And the Land lay Still
Hamish Hamilton, £18.99
The title of James Robertson’s epic is taken from an Edwin Morgan’s Sonnet from Scotland. The poet’s 2005 benediction for the new Holyrood Parliament wormed its way through the history of the nation in the city, ending grandly:
“We give you this great building. Don’t let your thoughts be other than great, when you enter and begin. So now begin. Open the doors and begin!”
Playful, not at all terrible, and gay in every sense, Morgan’s genius informs this baggiest of monster novels. It won’t displace Robin Jenkins’ Fergus Lamont (1979) as the ‘national tale’ of the Compton Mackenzie-Hugh MacDiarmid generation, daft and inspirational, but it’s still compulsive. Robertson’s book fails to fulfil its initial aims (indeed the author tells us as much) but the reader will never regret starting. The sense of ‘Couldn’t I be doing something better with my time?’ that invades the reader of Harry Potter or Scots football fan is replaced with a determination to read – and re-read – then have it out with the author, and through him with the history.
I and Peter Jones (of Rhyl) evidently had a role in it. Our Road to Home Rule (2000) was a visual record of Europe’s best-behaved national movement, and the last book to be reviewed by Donald Dewar, devolution’s author. Robertson’s frame is the retrospective of a Scots photographer, Angus Pendreich, and one haunting image: a huge painting ‘The Signing of the Deeds of Demission’ marking the split in the Scots Kirk in 1843. D. O. Hill and Robert Adamson composed this from calotypes of those involved, ‘sun pictures’ of individual brilliance pasted together. The result hadn’t the tragic unease of Rembrandt’s ‘Night Watch’: more history as porridge.
Morgan, Jenkins, Jones: this Welsh thread will recur. The value of Robertson’s writing already figures in Emyr Humphreys’ self-appraisal in Land of the Living: “Novelists will never lose their taste for unimportant local people. They are the priceless raw material of fiction.” Indeed, there could have been four books, with the fricative lure of Humphreys and Anthony Powell. That obsessive genealogist died before David Cameron and Harriet Harman led the Commons, both connected by his own marriage, a Welsh preoccupation echoing Louis Namier’s political cousinhoods, researched by one of two Poles – the other being Conrad – whose unquiet Britishness did, for a time, put a vertebrae in the jellyfish.
And the Land lay Still raises fundamental issues about political fiction. Its ‘retrospective-present’ tone resembles Humphreys’ problematic beginning, National Winner, born of a brief violent interlude in Welsh nationalism in the 1960s. It is also shadowed in Raymond Williams’ Loyalties, and the less well-comprehended feminisation of politics, woman moving from symbolic stasis to leadership. Humphreys, Williams, Sartre’s Roads to Freedom are somewhere here, and Walter Allen’s English midlands masterpiece All in a Lifetime, whose failing narrator William Ewart Simmonds mirrors Robertson’s Don Lennie, incorporating the decencies of the autodidact left; a winner of wars, however traumatised by them. Equally afflicted, his friend Jack Gordon loses, takes to the road like Wagner’s Wotan, yet leaks into the Scottish landscape.
Against him Robertson sets the MI5 agent Peter Bond, not Ian Fleming’s man, more Conrad’s Verloc, and as chaotic as the last phase of Angus Calder’s life. Covering something really frightening? No Ukranian plan, no conspiracy, just Stendhal-like manoeuvre and expediency within a sclerotic state. Organised enmity encourages organised response. Dementia is unpredictable, its cumulative results implacable and destructive.
The Victorian Irish, in awe of their English conquerors, produced a formidable English-style resistance, from Shaw to De Valera. The romantic battle was won, but Free State economics, first impossibly Gladstonian, became in the 1990s a sort of Keynes-on-speed and collapsed in a racket called the Anglo-Irish Bank. Robertson captures this disorder with his pathological agents, but ‘the land’s imagination’ tends to succumb to the glum bureaucracy Harvie and Jones really recorded despite themselves, a mass of repetitive rencontres, history’s Groundhog Day.
This dismay could stem from Robertson’s honest analysis of a 1940s Scotland detached from its national history by its own obsessive industrial life, maimed by its efforts in the World Wars (first orchestrated by Lloyd George in 1915). Nonetheless, it is still alive, making even after 1999 the future seem a fata morgana. Roads to freedom may be there, but obscured by Tom Johnston’s dark vision: Parliament as unemployment bureau and emigration office.
Robertson bookends the hardback edition with two photographs from about 1950. The first is Dundee seen from Law Hill by a very small man on a park bench. The second sweeps across the faces at a football match, variously focussed on camera and game, dignified, interested, alive. What the Scottish future ought to have been, the picture Hill ought to have produced.
Iain Crichton Smith’s ‘dear friendly ghosts’ live in Robertson’s book, V. S. Pritchett’s ‘determined stupor’ that unites a nation and writes a classic doesn’t. It’s as if Lampedusa in The Leopard, his great concentration of history – Sicilian and universal, had omitted the final scene at the Palermo ball. Prince Fabrizio is confronted with his empty marriage, his order’s decay, the failure of the Italian future. In Visconti’s film he walks out into the dawn, to drop to his knees as the new state shoots the Garibaldini. The Scots tragedy is not to be aware of, or ennobled by, tragedy.