Saturday, May 14, 2016

Something Stirring

Right everyone, I need to tell you a bit about And The Land Lay Still, a 2010 novel by James Robertson.  I need to tell you about it because it's one of the best books I've read in years, but also because it's jam-packed full of in-depth political thought, and those politics are absolutely mental from start to finish.

Twenty pages into it, I asked if it was just decades of men complaining in pubs before joining the Yes campaign, and it is.  But it's so much more than that.

It's a state-of-the-nation book, covering over fifty years of life, laughter, sadness, love and loss in Scotland, from the end of the war through the establishment of the Scottish Parliament and onwards.  Theoretically it's about the decline of Scottish industry and the intentional immiseration of entire towns, and its depiction of fictional mining communities in Fife chimes almost exactly with my experience of their real-life equivalents [1].  What it's really about is the rise of Scottish nationalism, told with astounding sweep and grandeur: it's emotional, epic, incredibly ambitious.

If you want a literary analysis of the book, there's plenty of it about.  This is an intentionally political book though, so I'm going to talk about the politics, because they are utterly deranged in the most entertaining way imaginable.

The book is split into sections, each introducing new characters.  Twenty pages after meeting each one, we're given their thoughts on home rule, independence and the SNP.  Whether for or against, each one is full of angst and confusion about the constitution.  Is Scotland a proud nation, they cry endlessly, or merely a diddy backwater?  They doubt, they brood and they question us - what are we doing, where are we going, and what do we want to be - at punishing length.  I've lived here for thirty-eight years and can confirm that this type of thing is very much a minority pursuit, but in And The Land Lay Still, it is everywhere and within everyone.

There are three types of proto-nationalist in the book.  The first is the enthusiast, long since sold on the need for home rule.  These characters are forever feeling something stirring within them as time and events awaken long-repressed desire for independence and a better nation.  When they listen to folk music, they find that the songs were already in their hearts [2]; when they learn Gaelic, they discover that the words had been within them all along, just yearning to be set free.  Patriotic longing is always exploding out of them like a chestburster in the movie Alien, or they have sudden gut-feelings impelling them to urgent action, like a two-flush dump.

One character, a traumatised ex-soldier, is so horrified by our rampant consumerism that he leaves home one day and spends the rest of his life wandering the fields and streams of Scotland, connecting with the land and handing out stones to children.  The tone of these chapters is much like a Kate Bush video, but with Kate mooning and swooning and hurling herself around to Runrig, rather than Wuthering Heights.

The second type is the reluctant holdout, decently but wrongly putting his faith in socialism and solidarity [3].  These men ponder Scotland's plight like the rest but misplace their hopes with Labour blowhards and bickering union bosses, and are worked into the grave for their pains.  Think - like Boxer the horse in Animal Farm but with Thatcherism rather than the glue factory.

These characters are the heart of the book: miners and factory workers.  Deep down they know that the SNP are right about everything, but their traditions and allegiences prevent them from acknowledging it.  Their role is to despair of their heroes, while being gently prodded and ticked off by their friends and family members for not getting with the Nationalist programme.  At one point a Pakistani family move into town and within two pages, the father of the family is gently chiding a shame-faced character for not demanding freedom for Scotland [4].  It is mad as fuck.

The third type of protagonist is where the book really comes alive, though - the villains, a Tory MP, an MI5 spy and other assorted bastard Quislings and apparatchiks of the hated British deep state.  Even these characters spend an eternity bemoaning The Scottish Question, but from the opposite direction, striving to prevent home rule and hating themselves for doing so.

Both the spy and the MP loathe themselves for their anti-Scottish treachery, which is the result of early infection with the virus of Britishness.  The spy is recruited by MI5, an organisation that mainly exists to disdain and despise Scotland and the Scots, and is used to undermine the Nationalist cause by making them look like nutters.  The MP suffers from a crippling hidden shoe-fetish, a perversion that - I kid you not - may or may not be the result of a childhood meeting with Thatcher herself.

And we really need to talk about the English here because, with the exception of one fruity nurse, the English in this book are irredeemably horrible braying bureaucrats, rampaging snobs, treacherous snakes, effete bell-ends and Thatcherite Loadsamoneys.  Their sole activities in life are extorting money out of decent, hardworking people; disrespecting Scotland and thinking up ways to fuck Scotland over.

I'll do a bit of violence to Robertson's dialogue here with an impersonation of his style, for effect:

SIR SIMON TWIDDLINGE-MOUSTACHE, MI5 BOSS:  MacTraitor!  Why are you wasting your time with real, important espionage work?  Don't you know we have to fit up a lot of Scottish Nationalists and convict them of terrorism, in order to discredit their drive for devolution?

BOABY MACTRAITOR, QUISLING BASTARD MI5 AGENT:  Sorry, master.  How may I serve the British establishment's insane hatred of my countrymen?

TWIDDLINGE-MOUSTACHE:  Get on a train to Glasgow.  We need to maybe-murder or maybe-not-murder a Scottish MP, for reasons that are hinted at but are left opaque, because openly stating them would make the author look like a maniac!

MACTRAITOR:  But why should we murder or not murder a Scottish MP, master?

TWIDDLINGE MOUSTACHE:  Because we need to crush Scotland's desire for freedom, so that we can steal all of their oil and spend all of their money on hookers and cocaine, MacTraitor!  And because that's exactly the kind of thing that the corrupt, venal swines of the British state would do!

