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56 3. James Robertson: The Contagion of History As Scottish literature has regularly been described as “Constituting Scotland”, “Rewriting Scotland” or “Questioning Scotland”,1 it has now become a critical commonplace that creative writing in Scotland has, since the 1980s, been part of the political process that led to the devolution. And The Land Lay Still, a novel which engages with the political and social history of twentiethcentury Scotland, and which has been acclaimed as a great state-of-the-nation novel, seems to conform to the pattern. The six-part novel, whose title is borrowed from ‘The Summons’, an Edwin Morgan poem from the Sonnets from Scotland collection, starts and ends on a retrospective on the work of photographer Angus Pendreich set up by his son Mike Pendreich, also a photographer and one of the main protagonists. The subtitle for the retrospective , ‘Fifty Years of Scottish Life 1947–1997’, indicates the scope also covered by the novel, which follows the trajectories of various characters from all classes of society as their destinies are woven together with British and Scottish history in what Robert Alan Jamieson calls a ‘sprawling matrix of subtle connectivity’.2 It portrays working-class socialist Don Lennie with his wife Liz and their sons Billy and Charlie who, in the fourth and fifth sections, are shown to take diametrically opposed routes; Ellen Imlach, whose childhood with parents Jock and Mary is depicted in section one and who reappears in the fifth section as a writer, raped and abused by thuggish Charlie Lennie; conservative David Eddelstane whose political and personal destiny is offered to the reader in the shape of a scathingly funny portrayal of the rise and fall of a Tory MP; Mike’s partner Adam; Jack Gordon, his English wife and their daughter Barbara; Angus’s former lover Jean Barbour, a political icon who can be seen as the novel’s pivotal character in that she has links with the history of Scotland, its politics, and the process of telling a story. These characters all brush shoulders with the wider historical context, which includes the decommissioning of the Dounreay power plant, the setting up of the Scottish parliament, numerous by-elections and general elections, the introduction of the poll tax in Scotland or, south of the border, the Profumo scandal or the 1980s miners’ strike, as well as various events on the international scene, among which are the Vietnam 57 and Korean wars. All those events are mediated to the reader through the discourse of an authoritative extra-diegetic voice who sometimes comes across as offering historiographic lectures. As Mike is drawn to the nationalist cause, or at least shows an interest in understanding its tenets and attends various meetings hosted by Jean Barbour, Peter Bond, who believes his birth-name James Bond to show that his parents were ‘oblivious to the bigger picture’ (ALLS, 247), also makes his entry into the novel first as an MI5 agent under the supervision of his English superior Croick, subsequently to be summarily dispatched to Edinburgh as a freelance spy to keep an eye on the nationalists only to increasingly lose substance and stay on in the narrative as a ghostly presence. All six sections are introduced or concluded by a short lyrical italicised passage written in the second person. The reader gradually comes to realise that those passages convey the voice of Jack Gordon, who disappears from the narrative in the first part, to roam the land, picking up stones as he goes to give to people he encounters, among whom are Mike and Ellen, and only reappearing at the very end of the novel at the opening of the exhibition as a blurred figure in one of Angus Pendreich’s picture taken at Dounreay.3 In this big, sprawling work, James Robertson, hitherto typecast as a writer of historical fiction, slightly displaces his focus, first by concentrating on a very recent period, the second half of the twentieth century, but also, and more importantly, by engaging in a reflection not just on the importance of history and the bearing of the past on the present, but on the influence of the present on the past and the connection between the concepts of history and story. Colin Milton, writing on modern historical fiction, states that the advantage of fiction over history is that it can ‘focus on the part played by ‘“ordinary” people in shaping events through their membership of groups representing historically significant causes, interests or...

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Additional Information

ISBN
9781908980120
Related ISBN
9781908980090
MARC Record
OCLC
909456906
Pages
232
Launched on MUSE
2015-05-19
Language
English
Open Access
No
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