Monday, 22 November 2021

Class of '37 by Hester Barron and Claire Langhamer

Class of '37

Class of ’37: Voices From Working Class Girlhood, by Hester Barron and Claire Langhamer, is an extraordinary book because it is about ordinary people. The voices of working class people through the ages have seldom been heard. And the voices of working class children, specifically girls, are heard even less often. We all know the cliche “history is written by the victors”. Well, it’s true, but history is also written by the rich. There are novels of working class life, from Robert Tressel’s The Ragged Trousered Philanthropists through to the angry young men (and women) of the fifties, to modern classics such as Shuggie Bain. These are important works, all of them, because they catch the rhythms and the idioms of their working class subjects but for all their importance as chronicles of ordinary lives they are still essentially works of fiction. The true voices of the working class, meanwhile, remain concealed behind the “respectability” or “properness” that informed so much historical record over the years. No one wanted to hear from these people. 

But we do. 

The Imperial War Museum’s Forgotten Voices projects covering the First and Second World Wars, Burma and the Falklands, gave voice to ordinary men and, sometimes, women who explained the impact of war on their lives. They were mesmerising for the way they brought to life people whose lives would otherwise have been neglected. But they told of life in wartime, life under stress, life away from the norm. So, still, we weren’t hearing the voice of authentic working class lives. 

Enter the Mass Observation movement. This was a research project that began in 1937 and ran through to the 1960s. The aim was to record everyday life in Britain, using observers who would record the conversations and behaviours of ordinary people and issue questionnaires and diaries on various topics. One can question the efficacy of this approach, and the research methodologies used wouldn’t stand up to modern academic standards but, for all that, Mass Observation has given us a treasure trove of thoughts and actions and stories from people who would otherwise be totally lost to history. 

One of the first studies was in Bolton and it is this material that Barron and Langhamer have formed into their beautiful book. In the Mass Observation archive they found thousands of pages written by working class boys and girls, giving us a unique insight into their worlds, their thoughts and beliefs, their hopes, their fears. This is the untrammelled voice of working class childhood and it is astonishing to have these children come to life in front of your eyes.  

We follow in particular a group of twelve- and thirteen-year-old girls from Pikes Lane Elementary School, who were given a series of essays to write by their teachers on subjects such as “heaven” or “the Royal Family” or “how I spend my holidays” or “What I learn at home that I don’t learn at school”. Through these essays we are drawn into the lives and thoughts of these girls and in the course of the book we come to know them. We are also given the pen pictures written of them by the Mass Observation observers and we can see how wrong those observers sometimes were, the lazy generalisations and casual prejudices that lay behind their impressions of the girls they were studying. Through the girls’ essays we can see beyond these generalisations into the sophistication of their thought, the ambitions they held – sometimes modest, sometimes not but always strongly held – and we see how the poverty of the times and the lack of opportunity shaped their existences. Most of them came from families who had worked for generations in the mills. Escaping the mills was a common aspiration. Some girls wanted to work in shops, others to become hairdressers, others to enter nursing. All of them, whatever they wanted for their lives, spoke of their ambitions in clear and moving prose. 

What makes this book even more poignant is that once they had finished their research the authors contacted the families of these girls. Many of them still lived locally, and they were happy to talk about their mothers, and were even happier to read the words their mothers had written as young children. And so we learn which of the girls achieved their ambitions, who lived full lives, whose lives were cut short. The authors write movingly of talking to their feelings as they talked to the families: 

[they] are mostly grandparents themselves now. It was oddly disconcerting to hear these elderly voices telling us about their mothers, who lived in our minds so vibrantly as living, breathing twelve- and thirteen-year-old girls. It felt the wrong way round, as if the generations had been swapped. 

Class of ’37 is a gem of a book, bringing to life a cast of wonderful and vibrant young girls. History is written by the rich, and somehow we have to find a way of changing that.

