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James Robertson’s novel faces quite a challenge, if it is to progress into the next round of my tournament of shortlisted books, given that Nina Stibbe’s Paradise Lodge scored a whopping 42/50. But this is a strong contender, and will fight like a true Scot.  So don’t write it off just yet.

As both novels are contending for Bolinger Everyman Wdehouse Prize for Comic Fiction, I shall evaluate To Be Continued using the same criteria as Stibbe’s novel: cover, plot, characterisation, scope and LOL moments.

Cover 10/10

This cover is a wonder – in fact, it was my favourite cover of 2016.  Why?  Because it transformed the book into a matching fashion accessory, and redefined the notion of well-dressed for me!

image

Need I say more?

Plot 8/10

Douglas Findhorn Elder is about to turn 50.  He has just been made redundant, is in denial about the end of his 10-year partnership, and his father has just been moved into a care home.  We meet him pondering  his crises on a bus journey through Edinburgh on his way to a funeral.  Except the bus is stuck in a traffic jam – much like Douglas himself.

He needs an adventure to get himself out of the doldrums, to reignite his life. And his first piece of freelance journalism is about to send him on a trip to a remote Highland estate, with a talking toad for companionship. It is an assignment/ escapade that will give more than enough inspiration for the novel he is failing to write, and will change his life forever.

Characterisation 7/10

Roll back a moment there. Did you say a talking toad? Indeed, I did. Mungo Forth Mungo is his name, who acts as Douglas’s confidante, conscience and at times, mentor.  Because Douglas needs someone to make him think as he has not thought for a long, long time. He comes into Douglas’s life one drunken evening  and leaves when it is time to hibernate – albeit belatedly, because those lengthy adventures in the Highlands require almost toad-ex-machina interventions at times.  Thankfully there is enough insect life to keep Mungo’s wits well-fed and sharp!

Douglas himself is a man in the full throes of a mid-life crisis, and although this is his story, he’s a bit of a grey flannel. However, there’s nothing less than a rainbow of subsidiary characters to brighten things up: the harridan ex-partner, the funeral assistant come whisky-bootlegger, the pub musician/alcoholic innkeeper/tee-total estate manager/whisky bootlegger (all different identities of one very mixed-up individual), the 100-year old grande dame of Glentaragar House and her granddaughter – another individual with dual identities.

Tis all very entertaining  and just a tad surreal and you need your wits about you to keep up. Reality intervenes in the form of Scotland …

Scope and Setting 8/10

… which is very recognisable in these pages, particularly to those who have sat for hours on a grid-locked bus in Edinburgh (that would be me), or tried to reach remote      areas on other forms of public transport (impossible as Douglas finds out).  Though when the action hits the glen – emptied of people other than tourists and the inhabitants of Glentaragar House there’s a slight sniff of politicism. Robertson is a proud and patriotic Scot and you can tell that the neglect of the Highlands rankles.

Possibly also the outcome of the 2014 Indyref? The novel is set a few weeks after the that referendum and Douglas Elder’s commission is the first in a mooted series on “The Idea of Scotland”. This strand didn’t enthuse me much, even though Robertson isn’t heavy handed. I can’t begin to tell you about how tired I am of Scottish politics at the moment.   Apart from a few dull pages, most of this is a knowledgeable satire on journalism.

The novel’s firmly set within the tradition of Scottish literary history with the plot. full of homage to classics such as Whisky Galore! and The 39 Steps,  and, I  suspect, many more. Oh yes, those dual identities – Jekyll and Hyde, what else!

LOL Moments 9/10

It takes a while to get going, and there are a few breathers here and there, but generally this is a full-on carry-on adventure.  A bit barmy, but there’s enough realism in the mix to keep things grounded.  I laughed more in recognition than in hilarity, but I loved, loved, loved the whisky-riff!!!  I need to be surprised to LOL, and it says much about me that it took a talking toad to do that! Mungo Forth Mungo’s wordplay is sublime.

