Sunday, December 30, 2012


This book wins my award for the most alluring title of all our books so far. Yes, time is a kind of ocean in which we all drown, metaphorically speaking. Of course, George Mackay Brown is an author who uses metaphors and symbols beautifully, as befits a poet. To quote from one of his poems:

In the fire of images

Gladly I put my hand.

The proposer of this book was very familiar with the author’s work through the poems, short stories and novels.  Only one other member of our group had read the book before. George Mackay Brown (1921-1996) spent most of his years on Orkney, in Stromness, suffering poverty in his early life and then illness (tuberculosis, bronchial problems, depression and finally bowel cancer). His poor health barred him from the army at the start of World War II. He worked as a journalist on the Orkney Herald.  He was a student in Edinburgh, frequenting the bars of Rose Street and meeting other writers. There he formed a relationship with a woman, Stella Cartwright, described as "The Muse in Rose Street".  However, he never married.

He was a troubled soul, as judged from his work, his life and the available photographs. He turned to alcohol but he was never an alcoholic. His fondness of beer is nicely expressed: drink, he said ‘flushed my veins with happiness...washed away all cares and shyness and worries’. Most of us can relate to that. His work was widely recognised in Scotland, and he was awarded the OBE in 1976. Beside the Ocean of Time was the Saltire Scottish Book of the Year, and was nominated for the Booker Prize.

The writing, in one sense (the best sense) is naïve: he seldom uses big words or elaborate sentences, and the plots are never complex. In this book the chapters are for the most part short stories relating the dreams of a child. However, the child becomes a man and a poet; the chapters finally connect to make a coherent tale of a man’s life. Many elements are clearly autobiographical.

The child is Thorfinn Ragnarson. He lives on an imagined island in Orkney called Norbay. The first sentence is ‘Of all the lazy useless boys who ever went to Norday school, the laziest and most useless was Thorfinn Ragnarson’. He’s a sleepy fellow, and a dreamer.  Most chapters begin with a mundane scene of island life; pretty soon the boy falls asleep and dreams of a historical event in which he is a character. In the first story we are sailing down the Volga to confront the Cossack army, in the second we are at Bannockburn. The boy always wakes and the chapter ends as the real world is brought back. The stories are strung together to make an Orcadian chronology. It’s a simple and effective format, and the book is in a style like no other we could think of although we made comparisons with Under Milk Wood, Silver Darlings, Sunset Song.

Parts of the book have a magical quality, like the scene of the seal-people dancing, and the beautiful seal-girl crouching at the shore; she has lost her seal skin, having left it on the rock with seven limpets. What can this be all about? He takes her home, he marries her, she’s strangely addicted to sea food; they have children with scaly hands, then she leaves. Then he wakes up. It was another one of those dreams. She was a selkie, the mythical creature in Faroese, Icelandic, Irish and Scottish folklore.

The wheel of time moves slowly in Norbay, not much happens. Mostly we read of island folk living close to nature and going about their daily lives. But there are intrusions, some in dreams like the Viking Invaders and the Press-Gang; and some real, relating to social change in the years leading to the Second World War.  There is the intrusion of alcohol (the social cleavage between the ‘inn-folk’ and the ‘kirk-folk’); various outsiders come, most notably the lovely young woman who arrives unannounced and stays with the new Minister in the manse, causing the islanders to gossip: should they report the matter as misconduct to the General Assembly? She rides a horse along the tops of the cliffs, wildly. Then, one day the mysterious girl departs, saying to the young Thorfinn ‘You, poet, wait for me. I’ll come back some day. Never forget’. Three strange men, also unannounced, arrive in 1937 and proceed to set up their tripod and instruments in the wheat fields to survey the land. They are attacked by a local woman and their equipment is kicked over. Intrusions are to be resisted.

Towards the end of the book we are transported to more modern times and the pace quickens: now, Thorfinn is a young man and we are on the brink of World War II. The mood is dark. The island is being requisitioned as a military base, in fact an aerodrome to provide protection for the naval base (a naval base really existed on Hoy from 1945 to 1957 and there were indeed aerodromes). Well, that explains the three men who were conducting the survey. The island has never known such a thing, as people, supplies and materials are brought in. It’s the climax, the final intrusion; we witness the destruction of a primitive island society by massive modern technology.  He cannot stand this cataclysm and he leaves as bulldozers and machinery concrete over the fields to make a mile-long airstrip.  In the final chapter, years later, we return to the island and everything is different; there are unexpected twists and turns that bring closure to the plot. I won’t tell you what happens.

 It was an easy read, light relief after Salman Rushdie! We all enjoyed this book. There is a strong sense of place. We see the shaping of the man by the place and people, and the historical dream-stories remind us that it has always been that way. The final destruction of the land, as the hand of man replaces productive fields with impervious concrete is the ecological metaphor for our time. Amen.