Tuesday, 2 November 2021

The Fair Botanists by Sara Sheridan

The Fair Botanists by Sara Sheridan reviewed by Rob McInroy
The Fair Botanists
When – and I’m sure it will be when, rather than if – they make the film of The Fair Botanists, the opening scene has to be the extraordinary sight of a group of fully mature, twenty-five feet trees apparently perambulating down a suburban Edinburgh street. They are, in fact, being transported on barrows from the old Edinburgh Botanic Gardens to the site of the new Gardens – the ones we know today. This scene is the startlingly vibrant beginning to what is, throughout, a startlingly vibrant evocation of 1820s Edinburgh. 

Sarah Sheridan marshalls a fascinating and complex array of characters, some real – notably Sir Walter Scott and King George IV – and some invented. Like all the best fictional characters, of course, they are built on the edifices of real people, and Sara has clearly done her research, giving us, amongst others, a Georgian courtesan, a court diplomat and the aged scion of a prosperous Edinburgh family whose wealth, like many of those at the time, was probably garnered on the backs of slaves. We also have the head and the head gardener of the Botanic Gardens, assorted staff and workers, a young widow, the bastard offspring of Robert Burns, a talented and ruthless plantswoman and a blind woman whose remarkable sense of smell is put to particularly effective use in the distilling industry. 

Their worlds collide through the unlikely premise of an Agave Americana plant, monstrously tall and ready to flower, the only example in Europe known to do so. So rare and exotic are the seeds of this plant that overnight they become highly coveted. What follows is a fascinating and hugely enjoyable story of daring and despair, endeavour and loss, played out against the backdrop of an imminent – and inaugural – visit to Scotland by King George. Friendships are forged and broken, hopes dashed, emotions raised, all of it in the New Town of Edinburgh which is literally being built around them. 

The Fair Botanists is brilliantly researched but it wears its research lightly. In its female protagonists we have two strong and determined women. They don’t always do the right things but they always do them for the best of reasons. The novel doesn’t shy away from the issues of the day – Henry Dundas literally casts a shadow over Edinburgh today, through the Melville Monument in St Andrews Square, and The Fair Botanists doesn’t shirk from examining his baleful legacy. The compromised position of women in Georgian society, too, is aired through the various experiences of Belle, Elizabeth. aunt Clementina and Mhairi, but there is never any didacticism in the narrative. Rather, it is a joy to read from start to finish.

This is highly recommended.

Thursday, 30 September 2021

Barossa Street

 I am delighted that Ringwood Publishing have contracted to publish my next novel, Barossa Street.

Barossa Street is the follow-up to the CWA John Creasey Golden Dagger Award-longlisted Cuddies Strip, which was described by Val McDermid as "highly recommended". It features once more, Bob Kelty, the shy but dogged policeman from Cuddies Strip. Now, much to his relief, out of the police force, he is nonetheless embroiled in another vicious crime when a friend of his is arrested and charged with a murder that Bob is convinced he didn't commit. He sets off in pursuit of the real culprit and uncovers some nasty truths in the process...

Barossa Street will be published in Spring 2022.

Thursday, 5 August 2021

Homer and Langley by EL Doctorow

Homer and Langley by EL Doctorow book review by Rob McInroy
I remember working with a group of learners once, and remarking how each of them, to differing degrees, had a tendency to distance the reader from their writing. What they were doing was telling the story at one remove – not literally in the pluperfect tense – but in the sense of much of the principal action having been completed at an earlier time than that of the main narrative. The effect of such writing is that much of the story is told almost in summary form and the reader feels excluded from it. It is a surprisingly common fault in beginner writers. 

I was reminded of this when reading E.L. Doctorow’s Homer and Langley, because Doctorow uses precisely the same technique. He is doing it intentionally, of course, and his distancing is quite deliberate. Because distance, remoteness from the world, an abstract sense of unbelonging, is precisely what Homer and Langley is about. So, for example, early in the novel the protagonists’s maid receives a war letter informing her that her son is missing in action, presumed dead. Instead of relating this through dialogue, allowing the reader entry into the scene at that profound moment, it is told in narrative summary and loses, as a result, some of its emotional intensity. But where, with my learners, that would be a fault, with Doctorow he is turning it into a major strength of the writing, because it is underlining the character of the novel’s narrator, Homer Collyer. We can’t enter an empathetic scene when the tragedy unfolds, because Homer himself is unable to comprehend such concepts. He lives at a remove from the world and cannot truly be a part of it. 