Bout result

Which brings the final score on the door to 42/50.  It’s a draw!  But there must be a  knockout in a tournament of this kind. The judge must cast the deciding vote. And so, because there were times when I found To Be Continued slightly less than enthralling, I declare Paradise Lodge the winner!  Ironic isn’t it,  the comic novel that did make me LOL doesn’t progress to the next round …

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With only 2 weeks to the Glasgow 2014, the eyes of the world will be turning to Scotland, once they’ve finished focusing on Brazil. I decided that in advance of the games, I’d focus on some Scottish books, while at the same time visiting the places involved. – a mini tour if you will, arriving in Glasgow in time for the opening ceremony on the 23rd.  Ready?

First port of call is to visit this chap, Robert The Bruce, King of Scots, astride his steed on the hill at Bannockburn, just outside Stirling.

 

He’s waiting to give the English a hiding – one that the Scots haven’t stopped talking about since 24 June 1314.  (Behave yerself, Sassenach!)

I’m not going to tell how 700 years ago an 8,000 strong Scottish army, armed with 12-foot pikes,

 

saw off an English army of 16,000 plus, including 2500 heavily armoured knights and a quiver or twenty of archers.    There are plenty of sources for those kind of details.  I will recommend the recent BBC 2-part series on The Quest for Bannockburn, currently available on iplayer.

There’s no disputing that the battle of  Bannockburn was a glorious victory for Scotland, one that secured the heroic reputation of The Bruce (as he is known in these parts).  But what about the reality of the man himself?

When Edinburgh publisher Birlinn approached James Robertson to write the text for their recent publication, they asked him for a straightforward retelling of the story in just 2500-3000 words.  The text was to appeal to all ages and would be lavishly illustrated throughout.   Speaking of condensing The Bruce’s story and this complicated period of Scottish history in this way, Robertson spoke of the difficulties writing an unpatronising text, in which there was no space for if, buts, maybes or rationalisations.  It also needed to serve as an interface between legend, myth and fact …

The Bruce and Spider by Jill Calder

… because what do most people outside Scotland know about The Bruce.  The story of  the spider.  Did it happen?   The incident was first narrated by Sir Walter Scott in Tales of A Grandfather, published some 500 years after the event.  So …. 

…. Returning to,facts, what is clear from Robertson’s text is that The Bruce was a man of his time, a 14th century guerilla warlord, ruthless and ambitious, capable of heinous deeds but yet a subtle and clever leader.  His own interests and that of the nation overlapped to propel him into immortality. Those were dark and violent times and Jill Calder’s illustrations reflect that.  Her Bruce is no romantic hero but a dangerous and at times desperate man.

 And yet, in Robertson’s words:

Without his personal ambition and careful planning, Bruce would not have succeeded where another hero, William Wallace had failed. Wallace lit the torch of Scottish liberty; Bruce carried it triumphantly to victory.  In doing so he forged the Scots into a nation.

This book is a fitting testament to this legacy, and, I hope, the first in a series on Scottish history from Birlinn.

4_stars.GIF

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The opening weekend of the Edinburgh Book Festival is always special but this year particularly so. For starters, the sun was shining and the lawn was mobbed. It has been at least 3 years since I saw scenes like this.

Ice-creams, sun-bathing and, of course,  pre-requisite noses in newly purchased and signed books.  The Slap very much in evidence on Saturday afternoon as Christos Tsiolkas had the honour of opening the 2010 Book Festival at 10:00 am. 

