My Life by Annie S. Swan

 My Life cover

Have any of you ever read any books by the Scottish author Annie S. Swan? Between 1878 and her death in 1943 she wrote over 200 novels, short stories and serials. She has been called “one of the most commercially successful popular novelists of the later nineteenth and early twentieth centuries” but only a few of her books have been recently reprinted. She began her career writing serials for the wildly popular Peoples’ Friend which is still going although they can’t be selling nearly as many copies as in earlier times as it used to be sent all over the British Empire. She also wrote under her married name Annie Burnett-Smith and as David Lyall she wrote serious newspaper articles about politics, including the Boer War.

I’ve read a few of her books and quite enjoyed them, but she’s a bit of a local hero among some people here in Fife as for a couple of years she lived in the teeny village of Star of Markinch when her husband was a schoolteacher there. In this book she says very little about her time there but to be fair it must have seemed like the back of beyond for her as even now it’s a bit of a backwater.

Apparently she wasn’t all that keen on writing her autobiography as inevitably ‘the Ego, which I don’t very much like abounds’. But she had an eventful life, considering that she was born into a farming family near Edinburgh, but her father wasn’t a very good businessman and failed even at growing potatoes. With really no encouragement from her family Annie got stuck into writing short stories and when she got married it wasn’t only a couple of years until her husband was able to give up his teaching job and study medicine, something he had always wanted to do but it hadn’t been affordable.

Annie discovered that she was good at public speaking, addressing hordes of women, often they were keen to get a sneak preview of her ongoing serial. This talent for speaking led her to be asked to go to America during World War 1 to tell them how urgently the UK needed food that only they could supply as we only had six weeks’ worth of provisions left. After a difficult start she ended up being invited all over the place and meeting ‘high heid yins’ such as Herbert Hoover. She also met Howard Heinz and I imagine his beans were deployed against the Kaiser.

She felt most at home in Boston of course, but “wished that American history books could be more accurate in their accounts of certain events in which the British were also involved.” Hmm yes I know what she means!

The war woke her up to politics and she stood for the Liberals in the 1922 General Election, but came in last. This didn’t put her off though and she later became a founder member of the Scottish National Party. I wish they had been more careful when choosing a name for it and hadn’t stuck in that word ‘national’.

When she was speaking to one poverty stricken woman she was told “Ah, weel, I dinna understand it a’. We’ll vote for onybody that will mak’ us better.” – and that’s the problem with democracy. People believe all the promises that rarely come to fruition. Nigel Farage said as soon as the poll booths were closed that he regretted things said in his campaign, but they get away with it.

She has quite a bit to say about marriage and specifically her own as she and her husband often held very different views on things and as they both had tempers things were often fraught I think but she thought that that was much better than being a part of one of those couples who agree on everything. I agree with that, in my experience that just means that one person is always suppressing their feelings and being a doormat.

Despite having a full and successful career her happy family life ended when her 15 year old son died in a shooting accident while packing to go back to Rugby School at the end of school holidays. I always have my doubts about those teenage ‘accidents’. It’s obviously something that she and her husband and their daughter never quite got over.

When her husband Dr Burnett-Smith was working up his business (pre NHS obviously) they moved down to England and ended up in London where they moved in literary circles, in this book she does drop a lot of names, but she had lots of friends among other writers such as J.M. Barrie and Thomas Hardy. Scotland always pulled them home though and they built a large house in Kinghorn on the east coast not far from me in Fife. Annie, her husband and their son are apparently buried there so I plan to go there soon to see their graves and track down the house they built – The Anchorage.

I found this to be an interesting read but I’m not sure how easily obtainable it is, my friend Maureen kindly loaned me her copy.

Chronicles of Carlingford by Mrs Oliphant

Chronicles of Carlingford cover

Chronicles of Carlingford by the very prolific Scottish author Mrs Oliphant is a Virago publication which consists of two novellas – The Rector and The Doctor’s Family, originally published in 1863. There’s an introduction by Penelope Fitzgerald.