This sense of disconnection from the daily travails of ordinary living runs through the novel to a remarkable degree. It is based – albeit very loosely – on the true story of the Collyer brothers in Manhattan in the early to mid part of the last century. Recluses and eccentrics, they lived in isolated squalor in their apartment in Fifth Avenue (moved in the novel closer to Central Park), gradually accumulating a houseful of junk and detritus. Literally so: every room was piled to the ceiling with newspapers, books, boxes, human organs pickled in formaldehyde, a Model T Ford chassis, chandeliers, banjos, bicycles, everything, an extraordinary panoply of junk. Over the years it became a “labyrinth of hazardous pathways, full of obstructions and many dead ends”. After their deaths in 1947, the authorities removed 100 tonnes of junk from the house and, because it was in such a state of ill-repair, the building itself was demolished. 

In the novel and in real life, the brothers set themselves against society. Homer is blind and Langley is badly scarred by his experiences in the First World War, both mentally and physically, with a terrible cough brought on by exposure to mustard gas. They withdraw from a society which they increasingly regarded with mistrust. They refuse to pay taxes, or their mortgage, or phone or electric or gas bills. Gradually, these amenities are cut off but the brothers remain undeterred. The Model T provides a generator for electricity. Langley scavenges across the city for food and water. The reality was a desperately sad story, but Doctorow has taken this rough material and made something quite beautiful with it. He has turned these brothers – strange, probably insane – into men of honour and reason. 

And in so doing he has, of course, cast a light on our own society and our blighted modern world. Because Doctorow extends the metaphorical reach of the brothers’ story by taking liberties with their history, allowing them, for example, to live on into the 1960s, when they are adopted by the young hippies as heroes of the counter-culture and into the 1970s, when they are finally abandoned to their fate. Thus, he allows them to be detached, to become almost chimerical chroniclers of the twentieth century from its elysian pre-First World War days to the beginnings of the modern technological and computer age. 

The fact that our narrator is blind, of course, presents us with yet another level of dissociation from the materiality of this modern world in which they are reluctant participants. And, again, this is a brave and highly impressive piece of writing by Doctorow: how does one tell a tale through the eyes of a man who cannot see? Doctorow sets himself this challenge and conquers it superbly. Homer Collyer cannot see the world, nor can he understand those who inhabit it, and yet, through this lonely, despairing man we are given a vision of the world which is starkly perceptive. Near the end, when he is deaf as well as blind, he writes, “I am grateful to have this [braille] typewriter, and the reams of paper beside my chair, as the world has shuttered slowly closed, intending to leave me only my consciousness.” In this way, the reader is simultaneously drawn inwards with Homer, to that dark and sad state, and outwards, to a world we take for granted but which he has reflected back at us with all its imperfections and peril. It is precisely because we are forced to view it through the lost eyes of an outsider that we can see beyond the veneer of the world into the austerity we all too often gloss over: Homer Collyer allows us, for once, to see ourselves as others see us, and it is an uncomfortable experience. 

Only occasionally does reality intrude on the brothers’ cloistered life. In the early days they run weekly dances until they are shut down by the authorities; twice, they come into contact with an underworld gangster – the first time beguilingly, the second more troublingly; during the Second World War they provide refuge to a Japanese couple until the couple are arrested and interned; latterly, they are adopted by hippies and their house becomes an alternative hang-out. But mostly the shutters are drawn and the world is repelled. Inside, Homer and Langley live their own, lonely yet determined existences. Langley is on a mission to classify every event and happening in the world and produce, from his labours, a comprehensive “eternally current dateless newspaper” of humanity which covers anything that could ever happen. Events like Watergate prove troublesome in terms of classification as generic types, but Langley remains devoted to his task. Homer, meanwhile, works on his music, playing his beloved pianos, and writes his life story. In keeping with the passive reporting style I mentioned in the opening of this review, nothing that happens to them feels direct, or organised, or redolent of ordinary living. It is typical of the oblique nature of the novel, for example, that their first encounter with computerisation is not a computer per se, but a computerised digital organ. Nothing in this novel is straightforward or commonplace. Everything is at a remove from our understanding of life. 

