berated as sinners despite the fact that they were all really innocent souls, certainly in comparison with most church ministers. Yet that background did seem to breed very imaginative writers. So many of the classics were written by Scots or those with Scottish parents. Such as J.M. Barrie, R.L. Stevenson. A.A. Milne, George MacDonald and lots more. A strict upbringing bred a fantastic imagination it would seem.

This is the sort of environment which old Mrs Scott had grown up in. Not long before she turned 30 she had married a man a few years younger than her, he had had a less rigid life and was more like some of the gipsies who wandered around the Highlands, so it was never going to be a match made in heaven. Alasdair had the spirit of adventure about him and after the birth of their son Iain he joined the army as a volunteer in the local duke’s regiment, who was of course the laird. Alasdair never came back from the Peninsular War, he died in battle in Spain, so Murdina (Mrs Scott) has to bring Iain up on her own with no help from anyone – despite being told by the Duke that she would receive a pension, she never did. She’s determined that Iain won’t turn out to be like his father and gives him a miserable and joyless childhood, just like her own and of course when he’s old enough he gets out as fast as he can, just as his father did. Still Murdina can see nothing wrong with her outlook on life, but when a man comes to visit her on a white horse and tells her that she will have to leave her house she can’t believe that the duke would do anything so awful to her.

She goes to see the minister to ask him for help but the minister isn’t interested in helping anyone, he’s on the side of the powerful and rich duke and Murdina at last begins to think for herself and realises what a hypocrite the man is. He doesn’t even know her name and she had held him in such high esteem all those years.

In the end it’s Donald MacLeod who helps Murdina when she needs it most, and she had always seen him as an emissary of the devil as he never went to church and would have nothing to do with the minister. He wrote political pamphlets and articles for newspapers which would be regarded as incendiary by the land owning class, but despite his supposed atheism it’s Donald who is the decent man. The experiences change Murdina’s attitude completely and instead of only seeing the bad in things she can at last see the good side. She’s cured of negative Presbyterianism.

This is a really good read, apart from telling of a hugely important part of Scotland’s history it also goes a long way to explaining the Calvinist atmosphere of Scotland which still exists today, where you can seriously say that even the Roman Catholics have a Presbyterian streak in them, you just can’t help being influenced by it.

There are some annoying anachronisms in this book as for some reason Crichton Smith didn’t think that it was important to be careful with the historical facts and so it is impossible that Mrs Scott’s husband would have been killed in the war which he was killed in. Also it is mentioned that she had food boiling in pots on Sunday and that just did not happen. No food was cooked on a Sunday, it was pre cooked on Saturday and it was just cold leftovers on Sunday. The Sabbath couldn’t be broken for anything and it was still like that in the 1970s on Skye. People who had to get water from a well always got their water on Saturday night, for washing/drinking purposes and for the animals as they wouldn’t even pull water from a well on a Sunday, it was for Bible reading only.

Jack’s review of this book is here.

It’s a weird thing, almost like that 3 buses coming along at the same time, but it often happens that completely unintentionally I end up reading a series of books which have similar themes – one after the other. I had read Annie S. Swan’s book Mistaken – which almost reads like a religious tract. Then I read this one with its Calvinist theme. So I thought to myself: I’m going to read something completely different – to get out of this religious atmosphere. So a couple of days ago I started reading Anthony Trollope’s Linda Tressel. If you’ve read it you’ll have realised that I didn’t escape religion as that book is about a young woman being completely ground down by her madly Calvinistic aunt, despite the Bavarian setting. I feel that somebody is out to get me!

I read this one for the Read Scotland 2015 Challenge.

McFlannels United by Helen W. Pryde

I mentioned in an earlier post that we had visited a bookshop in Fort William just before closing time and in the five minutes that we were there we all bought books, well I, Peggy and Evee did but Jack was more reticent.

Anyway one of the books I pounced on was the third in Helen W. Pryde’s McFlannels series which is called McFlannels United and was first published in 1949. These books were originally written for radio and were very popular during World War 2 and I must say that I thoroughly enjoyed this one.

The McFlannels are a typical Glaswegian family, the children are grown up now and their daughter Maisie is a teacher, so she has joined forces with her mother Sarah to try and change her father Willie into something more genteel than he has any intentions of becoming. Decades of correcting Willie’s broad Glaswegian have had no results but they don’t give up.

