Endless Reads Review: And The Land Lay Still by James Robertson

Okay, deep breath. Where to begin?

To be slightly logical about things – with the plot. The plot of a hulking novel such as this is no light matter. But for the challenge, shall I try for it in a sentence? This novel is about the politics, ambitions, hopes, defeats, and endurance of a group of variously interconnected Scottish people from roughly the nineteen fourties to two thousand and eight. Except it is also about Scotland itself, a big book of the evolving state of the nation (or ‘nation’ – the quote below will explain). We are presented with sections focusing on the half-dozen or so characters, the miner, the mechanic, the journalist, the spy called tragically ‘Jimmy Bond’ (until he changes his name to Peter), the thug, the teacher, the teller of tales. Most importantly, the photographer, who is the son of a more famous photographer who cataloged Scotland – though it is the son who must work to recover a narrative out of his poorly-organised works, and to overcome their slightly fraught relationship after the father’s death.

In between these solid narratives are sections in the second person: ‘you’ is a mystical tramp named Jack, who wandered out of his life one day in order to escape the horrors of war he had brought home with him, and continues to wander, for almost the duration of the story, enduring the bleak outdoors to seemingly few ill effects, handing out pebbles, little round stones, as a way of seeding continuity. Yes. If anything, this novel is about continuity. Change. Endurance. Stories we tell ourselves and are told, which warp and change over the years.

Here is a situation: a country that is not fully a country, a nation that does not quite believe itself to be a nation, exists within, and as a small and distant part of, a greater state. The greater state was once a very great state, with its own empire. It is no longer great, but its leaders and many of its people like to believe it is. for the people of the less-than country, the not-quite nation, there are competing, conflicting loyalties. They are confused. For generations a kind of balance has been maintained. There has been give and take, and, yes, there have been arguments about how much give and how much take, but now something has changed. There is a sense of injustice, of neglect, of vague or real oppression. Nobody is being shot, there are no political prisoners, there is very little censorship, but still that sense persists: this is wrong. It grows. It demands to be addressed. The situation needs to be fixed. – ‘Questions of Loyalties’, And the Land Lay Still, James Robertson.

So, this is perhaps the mission of the novel in the shell of a nut. To fix Scotland’s sense of dis-ease. Though far earlier than where this appears in the book, some readers will have parted ways with the novel. Because this is a novel with a mission of proving Scotland, the ‘not-quite nation’ doesn’t need to be within the UK, that it is in its way, quite politically, culturally different to other parts of Britain. For me, as a Scot who believes that independence is not something lashed to any one political viewpoint, solidly left wing as most people in this book (and indeed, Scotland itself) are, I don’t have a problem with the message Robertson is delivering.

I like his insistence on the normality of a gay man’s life in Scotland, of women going into the workplace, living on their own as independent, strong, and contributing to the traditions and politics of the land, of the naturalness of immigrants from all parts of the world to all parts of Scotland. At one point he brings up the Pakistani tradesmen, in the fifties, who learned Gaelic so as to be able to sell to the islanders in the West who spoke not a word of English. About the New Scots from the subcontinent, from China, how they are, despite occasional resistance, fitted in to the story of Scotland. I like his interpretation of history, as it is the one I am familiar with, the one I agree with. But I wonder about other potential members of the audience. Not the bigots, of course. But for those who might see an Italian surnamed Scot and laugh, ‘Nardini? In Scotland! Really?” As if Scotland is a monolith, a relic, a country of glens and cottages, and pasty men in kilts yelling with swords brandished high.

My question is, is this a book that is accessible for an international readership, with all that modern Scotland, Scottish history, Scottish and UK politics being streamed at you? Well, I have been thinking of this. Robertson does do a good job of explaining, here’s what was happening. One particular example is that of the kidnap, or retrieval, of the Stone of Destiny.

