From Socialist Review, No.258, December 2001, p.24-25.
Copyright © 2001 Socialist Review.
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The great Scots writer Lewis Grassic Gibbon was born 100 years ago this year. Paul Foot looks at the work of this champion of change
Many, many years ago, way back in 1975, I was working full time as a reporter on Socialist Worker. That was the best job I ever had because I could integrate what I wrote with what I thought. Another advantage was a close friendship with the other full time reporter on the paper – Laurie Flynn. Laurie spent a lot of time encouraging me to read an obscure Scottish writer with the ludicrous name of Lewis Grassic Gibbon. Partly to shut him up and partly to while away the 14-hour journey, I set off on a speaking tour of Scotland, armed only with a copy of A Scots Quair, a trilogy of Grassic Gibbon novels.
On the way to Inverness, my first stop, I read the whole of the opening novel, Sunset Song, and on the way back, through Aberdeen, Dundee and Edinburgh, I read the other two, Cloud Howe and Grey Granite. I never stopped reading throughout the entire journey, except perhaps to gaze out of the window south of Aberdeen, drinking in the scenery Grassic Gibbon so gloriously described. The experience was a conversion, a rapture only once previously encountered – when I first read the poems of Shelley. And this was not a coincidence, since Grassic Gibbon was an unreconstructed Shelleyan and had even named one of his novels Stained Radiance, a quote from Adonais, Shelley’s mournful obituary to John Keats.
Lewis Grassic Gibbon’s background could not have been more different to that of Shelley. He was born James Leslie Mitchell 100 years ago in Aberdeenshire. His father was an impoverished crofter, Danes Mitchell, and that weird pen name came from his mother, Lellias Grassic Gibbon. He was brought up on the land, and all his life retained a healthy contempt for the reactionary seduction of agricultural work and rural life. He was educated at a school where the teachers were instructed not to educate the children of crofters, and his father was bitterly hostile to the notion that children should learn anything that might interfere with adult work. Somehow the precocious youngster defied his father and his teachers, and read everything he could lay his hands on.
In 1917, at the age of 16, he ran away to Aberdeen and got a job as a cub reporter on a local paper. In Aberdeen he joined the trades council, which had a fine history and had welcomed many famous socialist speakers at its meetings. The official history of the trades council recalls with special pleasure the visit of Karl Marx’s daughter Eleanor and the magnificent rendering of Shelley’s Ode to the West Wind by her friend Edward Aveling. Like many other British cities in 1917, Aberdeen had a new soviet, formed in solidarity with the Russian Revolution. The soviet’s most enthusiastic founder was the 16 year old Lewis Grassic Gibbon.
Not much later the young socialist moved to Glasgow where he got a job on Farmers Weekly. He was sacked after a few months for fiddling his expenses so that he could make donations to the British Socialist Party, one of the three organisations that merged to form the Communist Party in 1920. He was promptly blacklisted by the newspaper employers in the west of Scotland, and could not get a job anywhere as a journalist. So he joined the army and travelled round the world as a not altogether loyal member of the Royal Army Service Corps. In nine years in the army (1919-28) he developed a taste and a talent for travel writing. His descriptions of faraway places have stood the test of time, and many of them have been reprinted.
He came out of the army in 1928 determined to devote his life to writing, and settled down with his wife Rhea in Welwyn Garden City. Few newspaper or magazine publishers would take his stuff, though one of his first published short stories was read and acclaimed by H.G. Wells.
Most great writers have purple passages in their lives. Shelley’s was in the months following the Peterloo massacre in 1819. Grassic Gibbon’s was from 1928, when he left the army, till his shockingly early death from peritonitis in February 1935. He was only 33. He had one novel published in 1928 and another in 1929. He wrote the trilogy, A Scots Quair, from 1932 to 1934. In between he wrote another novel, Spartacus, about the Thracian slave leader of a revolution in Roman times. His attitude to Spartacus was similar to that of Karl Marx who, asked by his daughter Eleanor who was his favourite character in all history, replied at once ‘Spartacus’, even though any well read Marxist could have told him that Spartacus lived many hundreds of years before the proletariat even existed. Marx (and Grassic Gibbon) were electrified not by Spartacus’s deep understanding of the slave economy, but by his fighting spirit. In between all these novels there is a mountain of journalism and travel writing that defies belief, even though Grassic Gibbon revealed that he consistently wrote on average 4,000 words a day (you try it).
The trilogy, A Scots Quair (nothing queer about it, by the way, it is derived from the word quire – a literary work of any length), is by far the best of Grassic Gibbon’s novels. The other novels are written mainly in plain English while the trilogy is in the vernacular, the Scottish language as perfected by the common people of Aberdeenshire. English people, especially those who pride themselves on their ‘mainstream’ literary heritage, are inclined to jib at the language in the trilogy. In fact it represents Grassic Gibbon’s ability to reflect the ordinary language of ordinary Scottish people that makes the trilogy so much superior to the comparatively flat narrative of his other novels. He captures the music and the irony of the language, conveying his political message not by dreary (or even subtle) propaganda, but chiefly by means of a gentle, searing mockery. He manages without humiliating his characters to detect and untie the knots in their thinking. His characters are so subtly blended and balanced, their thoughts and expressions so riddled with dialectic and larded with humour that the reader cannot help being absorbed in them.