Three Jim’s launched James Robertson’s new novel And the Land Lay Still on Saturday afternoon at an event which may receive my event of the year accolade.  The standard has been set. You just know that when James Naughtie steps onto the stage to chair that the audience is in for a treat … and the author for a grilling.  Fortunately there is an obvious friendship between Mr Naughtie and James Robertson, so the banter remained good-natured. Naughtie pressed Robertson to explain some of the obvious symbolism in his book after  Robertson read a section in which a tramp gives a pebble to a young boy.  Is it a symbolic act, Naughtie wanted to know, particularly in a novel about the changing political landscape of Scotland during the 50’s and 60’s, a country whose political identity is tied with the stone of destiny.  Sometimes, Robertson replied, an author doesn’t see all the implications of what he has written until after the event.  So maybe it is symbolic, maybe not.  What a cop-out! replied a very naughty Naughtie.  And so it continued.  The third Jim, singer James Hutchison, pitched in with two beautiful songs.  Absolutely exquisite.  The singer and his voice – pictured right – best described by Robertson in And The Land Lay Still.

The singer is a burly, fine-looking character with snowy-white hair and moustache …. Don tries to join in, humming the tune, but the sound sticks in his throat.  So he mouths the words instead, he has them as suddenly and effortlessly as if he sang them only this morning in the shower,but he never had a singing voice like this man’s, slow and rich and gentle and glorious.

Sunday saw another first. Cornelia Funke ‘s new novel Reckless will be released simultaneously in 12 countries on September 14.  The embargo is so strict that the book festival was not allowed to sell copies in advance (which is almost unheard of).  However, the author spoke of it and even read from the first chapter to an enthralled younger audience.  I suspect I’ll enjoy this more than Inkheart.  Funke has created a brand new world, more modern than the medievalism of the Inkheart Trilogy and resonating with the fairy tales of the Brothers Grimm.  I’ve been meaning to construct a reading trail based on fairy tales for a while.  I suspect this may be the book to start me on my way. 

Adults can learn much from the enthusiasm of child audiences.  At least 40 minutes of the hour was devoted to audience questions and there was absolutely no letup.  None of that embarrassed silence that can prevail – if the chair isn’t adequately prepared –  at adult events.

There wasn’t much time for audience questions at Regi Claire and Ron Butlin’s event.  Normally this is a problem for me but not so here.  Both authors – they are husband and wife – read two pieces – one short, one longer, one from published short stories and one from finished novels, which have now been lodged with their agents.  More literary exclusives, if you will, and all I want to say to those agents is get a move on! I want to read them both …. now!

In the meantime, I’ll have to content myself with reading those unscheduled purchases from both authors backlists ….  I know they will be good.  I read Regi Claire’s short story anthology Fighting It!  during last year’s festival.  My review fell victim to time constraints as I dashed back and forth to Edinburgh.  However, a year later, parts of it are still vivid in my memory – evidence of the power behind the words.  I agree wholeheartedly  with this review on Vulpes Libris.  Regi Claire read – and it must be said – acted out the title story in which a convicted murderess is working out her frustrations in an exercise cage.  The story that stayed with me most from last year’s reading is the final one chronicling the struggles of an aging dog.  Very poignant and as the owner of an 16-year old pouch, I can vouch for its accuracy.  Regi Claire confirmed it is solidly based in her own personal experience.  Ron Butlin is the current Edinburgh Makar – poet laureate, but he writes novels and short stories too.   His collection Vivaldi and the Number 3 consists of zany stories in which famous people from the past are pitched into absurd situations.  So we heard how Vivaldi reacted when he was prevented from going on holiday because all flights have been grounded due to the declaration of war.  I see now from the blurb that  the stoicism of Seneca is tested when he moves to 21st century Edinburgh.   I can’t wait to see how he gets on because one day Edinburgh may seduce me into doing the same thing …..

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The second book in my slavery themed read is James Robertson’s 2002 Saltire Book Award winning “Joseph Knight”,  a fictional account of an C18th ground-breaking judicial case.

Knight’s action was a milestone in Scottish legal history, yet very little is known of what happened to him after he was freed.  Robertson uses that uncertainty to form the framework of his novel.  It is 1802 and Knight’s former owner, Sir John Wedderburn, is approaching the end of his life.  He initiates a search for Joseph Knight.  The reason is unclear but throughout the search,  Wedderburn reminisces on his life and how things came to pass.