Having no serious disagreement on the quality and meaning of the book, we finished our discussion rather early. Our host tempted us with oat cakes and there was talk of Orkney Whiskey. The conversation turned to ‘what’s wrong with Scottish rugby’ to which the reply was ‘the same as what’s wrong with Scottish football’. We stepped out into the cold night of Morningside, under a full moon and a sharp frost, and made our way home.


The proposer indicated that Salman Rushdie was no stranger. He was born in 1947 and this prompted him to write Midnight's Children. The proposer had  a copy of this book autographed and  dedicated to him as a member of the 1947 club .The proposer had told Rushdie he had been  conceived in Calcutta during the Raj even though  born late and in Edinburgh .

Rushdie’s father was a rich lawyer /business man who changed his name to Rushdie after the great Muslim philosopher of medieval Spain. He was a Bombay wallah and after early education he sent Salman to Rugby School and thence to Kings Cambridge  to read History .Then Rushdie joined an advertising agency dreaming up “That will do nicely”   for American Express , “Naughty but nice”    for cream cakes and “Irresistible” for Aero chocolate .In the evenings he wrote a first book [a failure ] and then in 1981 Midnight's Children which won the Booker Prize and the later Best of Bookers. This won lots of Awards and opened the way for many other talented Indian Authors, eg Vikran Seths A Suitable Boy .

After Shame a book set in Pakistan he went on to Satanic Verses .At some time it was always going to provoke Muslim ire but he doubtless did not expect the Fatwah.

Then in hiding he wrote The Moor's Last Sigh. This was an important matter for us to recognise in our discussion. The proposer  met him when he appeared in 1995 in London and Edinburgh to launch the book. Security is a familiar fact now but 17 years ago it was interesting to give one’s details in advance, be searched on arrival and then see that 10% of the audience was looking at the rest of the audience not at Rushdie. He looked in the flesh less ugly than  expected. The goggle eyes are probably made more obvious by TV studios. Also he was charming.

The proposer had not read Joseph Anton, Rushdie’s recently published book about his life in hiding after the Fatwah .There was no index so he could not see in the book shop what Rushdie  had to say about The Moor. Finally in 1995 the proposer went with his wife to India for the first time and later in the year to Granada. The Red Forts in Delhi and Agra are not too different from the Alhambra .Also they saw the spice markets and warehouses in Cochin and the Synagogue with its blue tiles .It follows that this is more than just a literary  choice for the proposer.

 The Moor’s Last Sigh is a novel about modern India. Its hero is Moraes Zogoiby of Bombay, nicknamed by his mother “the Moor.” But the famous sigh to which the title refers was breathed five centuries ago, in 1492, when Muhammad XI, last sultan of Andalusia, bade farewell to his kingdom, bringing to an end Arab-Islamic dominance in Iberia. From Sultan Muhammad a line of descent, partly historical, partly fabulous, leads to Moraes, the narrator, who in 1992 will return from the East to “discover” Andalusia. In a dynastic prelude occupying the first third of the novel, Moraes’s genealogy is traced back as far as his great-grandparents, the da Gamas. Francisco da Gama is a wealthy spice exporter based in Cochin in what is now Kerala State. A progressive and a nationalist, he soon disappears from the action (Rushdie gives short shrift to characters whose usefulness has ended), but his wife Epifania, faithful to “England, God, philistinism, the old ways,” survives to trouble succeeding generations and to utter the curse that will blight the life of the unborn Moraes.

Their son Camoens, after flirting with Communism, becomes a Nehru man, dreaming of an independent, unitary India which will be “above religion because secular, above class

because socialist, above caste because enlightened.” He dies in 1939, though not before he has had a premonition of the violent, conflict-riven India that will in fact emerge.

Camoens’s daughter Aurora falls in love with a humble Jewish clerk, Abraham Zogoiby. Neither Jewish nor Christian authorities will solemnize their marriage, so their son Moraes is raised “neither as Catholic nor as Jew,…a jewholic-anonymous.” Abandoning the declining Jewish community of Cochin, Abraham transfers the family business to Bombay and settles in a fashionable suburb, where he branches out into more lucrative activities: supplying girls to the city’s brothels, smuggling heroin, speculating in property, trafficking in arms and eventually in nuclear weapons.

 Aurora is a  complex character and , in many ways the emotional centre of the book. A painter of genius but a distracted mother, she suffers intermittent remorse for not loving her children enough, but prefers finally to see them through the lens of her art. Thus Moraes is worked into a series of her paintings of “Mooristan,” a place where (in Aurora’s free and easy Indian English) “worlds collide, flow in and out of one another, and washofy away…. One universe, one dimension, one country, one dream, bumpo’ing into another, or being under, or on top of. Call it Palimpstine.” In these paintings, with increasing desperation, she tries to paint old, tolerant Moorish Spain over India, overlaying, or palimpsesting, the ugly reality of the present with “a romantic myth of the plural, hybrid nation.”