Examples? All three books are examples, but since this is mainly a political publication I’ll just pick this out from Sunset Song, when a new and rather strange minister called Colquohoun first comes to Kinraddie. As so often, the paragraph starts with a reactionary theme and slowly changes until the whole theme is destroyed in mirth:
‘You couldn’t well call him pro-German, like, for he’d been a plain soldier all through the war. Folk felt clean lost without a bit of name to hit at him with, till Ellison said he was a Bolshevik, one of those awful creatures, coarse tinks, that made such a spleiter in Russia. They’d shot their King-creature, the Tsar they called him, and they bedded all over the place, folk said, a man would go home and find his wife commandeered any bit night and Lenin and Trotsky lying with her. And Ellison said the same would come in Kinraddie if Mr Colquohoun had his way; maybe he was feared for his mistress, was Ellison though God knows there’d be little danger of her being commandeered, even Lenin and Trotsky would fair be desperate before they would go to that length.’
Presiding over all three books and over three epochs of peasantry, bourgeoisie and rising working class, is Chris Guthrie, one of the most remarkable characters in all literature, more remarkable than any female character in Jane Austen, George Eliot or even the Brontes. Her common sense and good nature survive the most appalling tragedies and triumphs. She can tell an opportunist from a long way off, but is keen that her husband and son should detect hypocrisy for themselves.
The period in which Grassic Gibbon wrote the trilogy was the aftermath of the betrayal of British Labour by Ramsay MacDonald and the other apostates of the second labour government:
‘But sign news came that fair raised a stir – a Labour government thrown out at last. And Ramsay MacDonald was in with the Tories, and they were fine. And then the wireless sets listened in and Ramsay came on with his holy voice and maa’hd like a sheep, but a holy like sheep, that the country needed to be saved and he would do it, aye he was a fine chap now that he had jumped onto the gentry side.’
In an essay on MacDonald in 1932, Grassic Gibbon got down to the roots to topple the old poseur, remarking that he ‘never penetrated words with the process of thought’.
I want to deal briefly with a common criticism on the left of Grassic Gibbon’s work. Dealing mainly with the third book in the trilogy, Grey Granite, it suggests that the novel falls victim to what became known as ‘third period Stalinism’, the short period when the Communist Parties, on orders from Moscow, denounced the rest of the left as ‘social fascists’ and clung to lunatic sectarianism that they alone on the left could possibly be right. Alleged proof of this theory is the role of Chris’s son, Euan, who becomes a revolutionary Communist and organises exclusively for the revolution, laying about the rest of the left with sectarian abandon.
Well, I read the story of Euan as the story of a young man who wants to put an end to capitalism, and wants above all else to organise for that end. And anyway, Euan’s story is only half the picture. The other half is provided by Euan’s girlfriend Ellen, and above all by his mother Chris, both of whom have their say in criticising the young firebrand. The relationships between Euan and Ellen, and between Euan and Chris, are portrayed with such delicacy and sensitivity that Grassic Gibbon himself must have had some personal experience of both. Was he even a member of the Communist Party? In her biography of Grassic Gibbon, Betty Reid, a stalwart party member and membership secretary for many years, thought he was a member for only a short time. Grassic Gibbon himself in a letter to a friend in November 1934, shortly before he died, wrote, ‘I’m not an official Communist as they won’t let me in’. That sounds right, and anyway Grassic Gibbon’s early death spared him from making up his mind about the real horrors of Stalinism. Unlike his friend and collaborator Hugh Macdiarmid, he would not have withstood the Stalinist tirade for long without subjecting it to the same merciless mockery he aimed at capitalism.
We leave Euan putting on his boots to go on an unemployed march, and his mother returning to Kinraddie, where she started her life, and reflecting above all on its changes:
‘That was the best deliverance of all, as she saw it, sitting there, quiet. That change will rule the earth and the sky and the waters underneath the earth. Change, whose face she once feared to see, whose right hand was Death and whose left hand Life might be stayed by none of the dreams of men, love, hate, compassion, anger or pity, gods or devils or wild crying to the sky. He passed and re-passed in the ways of the wind, Deliverer, Destroyer and Friend in one.’
This belief in and understanding of change, materialistic irreligious change, inspired Grassic Gibbon every bit as it inspired Shelley when he wrote his Ode to the West Wind – the ‘destroyer and preserver’ the ‘trumpet of a prophecy’, the ‘tempestuous’ revolution.
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