Category Archives: books

On that night of all nights every man, drunk or sober, was to find a welcome: Christina Keith, 11 November 1918

 

War Classics cover

War Classics cover

One hundred years ago my great-aunt Christina was behind the lines in Dieppe as a tutor with the army’s education scheme. She describes the day when peace was declared after the four long years which had devastated her generation:

Late in the afternoon I went into the huts to see the men and how they took it. The Base Commandant had sent round word to close the canteens if we wished, as the men might be drunk. But we did not wish. On that night of all nights every man, drunk or sober, was to find a welcome there.

When I went in, they were still sober and the hut was packed to the door. Most of them were singing and some few laughing and talking. Would you like to know what they sang? No ‘Rule Britannia’ or ‘God Save The King’ – English soldiers rarely sing either unless they are bidden. No – it was a chorus we were to hear every day for the next six months, with varying emphasis – ‘When do we go home?’, each word punctuated by thumps of mugs on tables, and the last word raised the roof.

At night they were many of them drunk, and the sober ones, with thoughts of the punctilious WAACs with whom they were dancing, were for turning the drunks out. ‘No, no,’ said the Hut leader firmly, ‘let the drunks dance by themselves in this corner.’ So, sometimes three together, sometimes the orthodox two, sometimes one, the drunks danced merrily in their corner; whenever one, well meaning but nothing more, lurched out to grab a WAAC, he was hastily but tenderly shepherded back by a stronger comrade.

 Outside bells blared; flags flew; bands played; at every window in the Grande Rue faces looked out, laughing, crying. In the distance the Marseillaise came rolling down and its echo ‘It’s – a – long – way – to – go.’

I stole into the Cathedral. Over the altar hung our flags, quiet and still. There was no need to wave them now. Utter quietness here and one spot of light only. In the chapel at my side lay the empty tomb and the marble watchers beside it. The figure of the risen Christ was outlined and ringed with light. Never have I seen so many candles ablaze together. Beneath Him in the darkness knelt clusters of black-robed women. Peace had come.

From War Classics: the remarkable memoir of Scottish scholar Christina Keith on the Western Front, edited by Flora Johnston

© All content copyright Flora Johnston. You may reblog, retweet or share with acknowledgement, but please do not use in any other context without permission.

 

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Faith in a Crisis: evicted

Norman Macleod was one of the main characters in my book Faith in a Crisis. Now the house he lived in, which was part of his story, is on the market. The lady who lived there  was a friend of my parents and I remember visiting as a child, but the shiver down the spine comes when I think of Norman and Julia descending those stairs, walking through those rooms …. and leaving the house with their ‘young and helpless family’ when they were evicted by the factor in 1843.

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Trumisgarry Church

Extract from Faith in a Crisis (Islands Book Trust, 2012):

Norman, by quitting his church at Trumisgarry, was no longer entitled to his house. He wrote to Lord Macdonald, offering to pay the same rent as any other and observing, ‘I trust your Lordship does not really intend to drive me with my young and helpless family out of my present dwelling house.’ The factor, Seumas Ruadh of Balranald, himself an Established Church elder, replied in these terms:

It is not [his Lordship’s] intention either to grant you a site or to give you any lands …. I am sorry for you and your family, you will be much put about, but you have brought it all on yourself. …. Kind compliments to Mrs McLeod.

Within a few years, of course, many of Norman’s congregation would also have been evicted from their homes and land, with fewer resources to survive and far more drastic consequences.

Seumas Ruadh was the father of Jessie of Balranald, whose story I told here. It was recently fictionalised  in the novel The False Men by Mhairead Macleod.

These stories just keep coming back.

© All content copyright Flora Johnston. You may reblog, retweet or share with acknowledgement, but please do not use in any other context without permission.

60 Degrees North

I read a lot of non-fiction for work, but not very often for pleasure. 60 Degrees North by Malachy Tallack was a real pleasure.

60 degrees north

There’s something about northern light and coastal communities which draws me in with a wee touch of envy. It’s a different island community which has a hold on me – North Uist to the west rather than Shetland to the north – but the themes Malachy Tallack explores as he  travels ‘around the world in search of home’ found many echoes as I followed his journey.

It’s an experience I remember from childhood, standing on white sand with my feet in icy clear water, looking to the smudged blue horizon and thinking, next stop Canada. And there’s one of the family stories right there, my great-grandfather, the restless lad who looked out on that sea and eventually used it as his means of escape, ending up in the diamond mines of South Africa. But I can’t stand on that beach and look out to sea without also being aware of what lies behind – the curve of the strand, the steep dunes and above them the mound with its leaning gravestones, the names of my forebears chiselled into stone.