The memories start in 1745 at the Battle of Culloden. Wedderburn is “out”, meaning he is fighting with the Jacobites.  The disastrous outcome means he must flee for his life.  He makes his way to Jamaica where he becomes a plantation owner.  He is joined by three other brothers who react with differing degrees of moral dissolution to the opportunities that present themselves.

The section in Jamaica portrays the horrors inflicted on the African slaves – and it’s  certainly no holds barred .  The outrages depicted in “Joseph Knight” make those shown in Barry Unsworth’s “Sacred Hunger” seem gentle and humane by comparison.  Particularly vicious is the death by slow-burning imposed on those leaders of the slave rebellion.

The character of Sir John Wedderburn is one of the strengths of Robertson’s novel.  It would have been easy to portray him as evil with no redeeming features.  But Robertson’s palette is more subtle.  It is true that Wedderburn, a former rebel, now slave owner, displays a surprising lack of empathy for the African slaves in Jamaica.    Yet he strives to maintain decency in line with his C18th Christian beliefs.  Unlike his brothers, he refuses to take advantage of the opportunities afforded him vis-a-vis the black women slaves.  His motivation with regard to the plantation is to make enough money to return to Britain (once an amnesty has been announced) and reestablish the Wedderburn dynasty and ancestral home.  He has no wish to ruin his reputation or his future lineage by siring illegitimate mixed-breed offspring during his plantation years.   At the same time, however, he has no compunction is punishing those who disobey him, cruelly it is true, but not quite so cruelly as others may do.  He is a product of his time – one of the decent ones and thus he retains an element of sympathetic understanding from the reader.

Joseph Knight is a slave boy, 8 years old at the time he is bought by Wedderburn. He is to be trained as a butler so that he can enhance Wedderburn’s standing and reputation when in Scotland.  Wedderburn treats the boy well and educates him. The question of affection and love, on Wedderburn’s side at least, remains ambiguous.  Knight, however, cannot feel gratitude.  Displaying the loose morals so abhorrent to Wedderburn, he first gets the housemaid pregnant and then, runs off and marries her without permission.  Finally he uses his education to bring the famous courtcase against his owner.

The second half of the novel concerns itself with the preparation of the court case and introduces us to the famous historical personages of the time: the outrageously behaved James Boswell,  the better behaved Samuel Johnson and the atheist, David Hulme.  Robertson recreates many a conversation between the first two discussing the legal landscape and arguing the pros and cons of the case.  Finally we are brought to the court and experience the arguments and, ultimately the final judgement.

Surprisingly the language of the court is Scots – an historically accurate detail for Scots was the language of the C18th Scottish judiciary.  The language and arguments in this second half of the novel expertly reconstructed by Robertson from detail contained in the diaries of the key players and legal transcripts.

The biggest surprise, however, is the way in which Robertson treats his title character.  In Sir John Wedderburn’s study there hangs a portrait of his three brothers in Jamaica.  In the background there is a shadowy figure.  A close inspection shows that this is the figure of a young black boy.  An attempt has been made to paint over this shape, to expunge it from the painting.  Similarly Knight remains a shadow throughout the novel.  He is never an actor in the play.  His story is woven throughout the tales of others. Gradually he appears in vital scenes such as those at the Scottish courthouse but he is never given a voice — at least not until the final 30 pages of the novel. 

I questioned Robertson about why he chose to write the novel in this way at the recent recording of Radio 4’s Book Club. The show will air on 7 October 2007.  If you hear that question on air, those are my particularly undulcet vocal tones! Should the question end up on the cutting room floor (the recording lasted 1 hour 15 minutes for a show of 30 minutes duration), I’ll edit this post to reveal the answer that Robertson gave.

In the meantime, I’ll end this post with two pictures: one of Robertson signing my copy of “Joseph Knight” and the second, a collage of pictures drawn by primary school children in Dundee. Thanks to the Beeb for a great day out and such a terrific souvenir.

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