THERE WAS a list in the Daily Telegraph. All the big broadsheets with their notions of themselves and the self-image of the readership they all aspire to serving, deliver lists of things on occasion … In this case, it was the Great British Novel.
Being the Telegraph, this was quickly amended to Great British and Irish Novels as the Torygraph buckled weakly under the usual demented onslaught from people in Ireland who think Waiting for Godot is Irish though it was written in France in French or from those who think Laurence Sterne is Irish because he was born and raised in a series of army barracks in Ireland (including Carrickfergus) … How easily a barracks-born Englishman can have Irishness thrust upon him as long as there is some benefit to be gained for the adoptive nation … and how damned hard it is for poets from this very county of Antrim, who happen to have been Presbyterian and have the misfortune of speaking and writing in our Ulster version of Scots, to be awarded that honour. Not a chance, your worship.
They’ll be laughed at and derided, have their blue plaques smashed, their headstones turned over. But show me a redcoat …
Show me a redcoat every time and I’ll fall on my Gaelic knee caps, or what’s left of them, and worship at his altar.
At any rate, the Telegraph, collapsing in a way the Daily Mail never would, with its list of 50 Great British and Irish Novels rehearsed the usual list of the novels we all think are great but rarely read – Middlemarch, Vanity Fair, (all of) Wuthering Heights, Sons and Lovers, To The Lighthouse, Ulysses, and so on and so forth.
Of course, the 50 could easily have been comprised solely of novels from the 19th Century alone … but the Telegraph chose to include, for example, the execrable A Dance to the Music of Time by the unreadable Anthony Powell (all twelve volumes).
And there was Dickens, though, represented by Bleak House … and that solely because that snob F R Leavis, who preferred Woolf and Lawrence to Joyce in that insane football match the English play out all the time in cultural terms, because F R Leavis regarded Bleak House as Dickens’s only serious novel, with psychological depths apparently to which he himself could plunge in the safety of his mid-century prejudices about what psychology was. The psychology which builds a personality, a self, from the bricks and mortar of Jeremy Bentham and Thomas Robert Malthus, the sluggish psyche with no dark corners but good honest business sense.
Bleak House. And then I thought, well, what would you have as the great Dickens novel? And then, once you think about what is meant by ‘great’, you think, hold on. Hold on, you think, ’alf a mo’.
It’s not Copperfield. It’s not Twist. It’s not Curiosity Shop, or Our Mutual Friend, or Pickwick or Little Dorrit or Great Expectations – though it might be Great Expectations, it just might be. But no.
… A Tale of Two Cities. Of course it is. Every time, every where, in every mood and corner, it is A Tale of Two Cities, its resonance, its cynicism, its romance, its disappointment, its understanding that failure is exactly that. Its madness, its daring, its gorgeous frightening complicated heroism, its account of a revolution and a comfortable life harrowed by love and a self-sacrifice which strikes to the very core of our selves as citizens, as friends, as lovers, as neighbours, and an articulacy which builds to the expression of that astonishing deed, which has kept children awake at night and in wonder for a century and half and which still, still, to this very hour this morning, characterises what we know at first, in the first instance, of the most the most earth-shattering society-changing upheaval in western history. We are all riding that tumbril, Dr Leavis, and will be for ever.
Riding it? Riding it? We are fighting each other to clamber on to it, to take our place at the blade to have a chance to be for one moment, that heroic, that clean, that much an actor and an agent in our world, reaching from the throne to the cottage hearth we were all born beside. “It is a far, far better thing that I do, than I have ever done; it is a far, far better rest that I go to than I have ever known.”
There is that meme, as they say, which has been doing the rounds on social media for some years. The Beckett quote from his story Worstward Ho (1983) which runs: “Ever tried. Ever failed. No matter. Try again. Fail again. Fail better.”
It does the rounds because somehow, in our age, ‘failure’ must only be a step on the rung to success. It can't be an end in itself and we must always spur on failures with the promise of imminent victory. Even ‘failure’, here, in this context, isn’t failure at all – it’s just triumph deferred or in disguise.
But it isn’t that, of course. It is actually catastrophic failure as the human condition. And I want to speak up briefly for failures everywhere – true-blood, bona fide, passport-carrying, disappointees. It is a noble calling – failure as the result of a lifetime’s effort; failure waiting under the streetlight across the road; failure at the shops; failure attending every decisive action. It isn’t even that there is a value to those reverses, that currency, other than the spirit ultimately battered into stoic contemplation of itself and its permanent dismay.
Fail better. Fail more extravagantly. Fail more often. Persist at it to ensure more failure ensues. This is what Beckett understood profoundly.
And even when one gives up one’s embittered inaccurate life for another, no one will reflect upon the action or its motive. No one will know. The passerby and would-be rescuer herself is pulled under, her body never found. The second body in the burnt-out house is merely a second casualty of the fire, not a failed attempt at saving another. And so on and so forth.