Robert Epstein, writing in The Independent, concludes an otherwise highly favourable review with the somewhat ambivalent observation that Homer and Langley succeeds if one can accept that “a historical novel need not do more than paint a picture of its protagonists”. I disagree that this is all Homer and Langley achieves. Despite the remarkable sense of inwardness, there is still, here, an analysis of the First World War, the Great Depression, the gangster era, the Second World War, Vietnam, hippies, Watergate, the assassinations of JFK, MLK and Bobby Kennedy, New York’s blackouts and so on. The twentieth century history of America is here in full, only it is presented in negative, in the human spaces beneath the history. It is an extraordinary, but hugely effective way, to analyse our human story. History is written by the victors, they say. Well perhaps, here, we have history written by the losers.

Tuesday, 27 July 2021

New Scottish Writing 39

Fresh Watter by Rob McInroy in New Scottish Writing
 I am delighted to have been published by New Scottish Writing, in their 39th anthology. This is a volume I've been trying to get into for years.

"Fresh Watter" is a prequel of sorts to Cuddies Strip, my novel published by Ringwood Publishing. It tells of the childhood of Cuddies Strip's central character, Bob Kelty, living in rural Perthshire in the early 1930s.

You can purchase New Scottish Writing here

Monday, 26 July 2021

Too Near The Dead by Helen Grant

Too Near the Dead by Helen Grant reviewed by Rob McInroy

For much of the 2000s and 2010s I read pretty much exclusively American literature, that being my PhD subject. Since then, I’ve been returning to our own British literature and at the moment I’m in a particularly Scottish phase. Therefore, when I discovered it’s set in Crieff, my home town, I couldn’t not read Helen Grant’s Too Near The Dead.

Helen describes the book as Perthshire Gothic, which sounds just fine to me. I read a lot of gothic/horror at one time, people like Joe Donnelly and Peter James before he started his crime series, and I always admired the skill involved in being able to manage the tension of describing a series of uncanny events. How do you keep it feeling real?

I suspect that’s something Helen has thought about, too. In a recent interview, she said:

All my books have a lot of gothic elements in them. Folklore, abandoned places, stuff like that. They do have ghostly stuff too but, up until I wrote Too Near The Dead, most of my books had what one reader called a ‘Scooby Doo ending’ – it would turn out that whatever apparently supernatural stuff was going on was actually being carried out by a serial killer.

It’s not a spoiler to say that this is not the case in Too Near The Dead.

Fen Munro and her fiance James have bought a house on the outskirts of an unnamed town – based on Crieff – and are planning their wedding. The house is new, but it is built on the site of an old, now demolished building. Gradually – and this really is where the skill of gothic writers comes to the fore – things begin to happen which are at first odd, then mildly frightening, then utterly terrifying. Helen Grant paces this brilliantly. She weaves into the present-day narrative memories of Fen’s past and her troubled relationship with her ultra-strict parents and this will come to have a significance at the end. She has terrifying dreams, dreams which seem utterly real, to the extent she wakes up in a downstairs room. Was she sleepwalking? Or something else?

The tension is ratcheted up throughout. There is a malevolence about the setting in which the story takes place – the house, the countryside in which it sits, the dead who may still be lurking there – which forces you to see things through Fen’s fearful eyes. Helen is right about those ‘Scooby Doo’ moments in many books of this genre. So often, a brilliant set-up is spoiled by its ending, by an attempt to rationalise what the author has spent the entire book trying to persuade us is irrational, or uncanny, or perhaps evil. It feels like a cheat.

The ending of Too Near The Dead does not seek to explain. And it is all the better for that.

This is a tremendous book, exciting and gripping. It pulls you in from page one and doesn’t let go.

And it even describes my two favourite libraries, the AK Bell in Perth and the Strathearn Campus in Crieff. I’ve spent plenty time myself in those libraries doing research. Not, I’m glad to say for the desperate reasons that Fen has to in this novel. Too Near The Dead is definitely worth reading.