 

 

Only two of my eight great-grandparents came from the island … but this is the place we went back to again and again, rather than Angus or Wester Ross or Caithness (and there’s the story of industrialisation in Scotland right there) …. so it’s the one that remains relevant in the life I live now. It’s a mix of history and memory; of family mythology and very real picnics with dark clouds racing towards us and slippery rocks underfoot. It’s caught up with a Gaelic culture my dad embraced, which has its own resonance now that he is no longer here to tell the stories he loved.

So there was a lot in 60 Degrees North which drew me in, but then it drew me on – on into the author’s journey along the 60th parallel,  from Shetland through Greenland, Canada, Alaska, Siberia, St Petersburg, Finland, Sweden and Norway.  Through the extremes of northern light and darkness, coastal communities and forests belonging to bears, he uncovers contrasting ways different communities and individuals have related and continue to relate to the landscape in which they live. What they treasure, and what they have lost. It’s a personal journey for the writer, but one written so evocatively and thought-provokingly that I kept going back to re-read and savour paragraphs again and again.

Malachy Tallack’s novel The Valley at the Centre of the World is published by Canongate in May. I’ll look out for it.

2018 reading to date (because I said I’d keep a note of it):

Swing Time, Zadie Smith
How To Stop Time, Matt Haig
The Lesser Bohemians, Eimear McBride
Room, Emma Donoghue
The Map of Love, Ahdaf Soueif
The Minister and the Murderer, Stuart Kelly
The Secret River, Kate Grenville
60 Degrees North, Malachy Tallack

© All content copyright Flora Johnston. You may reblog or share with acknowledgement, but please do not use in any other context without permission.

Zadie Smith, Swing Time

My one and only resolution of 2018 is to keep a note throughout the year of what I’m reading. (I could have many more resolutions, but hey, another year, same dream.)

I don’t intend to share what I’m reading unless it’s of particular interest, but I’ve started the year with Zadie Smith’s Swing Time, and it’s going to be hard to beat. I was lucky enough to win it just before Christmas in a Twitter competition, along with Outriders, The Lesser Bohemians by Eimear McBride and The Fatal Tree by Jake Arnott. Thank you, Edinburgh Book Festival!

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I read and enjoyed White Teeth years ago when it came out, but I haven’t read anything else by Zadie Smith. That may soon change, as I loved Swing Time. I like to read a book which is not my experience yet is so convincing and so human that I can enter into that experience. And I particularly like to read a book where I’m not marvelling with every sentence and every plot twist at how wonderfully clever the writer is, because the writer has pulled me in so far that I have forgotten all about him or her – but nevertheless every now and then I’m drawn up by the beauty or poignancy or truth of what I’ve just read.  That’s what happened with this book – like this, which foreshadows #metoo so evocatively:

I remembered my own classrooms, dance classes, playgrounds, youth groups, birthday parties, hen nights, I remember there was always a girl with a secret, with something furtive and broken in her, and walking through the village with Aimee, entering people’s homes, shaking their hands, accepting their food and drink, being hugged by their children, I often thought I saw her again, this girl who lives everywhere and at all times in history, who is sweeping the yard or pouring out tea or carrying somebody else’s baby on her hip and looking over at you with a secret she can’t tell.

 

Next on my list is Matt Haig’s How To Stop Time which my children gave me for Christmas. I’m looking forward to it, but I always prefer to have a breather after a really good book – to stay in its world for a while before moving on. I have some research materials on standby for a possible new project, so that’s where I’ll go next.

Happy New Year!

© All content copyright Flora Johnston. You may reblog or share with acknowledgement, but please do not use in any other context without permission.

Two men, two schools

I’ve had a really interesting piece of work over the last few years which has culminated in this little pair of booklets, available from Stewart’s Melville College.

Stewart’s Melville is an independent school in Edinburgh and a prominent landmark as you drive into town from the north along the Queensferry Road. The original building opened in 1855 as Daniel Stewart’s Hospital School, and a few years ago the school approached me to see what I could find out about the life of Daniel Stewart (1744-1814).

It wasn’t a straightforward project, with Daniel’s story surrounded in myth and lacking documentation, but the picture emerged of a young man who pulled himself out of poverty to take his place in Edinburgh’s Enlightenment society.

In 1972 Daniel Stewart’s combined with Melville College, creating Stewart’s Melville College. The founder of the other half of the school was not, as you might expect, Mr Melville. Melville College was named after the street in which it was located, and its founder was Rev Robert Cunningham (1799-1883). The natural next step was to explore his life story also. Having researched Daniel Stewart, where sources were sparse and legends plenty, this was a very different project, with vast amounts of written material available.

It was also bittersweet as my father, who passed away earlier this year, was educated at Melville College and would have been very interested in the life of its founder, particularly as they spent their early years just a few miles (and more than 100 years!) apart.