The blurb on the back of this book compares Margaret Oliphant with Jane Austen, George Eliot and Anthony Trollope’s Barsetshire Chronicles. I would include Mrs Gaskell too.

The Rector is only 35 pages long, the setting is mid 19th century Carlingford which is a small town close to London. A new rector/minister is coming to the town and his parishioners are anticipating what sort of preacher he will be. Surely he won’t be as low church as the last rector. He had gone to the canal and preached to the bargemen there – that didn’t go down at all well with his snooty congregation. Most of them are hoping for something a bit more stylish – and preferrably a bachelor as there are several unmarried ladies apparently in need of a husband. The new rector has spent the last 15 years cloistered in All Souls and this is his first living. He may be a great theologian but he’s absolutely at sea when it comes to human nature and dealing with his parishioners.

Difficult or awkward men seem to have been Oliphant’s forte. There’s no doubt she had plenty of experience of them within her own family, and in fact she came to believe that her managing and competent character contributed to the weakness in her menfolk.

The Doctor’s Family is 157 pages long. Young Doctor Rider has just moved to a newly built part of Carlingford, he doesn’t know it but that is not going to do his business any good. The old established Carlingfordians look down on that area. His older brother had gone to Australia under some sort of cloud and he had married and had a family out there. Things didn’t go any better for him in Australia – well – he is a drunkard – so he had come home and was living at his young brother’s expense.

Dr Rider had decided that although he wanted to marry a young woman he couldn’t afford to look after his brother and a wife and children, so he had given up hope of marrying at all. Imagine his horror when his brother’s wife and children and her sister turn up and billet themselves on him!

Even worse – it turns out that his brother’s wife is feckless and doesn’t even take any notice of their badly behaved children, and for some reason she blames her brother-in-law for the situation that she and her husband are in.

This one is much stronger I think, but they’re both well worth reading and have moments of comedy as well as frustration at enraging characters.

I read this one for the Back to the Classics Challenge 2019

Naming the Bones by Louise Welsh

Naming the Bones by Louise Welsh was published in 2010. Louise Welsh was born in England but I think she counts as a Scottish author as she has lived in Scotland for years and she went to The University of Glasgow.

The setting of this book is Glasgow and Edinburgh but it eventually moves to the Island of Lismore in the inner Hebrides.

Murray Watson is a lecturer in English at The University of Glasgow but his career is not really going anywhere and he has decided to do some research on the poet Archie Lunan who had died in mysterious circumstances 30 years previously. Did he commit suicide or was it an accident? But Lunan had only written one slim volume of poetry and there doesn’t really seem to be any more material for Murray to be able to write anything that would be of interest to anyone.

It looks like Murray’s career is on a downward spiral and when he realises that Fergus the head of the department has discovered that Murray has been having an affair with his wife Rachel, Murray thinks he’ll probably lose his job at the university. In a desperate effort to find out something new about Archie Lunan, Murray contacts the old head of department hoping that he can give him some information on Archie Lunan when he was one of his students. It seems that he can’t but he does imply that the person to ask would be Fergus as he knew Archie well. But Fergus had claimed that he didn’t know Archie at all.

Murray takes himself off to Lismore, the island where Lunan had lived for a while and where he had died. The ‘dry’ island is not a place of joy. Archie isn’t the only person to have come to grief there and during a howling winter gale things go from bad to worse.

This thriller was mildly entertaining but not as good as the other books that I’ve read by the author.

A Time of Love and Tartan by Alexander McCall Smith

A Time of Love and Tartan cover

A Time of Love and Tartan by Alexander McCall Smith is one from the author’s 44 Scotland Street series and the setting is of course Edinburgh although towards the end of the book there’s a bit of a keek into Orkney. This book was published in 2017 so I’m a bit late in getting to this Scotland Street catch up. These books aren’t great literature, but it’s always good to find out what is happening to the inhabitants. Bertie is probably everybody’s favourite character and he’s still seven years old, he seems to have been seven for about three books. and he’s a bit of a miracle child as he has managed to survive and even thrive despite the behaviour of his ghastly mother Irene. At last it seems like things are looking up for him and his father Stuart, there are changes afoot for them. Will they ever get to that promised land – Glasgow? It’s a place they both hanker after although Bertie had decided that he would have to wait until he was 18 before moving there.