The family is still plagued by Uncle Matthew who is a sort of failed black marketeer or dodgy dealer. Rationing is still very much to the fore and at one point every member of the family is convinced that they are going to be carted off to prison for wee bendings of the rules.

The son Peter brings his girlfriend Ivy home to meet his family, Sarah and Maisie are convinced that it means he’s serious about her, but Ivy has other ideas.

I found this one to be a hoot, I think it was better than the second one, The McFlannels See it Through, although that is still well worth tracking down.

I read this book as part of the Read Scotland 2015 challenge.

The White Bird Passes by Jessie Kesson

 The White Bird Passes cover

The White Bird Passes by Jessie Kesson was first published in 1958. It’s very autobiographical, based on Kesson’s poverty stricken childhood in a small town in the Scottish Highlands.

Liza McVean is a young unmarried woman and mother to Janie who is 8 years old at the beginning of the book. They live in ‘the lane’ which is a slum area of the town. There don’t seem to be many men around, the lane is ‘run’ by a few prominent women in the community one of whom makes sure that the people in the lanes abide by her rule of which toilet they should use. It seems there were only two outside toilets for the whole community.

In some ways it seems like a loving and caring place to grow up, despite the poverty, bugs, nits and the fact that some of the women are obviously ‘on the game’ as their only means of surviving. In fact Liza herself seems to have been pushed down that road too and it’s probably that which makes the ‘cruelty man’ decide to remove Janie from her home and have her placed in an orphanage.

Liza had had a good upbringing herself as the reader can see when the two of them go off to visit her mother on the family farm. The mother is welcoming but Liza’s father doesn’t acknowledge either of them. I suppose Liza had brought shame on him and there was never going to be any forgiveness for that, so Liza and Janie are left to sink or swim and under the circumstances sinking is much more likely.

The first part of this book was really good probably because she was reminiscing on what had been for her happy times but it sort of ran downhill when Janie was taken away to the orphanage. She did eventually get over being torn from her mother whom she had really loved and she turned out to have a brain and a real aptitude for learning and writing in particular but those in charge of the orphanage didn’t believe that a female from such circumstances should be given the chance to rise above them and get an education.

Given that the book is set in the 1920s, that attitude to females isn’t the least bit surprising as it wasn’t any better in the 1970s and it was only fairly recently that it dawned on me that, of all of my many schoolfriends, it was only the ones who had no brothers who were allowed to go on to college or university. I actually overheard my own mother saying to another woman – “There’s no point in putting any effort into daughters as they just grow up to push prams”!! It’s a wonder more of us didn’t go doo-lally.

I read this one as part of the Read Scotland 2015 Challenge.

Bury Her Deep by Catriona McPherson

Bury Her Deep by Catriona McPherson was published in 2007 and it’s a Dandy Gilver mystery. I thought I had read all of the books in this series so I was really chuffed to see this one on the library shelf, this is the third one in the series and it’s set in 1924.

Dandy is married to Hugh Gilver who is a well-off landowner, they live in rural Perthshire with their two sons but Dandy is obviously in need of outside stimulation or she’ll die of boredom amongst the sheep.

In fact she thought she was going to be bored stiff at the luncheon which Hugh had invited his old schoolfriend to but it turns out that the now Reverend Mr Tait has been having some problems in his parish and he asks Dandy to come and investigate.

The scene changes to Fife and the wee village of Luckenlaw where the newly set up branch of the Scottish Women’s Rural Institute (the equivalent of the Women’s Institute in England) is being seen as a bad influence on their womenfolk – as far as their husbands are concerned. It doesn’t help matters that they always meet on the night of a full moon, there’s a lot of gossip going on in the village which has suffered a lot of bad luck in recent times. Dandy is determined to get to the bottom of it, with the help of her trusty side-kick Alec of course.

I enjoyed this one although probably not as much as her later books, but the setting was all local to me and I do enjoy being able to imagine all the roads and places in a book, although the actual village of Luckenlaw is fictional, the rest of the locations are all real. I know that some people aren’t all that keen on Dandy as a character but I’m a fan, to me she’s a realistic long-married woman, coping with an uncommunicative husband as best she can. Hugh is still clueless about his wife’s career as a private investigator as Dandy knows that if he finds out about it he will put a stop to it.