The Stone of Destiny, for those who don’t know of it, is the stone upon which the monarchs of Scotland were traditionally crowned. I suppose they sat on it, as it’s a big lump of sandstone. In 1296, the stone was captured as a spoil of war by Edward 1, taken to Westminster and slotted under the throne there, so that symbolically, the kings and queens of England could claim they were ruling over Scotland too (which didn’t happen in actuality until the union of the crowns in 1603). Obviously, this irked the Scottish royalty, and the Scottish people. Yes, Scotland can hold a grudge a long time. From way back in the sword-wielding  days. Ask a MacDonald about Glencoe

But matters and the stone stayed put, until on Christmas day, 1950, a group of nationalist students from Glasgow University, went and stole it back. And the British government couldn’t find it again, though they hunted high and low for it. At last, the stone was left in Arbroath Abbey,  where it was picked up and stuck back under the throne again. It wasn’t until 1996 that the stone was given back to Scotland, at least to be stored at the palace of Scone until it is needed again for a coronation at Westminster Abbey.

Robertson manages to weave interesting elements into his rendition of the story, putting prominent characters from the book at Arbroath Abbey, watching events unfold. He posits that the choice of location was symbolic – Arbroath Abbey being where the famous Declaration of Arbroath was signed.  Americans, take note: In 1320, in a rather grovelling letter to the Pope asking him to protect them from English oppression, a group of magnates and nobles declared the independence of Scotland: “…for, as long as but a hundred of us remain alive, never will we on any conditions be brought under English rule. It is in truth not for glory, nor riches, nor honours that we are fighting, but for freedom – for that alone, which no honest man gives up but with life itself.” It is stirring stuff, and moreover, it speaks to the Scottish people, to those Scots reading the book and aware of these words, that Scotland has thought of itself as a nation for a long, long time. Of course, in 1707, Scotland was brought under English rule. Or, at least, that’s one way of looking at it.

Because the other side of things is, how would an English reader read this book? Or, first, what would a Tory (conservative) reader make of the mild, constant undertone of mockery, the stubborn resistance of the people of the book, for the most part, against the dictates of conservationism in favour of a strongly socialist position? The characters often read as mouthpieces of the author – something I judge from the consistency of the views. In the case of one character, a Tory MP, he is a spineless loser, kindly rendered, yes, but the fetish he has that dominates and warps his life, and his tendency to lie to himself and others does not make him all that endearing. One could argue that the fact that (vague, or more forceful, to degrees) left-wing sentiment is pretty much a staple of the Scottish working class, which most of the characters are born into. And indeed, the middle class as it is in Scotland. The firm but gentle hand of the author guides one through the history of modern Scotland as he sees it – but perhaps some would be inclined to buck against the hand, because it is so insistent.

And I wonder how much an English person, I should add, an English person who views themselves as solidly British, could really understand the heart of this book, and not read it as propaganda. How the reflections of political affinities and vague independence-minded streak that a lot of the character have might not read as accurate to them. Might read as an affront, a distortion. I don’t believe it is so, though the language is often blunt, the prose without ornamentation, putting across what the author holds true. It might skate well clear of the tag of ‘literary’ , for all that it is a brilliant feat of interweaving storytelling. But I also believe that it might be healthy to have a view of Scotland that isn’t of the misty, romantic-way-back-long-ago Scotland, or a novel that follows the simply personal (my preferred reading, intensely following the inner life, rather than this epic look at the nation), or a historical text that views Scotland from an outsider’s (perhaps jaundiced) perspective. *cough David Starkey cough*

England is reduced to the margins, British politics, while dominant, is seen through the eyes of only the Scots.  I wonder how many English people would take up the challenge of reading And The Land Lay Still, and if it might make them rethink some innate suppositions that have been handed to them by their parents, the British media’s predominant base in London, and further back, by the old pink maps of empire.  But then I think, this book doesn’t challenge my innate suppositions, so how can I push it on others for whom it would? I don’t know. All I know is that if you want to see how, for the most part, I think about politics, how I, and many other Scots like me, understand our country both socially, politically and personally, read this book.

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Filed under 2012, book cover, book review, Endless Reads 2012, reading, Scotland

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