Pat has an encounter with Bruce her ex boyfriend, it’s one of those moments when all readers will be saying – no don’t ever go back!. Matthew, the father of triplets gets into a very embarrassing situation involving an old teacher of his. The newly married Domenica is wondering if she has done the right thing and Big Lou is as ever keeping everyone going with her coffee.

The doings of the characters are interspersed with lots of philosophical and ethical meanderings and even some comments on artists by the Scotland Street artist Angus Lordie.

Alexander McCall Smith uses these books to register his own opinions about modern life, and in this one he takes on the rampant feminism that we have in many government workplaces now where he believes men are at the bottom of the pile when it comes to promotion as political correctness has gone crazy. I think that any job should go to the best candidate, no matter which sex they happen to be, so I have sympathy with his sentiments. This is an enjoyable read, although a bit disjointed.

The Driver’s Seat by Muriel Spark

The Driver's Seat cover

The Driver’s Seat by Muriel Spark was first published in 1970 and I borrowed this copy from the library. All of Spark’s books were reprinted last year to commemorate the 100th anniversary of her birth. This is a very quick read – as are most of her books, just a novella of 90 pages.

Like many of Muriel Spark’s books this is a strange read with really no likeable characters and particularly not the main character Lise. She had been working in an accountancy firm for years and she has decided that it’s time she had a wonderful holiday abroad. The book begins with Lise in a shop trying on a dress to wear on holiday. She ends up buying a dress and summer coat both of which have very distinctive patterns and clashing psychedelic colours. She looks a fright in them but it’s obvious from the beginning that everything that Lise does is calculated to get the attention of as many people as possible.

She gets into odd conversations with complete strangers, obviously determined to be noticed and remembered by everyone she meets. She’s looking for a particular man but she doesn’t know what he’ll look like although she thinks he might be on the plane.

This is a rather dark read but it does have flashes of comedy with one elderly lady saying:

“I never trust the airlines from those countries where the pilots believe in the afterlife”. I can see the reasoning behind that!

I can’t say that I really enjoyed this book as the storyline is so obvious, it’s supposed to be obvious, the reader knows what Lise is up to, well, I say that maybe it isn’t so obvious to everyone but if you’ve had a Scottish upbringing as Muriel Spark had, then you know all about predestination and that very Scottish phrase – what’s for you will not go by you (your destiny will not pass you by.) It’s part of the Scottish psyche, just ask R.L.Stevenson.

Spring Magic by D.E. Stevenson

Spring Magic cover

Spring Magic by D.E. Stevenson was first published in 1942 but I read a 1986 reprint which had to be hauled out of Fife Libraries’ reserve stock. I’m only thankful that they haven’t got rid of the books completely, as they have with so many other authors.

I’m not close to having read all of D.E. Stevenson’s books but so far Spring Magic is my favourite. The setting is mainly Scotland and during World War 2. I’m very partial to wartime books especially when they are contemporary.

Frances Field is living in London with her aunt and uncle, she has been with them for years as her parents died when she was quite young. Her aunt is a very silly selfish woman and she believes that Frances is there to pander to her every wish. The aunt is a hypochondriac and Frances had been very sorry for her, but when the doctor tells Frances that there’s nothing wrong with her aunt and urges Frances to get out and get a life for herself, she does just that, taking the aunt’s decision to decamp out of London to a supposedly safer location as her cue to have a holiday in Scotland and think about her future.

The island fishing village that Frances finds herself in is sleepy and friendly but it isn’t long before the whole area is inundated with a battalion of soldiers from the British army, changing everything, especially as some of the officers’ wives have arrived too. Frances has never really had any women friends her own age before and it opens up a whole new world for her.

Not everything is sweetness and light as Frances realises along with everyone else that one of the wives is in an abusive marriage, but nothing can be done about it. Aerial dogfights and air raids bring the war right to her door and there are misunderstandings but as you would expect – all’s well in the end.