Wednesday, 21 July 2021

The Other Side of Stone by Linda Cracknell

The Other Side of Stone - review by Rob McInroy
The Other Side of Stone is a wonderful book – novella, short story collection? – which is suffused with Scottish atmosphere. If I compare it to Alan Garner I mean that as the highest compliment, because Garner is one of the finest wordsmiths in the English language and his poetic meditations on our folk traditions and our uncanny relationship with the landscapes around us are works of genius. In one respect, even, you might say it surpasses Garner, whose works are rooted in the myths and traditions of our country folk but, Boneland apart, tend not to connect with our industrial or technological history. The Other Side of Stone seamlessly melds a meditation on industry with our ancient Scots’ folklore and a radical history of modern society.

In a series of short, almost standalone stories, the book relates the history of a Perthshire mill built in 1831 and cursed by the carving of a glaistig, or green woman into its lintel. From the story of the build we shift to 1913 and a moving strand featuring a fierce young woman, a Suffragette determined to build for herself a career but let down by patriarchy, and then towards the present day, as the mill gradually falls from its earlier grandeur into decline and decay.

Although the story is rooted in this beautifully rendered place, the breadth of Cracknell’s vision is remarkably broad. She takes in the slave trade, votes for women and the way women are serially betrayed, the bombings of the Clyde in World War Two, the Iraq war and the financial crash-induced travails of our modern day. The story pulses with the echo of time, a gradual palimpsest of human history in this single place and everywhere, one misfortune laid on another, one hope after another lost until all that is left is the cursed lintel with which everything began. That and hope, in the shape of a young woman and a young man.

And through them, we trust – we hope – the story will continue, as stories must.

Friday, 25 June 2021

What You Call Free by Flora Johnston

I suspect if What You Call Free was written twenty years ago, or even ten years ago, it would be a very different novel. Instead of the two women – both real historical characters – around whom the novel revolves, the central character would have been James Renwick, the charismatic and driven Covenanter who was ultimately martyred for his beliefs. Helen Alexander, a principled, fiercely independent and intelligent woman, would have been relegated to a supporting role emphasising the charisma of Renwick. And Jonet Gothskirk, a young woman from a poor family, would not have appeared at all. She simply wouldn’t have existed. 

Flora Johnston’s brilliant historical novel tells the story of a dark period in Scotland’s history – the conflict between the Covenanters and the Crown – through the prism of these two women and in so doing casts a wholly different light on the times. To be a Covenanter in the 1680s was brutally dangerous and the story of James Renwick and his righteous – if foolhardy – attempt to take his fight directly to the agents of the Crown is a tale of jeopardy and despair. 

But overlaid on this story of religious conflict are plotlines which reveal how difficult it was to be a woman in those times. Helen, every bit as principled as James Renwick, suffers terribly for her faith, both physically and mentally. She holds her family together despite constant threats of reprisals and punishment. She is the beating heart of decency in a truly frightful world. 

And Jonet Gothskirk, a young woman taken advantage of and left pregnant, is the most luminous creation of all. Until now, Jonet was literally only a name recorded in history: in the minutes of the West Calder Kirk Session from 1687, an eighteen-year-old woman called Jonet Gothskirk was sentenced to wear a sackcloth gown in front of the congregation for weeks on end as punishment for becoming pregnant out of wedlock. The inspiration for Flora Johnston to write Jonet’s story came when she saw that sackcloth gown in the National Museum of Scotland. In What You Call Free, Flora gives the unfortunate Jonet a voice she never had in reality and brings her alive, enabling a woman who died over 300 years ago to force us confront some uncomfortable truths in our contemporary world. 

Much has changed, and we can be grateful for that. But is it enough? In the conflict between state and subject, are dissenting voices sufficiently listened to? Is tolerance real or illusory? And what is the position of women in society? We may not force people to wear sackcloth any longer, but the title of this novel, What You Call Free, is still a rallying call for faithfulness – in both religious and secular terms – and for the strength of people to live their lives according to their own convictions. It speaks of hope, yes, but it is a hope whose origin is in the societal double standards which exist still and which mean that in 2021, like 1687, the world is still an uncomfortable place in which to be a woman.