I give you Sydney Carton. Breathtaking, noble in the end, eloquent beyond endurance, the fruits of his life enjoyed by another who was better equipped to savour and share them.
Well, those thoughts opened to others in the fiction line – forget the worthies. Forget Jane Eyre and the cult of Austen. Forget even Trollope and perhaps even Hardy. Certainly forget Lawrence and Woolf and Joyce, other than (on a good day) Dubliners.
No. Show me the Admiral Benbow. Show me The Time Machine. Show me Dracula, Frankenstein, show me – if you can – The Invisible Man. The Last of Mohicans, with Chingachcook – pronounced ‘Chicago’. Bring me Lorna Doone, The Thirty-Nine Steps, Anne of Green Gables, The Secret Garden, The Woman in White. Bring me A Study in Scarlet and The Sign of Four, North and South, Tom Brown’s Schooldays, Black Beauty and The Hunchback of Notre Dame. For that matter, bring me Little Women, The Man in the Iron Mask and The Three Musketeers, Around The World in Eighty Days, Little House on the Prairie and The Railway Children.
And Ivanhoe and Rob Roy. Even – because this is the cut of me, bring me the dustiest book in the storeroom of my secondary school, steadying one leg of a bookcase full of physics textbooks – Count Robert of Paris – a novel my English teacher argued blind never existed, was made up entirely by myself, but which I argued equally obnoxiously did indeed exist and had been made up entirely by Sir Walter Scott and here, indeed, it was.
Bring me Shane. Oh do. Bring me that dark stranger …
He rode into our valley in the summer of '89. I was a kid then, barely topping the backboard of father's old chuck-wagon … In that clear Wyoming air I could see him plainly, though he was still several miles away. There seemed nothing remarkable about him, just another stray horseman riding up the road toward the cluster of frame buildings that was our town. Then I saw a pair of cowhands, loping past him, stop and stare after him with a curious intentness.
The ‘dark trousers of some serge material’, the matching coat ‘neatly folded and strapped to his saddle-roll’, the shirt of ‘finespun linen, rich brown in color’, the handkerchief of black silk ‘knotted loosely around his throat’, and the hat, unlike any he had ever seen, ‘plain black, soft in texture . . . with a creased crown and a wide curling brim swept down in front to shield the face.’
Oh, bring me Shane. Bring me the books that are the great influential novels of the ages, the books that ignite the imagination and set the curtains rustling at night, that survive retellings, that can be bastardised and abridged and butchered and adapted and still survive, generation after generation, in the tiny heart.
Bring me that class of novel to which, for all the Carletons and Sheehans and Moores and that group of 19th Century novelists that came to be known (in a parodic recipe for marital disharmony) as ‘Lover and Lever and Kickham and Banim’ … that class of novel to which Ireland, for all its gush and wordy reputation, has contributed, if we leave out the Gothic bizarreries of Maturin and Stoker and Le Fanu, and admit Gulliver, The Riddle of the Sands and the trilogy by Walter Macken, only a tiny portion to the sum of human entertainment. Bring me the popular classic, enduring, immortal, international.
Bring me, in short, if you can bear the suspense, Kidnapped by Robert Louis Stevenson.
Everything I know and remember about literature is contained in the first 40 odd pages of this book. Everything I would want to hold and preserve for my own heart is in the first 40 odd pages of this book.
After that, you can do what you like.
All my life – all my life – I longed to read a book like this, with an opening like this, which spoke of my own place, my own familiar landmarks and sojourns …
Why did this strike me so forcefully? Because this IS my own place, this punched itself into my imagination, whole, undiluted, all of a piece, as my landscape, my people, my life, my uncle, my story.
That journey from Essendean, to Colinton, to the Glasgow road, to Cramond, and from thence to The Hawe’s Inn at the Queen’s Ferry, and the ministrations of Elias Hoseason. These places, to my astonishment, existed. They exist. Their streets can be trod, their roads can be walked and they can be arrived at, in fact, for real, those very roads.
And I returned again and again to the narrative of the opening pages and at every step of the way I was walking, though from a world being imagined in 1886 almost 80 years before my own birth in Downpatrick Co Down and itself reaching back a further 130 years to a morning in June in the year of grace 1751, in a landscape and among people I knew in my bone and blood, because their ghosts were walking in my life still, the old people, the cob smoking women, the becapped elderly men, the big drinkers, the garrulous crooks, the old salts of the sea-faring folk, the hard men, the dangerous men, the men without heart, the frauds, the chancers.
Who wouldn’t know them? Especially on our neglected east coast of Ulster, facing into the Irish Sea when the rest of the island faces out to the Atlantic, facing over to Scotland the other norths, our other homes? Of course, it’s us. Of course, the Lowland Scots of Davie Balfour paces along the same rhythms as our own argot, similarly vexed and baffled by the prejudice of that rival English and by both Gaelics, just tantalisingly beyond the fingertips of our tongues. And how the novel waltzes among language! Without Alan Breck’s gracious determination not to exclude Davie from the wisdom of his Highland Gaels, the travels and travails of the Lowland Scot would simply not occur or not be told to us.