The Summer Seaside Kitchen by Jenny Colgan

The Summer Seaside Kitchen cover

The Summer Seaside Kitchen by Jenny Colgan was published in 2017 and I believe it’s the first book by the author that I’ve read. I decided to read it as I’ve been avoiding really heavy books for a wee while, the Brexit mayhem and such was getting me down and this one seemed to fit the bill as a light read. I really enjoyed this it – to a point, there were some things that annoyed me, but more about those later.

Although the setting at the beginning is dirty and sticky London it isn’t long before the action moves to a peaceful Scottish island called Mure (it’s fictional). Flora has been working in London, she’s a very junior lawyer there and her mother had always encouraged her to get an education and have a life away from Mure and spread her wings. A billionaire has moved to the island and although he had promised to bring work and to invest in the island in reality he has kept very much to himself, employed non-islanders and the islanders haven’t gained anything from his presence. Now he needs the help of a hot-shot law firm as the luxury hotel he has looks likely to have an off-shore wind farm as a view – and he wants to put a stop to that.

Flora is sent up to Mure as she obviously has local knowledge, she’s not happy to be back, there are too many bad memories, her mother is now dead and her father and three brothers aren’t exactly happy to see her.

So far so good, I liked Flora and in fact there are plenty of likeable characters in this book as well as a lovely sense of the island landscape.

What annoyed me was that I think that if a writer is writing fiction then they should make sure that they change things that might be too much like real life. I know a few authors and they often say that they get ideas for their books from the news, but don’t make it obvious. Surely everybody knows that Donald Trump threw a hissy fit when he didn’t manage to get the plans for an offshore windfarm close to his Aberdeenshire golf course thrown out. I think at the very least Jenny Colgan should have changed the windfarm to a salmon farm or even to a tidal wave energy turbine – anything but wind turbines.

Otherwise the story was too predictable and it annoyed me how many times Colgan had Flora turning red or pink, she seemed to suffer from terminal embarrassment. Otherwise this fitted the bill as an entertaining light read.

The Young Clementina by D.E. Stevenson

The Young Clementina cover

The Young Clementina by D.E. Stevenson was first published in 1935 and the story is told in three parts. It’s told by Charlotte who is working in a library in London which isn’t exactly heaving with life and fun. She’s really very lonely and scrapes along on very little money, it’s all very different from what she expected from life when she was younger. She had been engaged to Garth and so had been destined to be the ‘lady of the manor’ but Garth had to go off to World War 1 and when he came back he was a very changed man.

A lack of communication from both sides leads to the end of their relationship, but twelve years down the line Garth comes back into Charlotte’s life, asking her if she will go to live in his home to look after his young daughter who is Charlotte’s god-daughter, while he goes off exploring. Charlotte is in two minds about it, mainly because she knows that after a year or so of comfort and servants in beautiful surroundings she will find it much more painful to return to her dismal poverty stricken existence.

Charlotte eventually discovers what had changed Garth’s attitude towards her and there’s a happy ending. I really enjoyed this one which has a good mixture of mystery, romance, lovely rural descriptions and social commentary with the ludicrous situations that couples had to get into in order to get a divorce back in the 1930s when the book was written.

Attitudes change over the years, however I was absolutely shocked when a male character in this book in all seriousness declared his love for a thirteen year old girl, the man was much older, old enough to be the girl’s father. But Charlotte wasn’t fazed at all and just asked him to wait four years!! Had I been Charlotte I would have beaten him off with a brush! In fact I might have informed the police. How times change.

D.E. Stevenson was of course a Scottish author and Robert Louis Stevenson was her second cousin.

Marriage by Susan Ferrier

Marriage cover

Marriage by Susan Ferrier was completely unknown to me until I saw it displayed in Kirkcaldy’s main library recently. I had never even heard of the author but she was a well known and successful author in her day – and a friend of Sir Walter Scott. Marriage was first published in 1818 but Virago reprinted it recently. She was writing at the same time as Jane Austen of course but her writing is completely different and so much more modern in feeling. In the blurb Susan Ferrier is described as having been one of Scotland’s greatest writers – I certainly enjoyed this one.

