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!

A Time of Love and Tartan by Alexander McCall Smith

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.

Aiding and Abetting by Muriel Spark

Aiding and Abetting by Muriel Spark was first published in 2000 and it’s the second last book that she wrote. I’ve found Spark’s books to be distinctly uneven and quite a few in my opinion are over praised and I have a theory about that but – later.

Having said that though I found this one to be a lot more entertaining than I expected it to be given the blurb on the back. Normally I’m not all that keen on fiction which involves real people as characters but in this case it works and is acceptable I think.

The actual person involved is Lord Lucan and I well remember watching the news one evening in 1974 – Lord Lucan was missing and his wife was seriously ill in hospital having been battered by him, the nanny had been bludgeoned to death. Lord Lucan was helped by his rich and influential friends and he never was hunted down despite being sought all over the world.

In this book a well-known and very successful psychiatrist Dr Hildegard Wolf is surprised when a man walks into her consulting rooms claiming to be Lord Lucan. He wants her help, she has a strange way of treating her patients as she spends her time talking about herself, but charges the patient a huge fee at the end of each consultation, you have to be wealthy to be able to consult Dr Wolf. What puzzles Dr Wolf most is that she now has two patients claiming to be Lord Lucan and they both look like him.

She wonders if they are working together somehow and have some ulterior motive. As Dr Wolf has a big skeleton in her own cupboard she’s very worried.

This is quite a dark book, but also amusing, I can’t make up my mind about its rating on Goodreads but I’ll probably be generous and give it a 4 as it merits more than a 3.

Now a bit about my theory on Muriel Spark’s reputation. I know that she was a bit of a party animal and she made friends with lots of well-known and successful writers who no doubt helped her a lot when she was forging her own writing career. Nowadays we would probably say that she went on a charm offensive! I suspect that there were plenty of other people writing better books at the time who never got them published due to not having the right connections, but such is life.

The other thing that strikes me about this Penguin copy of the book that I have is that it dates from 2001 and it cost £7.99 or an eye-watering $16.99 Canadian dollars. It has 210 pages, but the print size is massive, it could almost be described as being large print so if it had been published with a more normal print size the book would have been less than half the size it is. Back in the good old days Penguin would have published this novella along with another of her novellas (I have at least one of those Muriel Spark still slim volumes) and the price would have been the same as one normal sized Penguin book. So in 2001 we were being fleeced and probably still are!

Madame Doubtfire by Anne Fine

 Madame Doubtfire  cover

Madame Doubtfire by Anne Fine was first published in 1987 and I can’t remember where I got our copy from (I think it was Jack who bought it) but it’s signed by the author. This is of course the book which inspired the film Mrs Doubtfire which starred the talented and much missed Robin Williams.

It’s a long time since I watched the film but I think the book is a bit more serious than the film was, but no doubt a comedy was better for the box office.

Daniel is a father of three children and he and his wife are recently divorced, but that hasn’t stopped the animosity, in fact things are getting worse between him and his ex-wife. He’s an out of work actor, living in a town which only has one theatre, so he has very little opportunity to find stage work. His ex-wife Miranda has a very well paid job and it’s because of her work that they’re living in the small town instead of London where Daniel would have a better chance of finding work.

Miranda is determined to keep Daniel away from the children as much as possible, and constantly flouts the judicial access agreement despite the fact that she really needs help with the children. When Miranda decides that she’s going to get a nanny/housekeeper Daniel decides to use his acting skills to pose as an elderly lady and applies for the job. Madame Doubtfire is definitely a one off, but the children very quickly realise who she is but they miss their father so are happy to play along with the situation. So begins a sort of double life for them all, duping Miranda who it seems is having to work such long hours and is always dashing off, she never really pays much attention to anyone.

This was a good read, the first that I’ve read by Anne Fine. It’s probably aimed at children of about 12 but is entertaining for any age. In the film Mrs Doubtfire is Scottish which I think worked really well but Anne Fine didn’t write her as a Scot, it was probably Robin Williams’s idea to do that. However Fine did live in Scotland for a while and I recalled that she got the name of Doubtfire when she spotted it painted above a shop in Edinburgh. You can read about it here.

Sadly this was before my Stockbridge visiting days as I would have loved to have a rake around that shop, if I could have withstood the cat pee smell!

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.

Another Time Another Place by Jessie Kesson

Another Time Another Place by Jessie Kesson was published in 1983. The setting is rural Scotland, early on in World War 2. Kesson writes about what she had experienced in her life so her books are very autobiographical. If you’re the sort of reader who expects to experience a roller coaster of emotions in everything you read then you probably won’t be interested in this type of book which is as much a social history of a time past than anything else.

A young woman who didn’t have much confidence in herself ends up marrying a young farm worker, much to her surprise as she never thought any man would want her. Her life is all farm work, the men around the place have not been called up for war as their work of growing food is essential.