And of course, the ghosts of the Jacobite Rebellion haunting the narrative, the rebellion’s aftermath of rapparee and carpetbagger and traitor, the underbelly of a Scotland hammered for good.
And the heroes. Alan Breck Stewart.
The house of the House of Shaws entered my soul. And before then the wisdom of Essendean, in which is buried the word Eden itself, isn’t it?
And I sat down on the boulder the good man had just left, and opened the parcel to see the nature of my gifts. That which he had called cubical, I had never had much doubt of; sure enough it was a little Bible, to carry in a plaid-neuk. That which he had called round, I found to be a shilling piece; and the third, which was to help me so wonderfully both in health and sickness all the days of my life, was a little piece of coarse yellow paper, written upon thus in red ink:
TO MAKE LILLY OF THE VALLEY WATER.—Take the flowers of lilly of the valley and distil them in sack, and drink a spooneful or two as there is occasion.It restores speech to those that have the dumb palsey. It is good against the Gout; it comforts the heart and strengthens the memory; and the flowers, put into a Glasse, close stopt, and set into ane hill of ants for a month, then take it out, and you will find a liquor which comes from the flowers, which keep in a vial; it is good, ill or well, and whether man or woman.
And then, in the minister's own hand, was added:
Likewise for sprains, rub it in; and for the cholic, a great spooneful in the hour.”
To be sure, I laughed over this; but it was rather tremulous laughter; and I was glad to get my bundle on my staff’s end and set out over the ford and up the hill upon the farther side; till, just as I came on the green drove-road running wide through the heather, I took my last look of Kirk Essendean, the trees about the manse, and the big rowans in the kirkyard where my father and my mother lay.
I was at school and university from the age of four to the age of 28. Studying English or versions of it for that whole period; literature for most of the latter end.
And I was 30 years old before I found the word ‘Downpatrick’ in a novel – one called In This Thy Day by Michael McLaverty, published by Macmillan, no less, in 1945. It was not taught in schools in the very town at its lyric core. Nor in the university which claimed to service the region.
I hesitate. Patrick Geddes, the Scots biologist, pioneer of urban theory and the lore of civics, looked on this odd imbalance of power and virtue with a wry intelligence …
Our record of local history and achievement is no mere retrospect of sporadic genius, but a perpetual renewal of recognisable elements ... The definition of culture in terms of ‘the best that has been known and done in the world’ is but half the truth ... the highest meaning of culture ... finds in the past not only fruit but seed ... History is not ended with our historian’s ‘periods’; the world is ever beginning anew, each community with it, each town and quarter. Why not, then, also this small town of ours ...?
Why not, indeed? The discovery of even the simplest inscription of familiar life can validate an imagination rooted in it. Seamus Heaney recounted as a student his coming upon John Hewitt’s poem ‘The Townland of Peace’ in Robert Greacen’s and Valentin Iremonger’s anthology of contemporary Irish poetry, and being struck by what he called “the fume of affection and recognition” that came off the word ‘townland’:
It was one of those moments when the mind-mass shifts a little on itself ... Obviously, I did not think explicitly to myself ‘Ah! Thank God, somebody is putting our oral culture into the print culture, enabling us by access, giving us textual verity, taking the crack out of the mirror and the gaps out of the glossary.’ I did not think it but something like a premonition of demarginalisation passed over me ...
Indeed, the ‘townland’ is a paradigm of the elusive, the fugitive, the literally ‘unsettling’ — a template for placing both smaller and larger locations of allegiance in radical question. As a seven-year-old boy – why are we always seven? – on those roads in County Down, I followed a signpost to ‘Bright’ along a country road for three miles, encountering nothing at all, except, at a crossroads, another signpost for ‘Bright’ pointing in the direction I had just come. I can tell you it was some time before my ricocheting to and fro across the geometric landscape, its co-ordinates and compass-points, ground to a halt in the dusty road. This is the intriguing concept of a place to which one could be directed but to which one could never be said either to have left or reached.
But what struck me in encountering that word ‘Downpatrick’ in McLaverty was no more but no less than what had already been buried within me in Essendean and in that journey of Davie Balfour across Scotland towards violence, rapture, adventure, bonding, friendship, yes, a deeper love, a nation and the absolute immortality of a fiction that was nevertheless ‘not untrue’.
Is Kidnapped then a great novel? Yes. Is it memorable in its parts? Yes. Will this novel last for ever? Oh yes.
It has already.
A version of this was first given as a talk on the Great Scottish Novel on 17th May 2014 at the John Hewitt Spring School, Carnlough