Daniel Stewart and Robert Cunningham were very different men, one shrewd and determined, the other visionary and restless. And yet there are similarities too. Both men overcame challenges in their early years: Daniel Stewart was born with few prospects, and Robert Cunningham had to give up his studies to find work when his father was lost at sea. There’s much more that could be said about their contribution to education within the Scottish context, but ultimately both men looked beyond themselves and their own needs to provide education for others.

Stewart’s Melville College is open on 23 September for Doors Open Day – why not take a look?

 

© All content copyright Flora Johnston. You may reblog or share with acknowledgement, but please do not use in any other context without permission.

The False Men by Mhairead MacLeod

Here’s an interesting new book.

the false men

In North Uist last summer we stayed in a lovely cottage which was a converted outbuilding of Balranald House, the former factor’s house. From one window we could see Balranald House, and from another the ruins of Kilmuir Church. It thrust me back into the world I had first explored while writing Faith in a Crisis: the tightly knit network of factor, minister, agent and landlord which so profoundly affected the lives of the Uist people during the crisis years of famine, eviction and emigration in the mid-19th century.

It’s been interesting over the years too to notice that the posts I’ve written about these people and events – Escape from Balranald House and Vallay: ruined houses and a tidal island, for example – consistently receive among the most hits on this website.

The dramatic story of the elopement of Jessie MacDonald of Balranald plays out against the harsh background of famine and eviction, and involves all the key players in that tight network of relationships. ‘The False Men’ by Mhairead MacLeod, published this week, is a novel based on those events.

It feels a bit like stumbling on a novel written about people I know, so close did I get to Finlay Macrae, James MacDonald and the rest over the time I was working on Faith in a Crisis. It will be interesting to see how someone else has interpreted them!

That’s my weekend reading sorted.

 

© All content copyright Flora Johnston. You may reblog or share with acknowledgement, but please do not use in any other context without permission.

Reflections on the Edinburgh International Book Festival

Edinburgh in August is bursting at the seams, as it welcomes every imaginable artistic expression. It’s a city alive with energy and activity, flourishing, but also frantic. So how satisfying that in the midst of all this there is a garden given over to words and to ideas. There is always time at the Book Festival – time to browse, time to sit. Time to read and to chat, to listen, to think, to disagree or to be inspired.

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My own @edbookfest experience goes back pretty much to the beginning. I don’t know which year it was – 1983 or 1985 I guess – that I met Joan Lingard and found her so warmly encouraging of my early ambition to be a writer. She won’t remember the conversation, but I do. There was also Mollie Hunter, whose books nurtured my passion for Scottish History. They didn’t call it YA at that time – ‘for older readers’, perhaps – but those were the footsteps in which my son and I walked to see Robert Muchamore and Patrick Ness last weekend. More than three decades of writers engaging with readers and being generous with their time in the heart of our city – what an impact that has.

 

Anticipation begins when I receive the programme. I start with a longlist of endless possibility and eventually narrow my selection down to something which sits more realistically with daily commitments and the bank balance. Inevitably there are writers I would like to hear but miss – Ever Dundas and Malachy Tallack were probably top of that list this year.

So what did I go to? In the past I’ve enjoyed some big sell-out events, like Ian Rankin and Tom Devine. This year I was drawn to events which chimed with all I’ve been thinking about and working on recently. There was a Publishing Scotland event which picked up on some of the themes aired at XpoNorth. There was Polly Clark’s interweaving of two narratives in Larchfield, and Dilys Rose’s Unspeakable which I wrote about here. Dilys Rose was sharing a platform with Francis Spufford, so I included his Golden Hill in my holiday reading – and was blown away by it. It’s an action-packed romp through 18th-century New York which is written with extraordinary skill and ambition, has lots to say about storytelling, and seems to me to succeed where many books just miss in navigating the complex relationship between  21st-century perspectives and historical authenticity.

The pleasure of the Book Festival lies in the unexpected gifts it brings you. Golden Hill was one. Another was the people I met, and the interesting conversations I had. But the greatest gift for me this year was the discovery of a new favourite book, Who Built Scotland. I booked the event because it sounded my sort of thing, and by the end of a fascinating hour was convinced enough to buy the book. I’m now rationing myself to a couple of chapters at a time, the better to savour them. It’s beautifully written – not surprising, with the impressive contributor list of Alistair Moffat, Kathleen Jamie, Alexander McCall Smith, James Crawford, and  the outstanding James Robertson. If you are interested in Scotland, in the landscape and the buildings and the people and the culture, and how all these have interacted throughout history and prehistory, you will want to read this book.

And that’s the magical, indefinable thing that happens sometimes, when the words on the page connect with something at the heart of you. For me that was Who Built Scotland, but with a truly global and diverse programme, it will be something very different for you. Thank you, Edinburgh International Book Festival. Until next year.

 

© All content copyright Flora Johnston. You may reblog or share with acknowledgement, but please do not use in any other context without permission.