MACTRAITOR:  (Drinks self to death because of his self-loathing)

And so on.  In a twist, it turns out that the Twiddlinge-Moustache character is Scottish himself, but was raised out in the hinterland of the Empire, which explains why he hates and wishes to destroy his own nation.

Britishness and Englishness in particular in this book infect and undermine Scotland and the Scots - they are insidious, sneaky, all-seeing and all-powerful.  London is a venal, corrupt Babylon filled with cackling capitalists, creeping perverts and the dirty prostitutes who serve them.  This is some crazy shit, right here, and it goes on like this for about a hundred and fifty pages.

I've been reading all this with rising astonishment and really, I couldn't wait to share it with you.  In terms of broadening your understanding of how others think, it's been like Rowdy Roddy Piper putting on the sunglasses in They Live and suddenly seeing all the aliens walking amongst us.  It's a cracking book, but utterly deranged - like if War & Peace had the Rostovs stop every few pages to eulogise the glory and dignity of Protestantism and to denounce the baleful influence of Rome.

[1]  The caveats I'd add here are that in Robertson-land, working class people don't much e.g. vote Tory, buy the Sun or rage against immigration and political correctness, and their communities are mainly welcoming of outsiders and difference.  I grew up in a small ex-mining village and now live with the daughter of five generations of miners, and I can tell you that this doesn't reflect my experience.  It's a small objection, however.

[2]   I felt this way about Enter The Wu Tang, but I doubt that this portends an ingrained affinity for New York.

[3]  And when I say "His", I mean it.  Women are mainly secondary or supporting characters here, offering guidance and support but rarely impelling the action.  Maundering about the fate of the nation is man's work apparently, as they do all the political heavy-lifting.  For a book about a movement filled with strong women, this book is a sausage-fest.

[4]  Because a man who has been forced to flee a country that was bloodily born in partition would definitely be attracted to the idea of his adopted country separating from its cousins, innit.


ejh said...

London is a venal, corrupt Babylon filled with cackling capitalists, creeping perverts and the dirty prostitutes who serve them

Is it not, then?

flyingrodent said...

Oh it is, but there's more stuff occasionally going on there than just greed, foot-fetishism and conspiracies against the nation. There are some nice parks, for instance.

ejh said...

It's a cracking book, but utterly deranged - like if War & Peace had the Rostovs stop every few pages to eulogise the glory and dignity of Protestantism and to denounce the baleful influence of Rome.

I'm yet to read War and Peace but as I recall that's not such an unusual habit for a nineteenth-century novel. A couple of years ago for instance I had to stop reading Mary Barton after just a few pages because of the author's insistence on telling me what to think every few paragraphs, and I can think of other examples.

Igor Belanov said...

Tolstoy does stop every few chapters to discourse broadly upon his own theories on history. This is very annoying, as the historical narrative of the plot of War and Peace itself is absolutely compelling.

Gary Othic said...

I'm probably being very unfair to Robertson, but from this summary this sounds like a book that Ayn Rand would have written if she'd and SNP supporter

flyingrodent said...

It has a hell of a lot more storytelling artistry than that - I wouldn't recommend the book to people, if it was just a straight-up propaganda screed.

On the other hand, I'm not going to deny that the words "Atlas Shrugged" did come to mind during the 57th or 58th "Of course, at this time the SNP were small and powerless, so the London media mocked them mercilessly" screed.

Ken said...

It's a great book, and I enjoyed it immensely. But yes, the politics.

I spent the 1980s in London. Robertson's Scottish 1980s are exactly how I imagined what was going on in Scotland when I read Neal Ascherson columns to cheer myself up.

Something missing from the book, if I recall correctly, is how much the Labour Party, the STUC and the CPGB (the real one) promoted Scottish exceptionalism back in the day. The Scottish Constitutional Convention, the Claim of Right, the talk of 'the settled will of the Scottish people' -- all of that came from the mainstream of Scottish Labour and the broad left. They spent decades creating the consciousness that has now wiped Scottish Labour off the electoral map.

Red Tories Out! PS: Real Tories In. Oops.

Phil said...

Ken - I remember that period well; the Convention & the Claim of Right seemed like an absolutely unproblematic Good Thing, something everyone even vaguely on the Left could & should get behind. Funny that we didn't see where it was headed.

I was involved in the Socialist Movement back in the 1990s; Alan Green was our man in Scotland, and from all that we heard he was doing rather well. Then there was a Soc Mov conference (1995?) when Alan & another guy announced to the floor that they weren't speaking on behalf of the Socialist Movement, Scottish branch any more, but on behalf of the Scottish Socialist Movement. The chair was rather flustered & offered to make some time in the programme for us to debate the implications of this new arrangement. Alan was quite amused by this, as I remember, and said something along the lines of "you can debate what you like, we just wanted to tell you what's happening." And then they left.

I guess looking back we thought that Scottish politics would step through the looking-glass to a new world where everyone agreed on the broad principles of the Claim of Right - maximum devolution, vague commitment to independence some time only not yet, and don't take the piss out of the Covenanters - and then everything would carry on as before, except that the Tories would be screwed. But politics is all about trends & tendencies, not about static conditions being suddenly transformed; what we signed up for wasn't more independence but ever more independence. Or failing that, ever more noise about independence.

Gary Othic said...

I am kind of weighing up whether to give it a go or not (which is to say - add it to the ever growing pile of 'books I shall read'); on balance, with this elaboration from you and Ken, I think I will and probably skim read the screed parts