When the novel begins Lady Juliana is just seventeen – and a half as she says. Her father Lord Courtland has decided it’s time to speak to her of marriage, he obviously wants to see her settled with a wealthy husband. Juliana is of a more romantic temperament and she believes that she should be united to the choice of her heart.

‘The choice of a fiddlestick exclaimed Lord Courtland in a rage. What have you to do with a heart? what has anyone to do with a heart when their establishment in life is at stake? Keep your heart for your romances, child, and don’t bring such nonsense into real life – heart indeed!’

The upshot is of course that Juliana rejects the elderly and unattractive gentleman chosen by her father and she elopes to Scotland with a handsome young man that she has only just met. He’s a penniless soldier but he comes of a ‘good’ family who own an estate in Scotland. It’s all a huge eye-opener for Juliana as life in a remote part of Scotland amongst her husband’s very eccentric relatives is not what she expected it to be. There’s no money despite the estate and it isn’t long before Juliana is the mother of twins! Both girls.

Juliana can’t even bring herself to look at the smallest child as she’s not pretty like her sister and she gladly gives Mary to her husband’s childless aunt to bring up. Juliana regrets hugely her elopement and leaves her husband, taking Adelaide with her to London.

After sixteen years Mary gets the opportunity to go to London and meet her mother and sister for the first time. Of course the sisters are like chalk and cheese with Mary being strictly brought up to put others first and Adelaide turning out to be a spoiled brat – just like her mother.

There’s a lot of humour in this book and a lot of Scotland too, some great characters and a lot of observation on human nature and character. Like many writers around that time Ferrier delighted in giving some of her characters apt names including one Doctor Dolittle, a name which was taken up over 100 years later by the author Hugh Lofting. She was paid much more than Jane Austen was for her books, it must have helped to have Sir Walter Scott as a friend. Unfortunately she only wrote three books as she ‘got religion’ and gave up writing to concentrate on that although to be fair she campaigned for the abolition of slavery and probably thought that was more important than writing entertaining books.

If you are interested in giving this book a go you can download it from Project Gutenberg here.

The Virago book has an introduction by Val McDermid.

Click here to read what The National Library of Scotland says of Susan Ferrier’s novels:

How late it was, how late by James Kelman

How late it was how late cover

How late it was, how late by the Scottish author James Kelman was first published in 1994 and it won the Booker Prize that year. I must admit that I find that amazing as this book is mainly a stream of conciousness and it’s written in a broad west of Scotland dialect – no problem at all for me of course, but even so I almost gave up on this one fairly early on.

If you are bothered by ‘sweary’ words then this one definitely isn’t for you as most of the pages in this book contain the ‘f’ word and even that nuclear bomb of a ‘c’ word. Sometimes there are three ‘f’ words in the one sentence, but I have to say that that is very true to a certain type of character and fits the bill exactly for Sammy.

Sammy is having a terrible time, he had gone out to the pub for a few drinks but had ended up drinking so much that he had lost track of time and there were big blackouts in his memory. He has lost his wallet and his new leather shoes and is wearing someone else’s smelly old trainers – too small for him.

The drink has turned him into a violent nutcase and when he attacks policemen he inevitably ends up being brutally beaten by them , so badly that he loses his sight – not that they believe him about that. A lot of the book is how Sammy copes with this devastating situation. He doesn’t look for any sympathy which is just as well as he doesn’t get any. What worries him more than anything is the fact that his partner Helen is missing. He vaguely remembers that he had a row with her but can’t remember anything else.

It was only the fact that this one won the Booker Prize that encouraged me to keep reading this one and I’m sort of glad that I did because Sammy is a great character who takes all his difficulties with stoicism, but I really didn’t like the ending as it just stops and the reader is left still wondering what happened to Helen, will Sammy’s sight loss be temporary – what happens next? We’ll never know.

I vaguely remember when this book won the prize against all the odds. It stills seems strange that the judges chose a book written in broad Glaswegian.