I read this one for the Read Scotland 2015 Challenge.

The Guinea Stamp by Annie S Swan

 The Guinea Stamp cover

The Guinea Stamp by Annie S Swan was first published in 1892 and is subtitled a Tale of Modern Glasgow. When I worked in libraries in the 1970s Annie S Swan was one of those authors beloved of elderly ladies of the strict Presbyterian variety but when I saw this one in a local library I thought I would give it a go for the Read Scotland 2015 challenge. I don’t think that I would bother reading any others though. Swan is fond of telling you what is going to happen further on in the book, which is fair enough I suppose as I find romances to be so predictable anyway.

This is a sentimental story involving a young woman called Gladys whose father has just died, leaving her parentless and with no family at all as far as she is concerned, but her father’s estranged brother turns up to do his duty by her. He takes her away from Lincolnshire where she had grown up and takes her to Glasgow where he has a business and where her father had grown up.

It’s a harsh life for Gladys, her uncle is an old skinflint and the living conditions are bleak but not half as dire as for some of the people she meets in the city.

It’s a bit of a fairy tale really, sentimental ‘kailyard’ fiction, but it was escapist reading for a huge amount of women and although the story is unrealistic I was quite impressed that one of the characters – Miss Peck states that: Sometimes I have felt quite wicked about the inequality of the punishment meted out to men and women in this world. Women are the burden-bearers and the scapegoats always. That must have gone down well with the legions of women readers that Swan had. According to Wiki Swan was a suffragist and she was writing about the hard life which ordinary women had but she was criticised by other writers for being too sentimental. I think that it must have been of some comfort to women to read that at least some people knew about their hard living conditions.

This book is probably of more interest for its glimpses into the social history of the times in Glasgow than anything else, even although it is a sanitised version, there’s no mention of outside toilets and the like.

Swan was apparently a founder member of the Scottish Nationalist Party and I was quite amazed to read that when she first got married she and her husband set up home in Star of Markinch in Fife which is a small village a stone’s throw from where I’m living now.

Jericho Sleep Alone by Chaim Bermant

Jericho Sleep Alone cover

I was almost at the end of January when it dawned on me that although I’d been getting a lot of reading done, due to being stuck in the house trying to avoid the worst of our weather – but I hadn’t read anything by a Scottish author. So I quickly remedied that by reading Jericho Sleep Alone by Chaim Bermant. Chaim Bermant was a Jewish author who wrote about what he knew, what it was like growing up in a Jewish family in Glasgow.

I read a lot of this author’s books way back in the 1970s but I don’t think I read this one then. Jericho Sleep Alone was first published in 1964. The setting is mainly Glasgow although Jericho does go to Israel for a while. The story begins just before Jericho’s Bar-Mitvah and continues through his school and university days, and on to his attempts to get a suitable job and then his experiences on a kibbutz. Poor Jericho is a disappointment to his parents, he’s a failure at everything he tries out and he doesn’t even have any luck with the girls either.

That makes it sound like a depressing read but there are some funny characters which lift the whole thing and Jericho himself always had my sympathy. Of course Bermant was writing about family life in a Glaswegian/Jewish household and I remember being engrossed in the books, loving the settings and mentions of the Glasgow streets and people going off for their summer holiday to places like Helensburgh, all of 20 miles or so from Glasgow, but a different world from the city.

Jewish/Glaswegian families didn’t seem to be much different from any other Glaswegian families and from my very small experience of the matter it seems to me that Jewish sons just enjoy complaining more about their mothers than anyone else, the mothers themselves seem like many others to me.

Anyway, I was lucky enough to pick up this old copy of the book in a charity shop in Aberdeen, in very good condition with its dust jacket which was designed by Hugh Marshall. I mention this because Jack and I were at an antiques fair a few months ago and we stopped at a book stall. Jack got into conversation with the stall holder about one of his books and the guy said proudly that he had bever read any of the books which he sold because he was only interested in the covers and their artists. Each to their own I suppose!

This novel appears in a list of 100 best Scottish Books.

Although I enjoyed it, I think from my memory his later books are even better.

This is the first book I’ve read for the Read Scotland 2015 Challenge.