When three Italian prisoners of war are billetted on the farm it causes some upset. It seems to some that the prisoners are more free than the locals, they even have bicycles provided for them, when the locals have to buy their own – or can’t afford them. One of the Eye-ties is after the young wife, he’s after just about anything in a skirt mind you and to be fair her husband only seems to be interested in money.

I really like Jessie Kesson’s writing, her descriptions of the countryside and rural life remind me of Willa Cather and in some ways Irene Nemirovsky too. From a social history perspective I can’t help thinking that it’s just as well that most of the people in such rural communities would have had no experience of any other sort of life, because it was so narrow, all hard work for little money and not a lot to look forward to except the changing of the seasons – or having Italian prisoners of war billetted next to you.

I read this one as part of the Read Scotland 2015 Challenge, it’s my 11th so far, I think I’ll manage to get to 20 before the end of the year.

The McFlannels by Helen W. Pryde

There’s next to nothing on the internet about the author Helen W. Pryde, but I did find the above photo on a site called alamy. She seems to have written a lot of radio screenplays for the BBC and I’m not sure if the McFlannel books which were originally radio plays account for all of her writing.

I was really chuffed to get two of the books (4 and 5) in a charity shop, just as I had almost given up hope and had decided to trawl the internet for them. Of course I managed to buy book 3 when we were up at Fort William with Peggy and Evee in May.

The series comprises of:
1. The First Book of the McFlannels
2. The McFlannels See It Through
3. McFlannels United
4. McFlannel Family Affairs
5. Maisie McFlannel’s Romance

After Peggy left to go back to the US I just binged on books 3, 4 and 5 devouring them one after the other. When they were published, from 1947 on I think these books were seen as just a bit of light reading, a good laugh. Nowadays though they’re a real window into the social history of mainly Glasgow, with occasional days away into Edinburgh – or as we say in Glasgow – capital punishment!

These books are written mainly in plain English but father McFlannel, in the shape of Willie speaks with such a broad Glaswegian dialect that his wife and daughters are permanently embarrassed by him and despite years of attempting to train him up to be more genteel, none of it rubs off on him. Which is just as well as he is the best character in the books and holds his own with the posher members of society, who tend to be called McSatin or McSilk as almost all the surnames in the books are types of cloth appropriate to the characters, such as the McTweeds being a bit coarse and the minister is Mr McCrepe.

As I haven’t lived in the west of Scotland for donkey’s years now I’m wondering if all the pithy ways of expressing yourself have gone. Do people who think they are better than other folk (like a Scottish Hyacinth Bucket equivalent) still talk ‘pan loaf’ meaning a put on posh accent. Somehow I doubt it, which is a bit of a shame because it was amusing when you had dealings with people like that. Thankfully if you want to re-visit those days then you can through the McFlannel books, if you can get a hold of them.

I read these books as part of the Read Scotland 2015 Challenge. I’ve lost count of how many I’ve read this year, I’ll have to do a re-count.

The Gowk Storm by Nancy Brysson Morrison

The Gowk Storm by Nancy Brysson Morrison was first published in 1933 and it features in the Top 100 Scottish books. Jack is intending to work his way through that list and he thought I would enjoy reading this one. Which I did, as did Peggy Ann, you can read her review of it here.

The setting is the Highlands of Scotland, a manse which apart from the minister and his wife houses their three young daughters. The story is told through the observations of the youngest girl Lisbet. Her two older sisters Julia and Emmy are reaching the age when they are going out and about a bit and meeting other young people, life beyond the strict atmosphere of the manse beckons but it’s a more complicated life which ends in grief.

Some people think that the story is similar to that of the Brontes and as the author also wrote a biography of the Brontes I can see why they would think that, there are three daughters and the father is a self-centred tyrranical misery, but for me it was the writing of Willa Cather which was brought to mind. The ability to conjure up a sense of place in beautiful descriptions is always a winner for me and I think it’s a very Scottish/Celtic trait in writing, where the place is as much a character as any of the people.

The tale veers towards Thomas Hardy in its sense of doom and drama, but not quite as dark and depressing as his writing can be. The Gowk Storm is described as – ‘lyrical, passionate and a real page turner.’ I’ll definitely be looking for more of Nancy Brysson Morrison’s books.

Below is a wee taster of her writing.

I sat for some time on the western side of the dyke, looking over the moor and stared at the bare ground so long that I saw it veined with deep dark colours, wine red, ruby and prune, drawn to the surface by the sun. Amongst the peat hags were little raised islands with tufts of long grasses sprouting from them, which made me think of fantastic hedgehogs. Grasses purple when in a mass, bent whispering and sighing before the wind, but I was so protected where I sat that it scarecely fanned my face.

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 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.