Aurora’s paintings give a clear hint of what Rushdie is up to in this, his own “Palimpstine” project: not overpainting India in the sense of blotting it out with a fantasy alternative, but laying an alternative, promised-land text over it.

But The Moor’s Last Sigh is not an optimistic book, and the paintings of Aurora’s high period become darker and darker. Into them she pours not only her unexpressed maternal love but also “her larger, prophetic, even Cassandran fears for the nation.” Her last painting, which gives the book its title, shows her son “lost in limbo like a wandering shade: a portrait of a soul in Hell.”

Moraes is born under the curse of two witch-grandmothers, so it is no surprise that he has a clublike right hand and a metabolism that dooms him to live “double-quick,” growing—and aging—twice as fast as ordinary mortals.  The comparison was made with Oscar in The Tin Drum, previously discussed by the Group.

Venturing into the world, he is caught in the toils of the beautiful but evil rival artist Uma Sarasvati. A pawn in the war between this demon mistress and his mother, Moraes first finds himself expelled from his parental home and then in jail, accused of Uma’s murder. Released, he joins the Bombay underworld as a strikebreaker and enforcer in the pay of one Raman Fielding, boss of a Hindu paramilitary group.

Moraes’s grandfather Camoens had faith in Nehru but not in Gandhi. In the village India to which Gandhi appealed, he saw forces brewing that spelled trouble for India’s minorities: “In the city we are for secular India but the village is for Ram… In the end I am afraid the villagers will march on the cities and people like us will have to lock our doors and there will come a Battering Ram.” His prophecy begins to fulfil itself in Moraes’s lifetime when the doors of the Babri mosque at Ayodhy are battered down by crowds of fanatical Hindus.

Camoens is prescient but ineffectual. Aurora, an activist as well as an artist, is the only da Gama with the strength to confront the dark forces at work in India. When the annual festival procession of the elephant-headed god Ganesha, a show of “Hindu-fundamentalist triumphalism,” passes by their house, she dances in view of the celebrants, dancing against the god, though, alas, her dance is read by them as part of the spectacle (Hinduism notoriously absorbs its rivals). Every year she dances on the hillside; dancing at the age of sixty-three, she slips and falls to her death.

Raman Fielding, rising star of the Hindu movement, is a thinly disguised caricature of Bal Thackeray, the Bombay leader of the Shiv Shena Party, which Rushdie elsewhere calls “the most overtly Hindu-fundamentalist grouping ever to achieve office anywhere in India.” Closely linked with Bombay’s criminal underworld, Fielding is “against unions,…against working women, in favour of sati, against poverty and in favour of wealth,…against ‘immigrants’ to the city,…against the corruption of the Congress [Party] and for ‘direct action,’ by which he meant paramilitary activity in support of his political aims.” He looks forward to a theocracy in which “one particular variant of Hinduism would rule.”

The underworld struggle between Fielding and Moraes’s father culminates in the murder of Fielding and the destruction of half of Bombay. Sick of this new “barbarism,” Moraes retires to Andalusia, there to confront another monster or evil, Vasco Miranda. Miranda is a Goan painter who has made a fortune selling kitsch to Westerners. Obsessively jealous of Aurora, he has stolen her Moor paintings; to reclaim them, Moraes finds his way into Miranda’s Daliesque fortress. Here Miranda imprisons him and lets him live only as long as (shades of Scheherazade) he writes the story of his life. Rushdie of course at the time of writing the book was in hiding, a form of captivity, to avoid the same fate as Scheherazade.

Locked up with Moraes is a beautiful Japanese picture restorer named Aoi who perishes; Moraes, with Miranda’s blood on his hands, escapes. It is 1993, he is thirty-six years old, but his inner clock says he is seventy-two and ready to die.

The final chapters of the book, and the opening chapter, to which they loop back, are packed (or palimpsested) with historical allusions. Moraes is not only Muhammad XI (Abu-Abd-Allah, or Boabdil, in the Spanish corruption of his name): he sees himself as Dante in “an infernal maze” of tourists, drifting yuppie zombies, and also as Martin Luther, looking for doors on which to nail the pages of his life story, as well as Jesus on the Mount of Olives, waiting for his persecutors to arrive. It is hard to avoid the impression that all the left-over analogues of the Moor fable from Rushdie’s notebooks have been poured into these chapters, which are as a result frantic and overwritten  while elementary rules of fiction, like not introducing new characters in the last pages, are ignored: Aoi is the case in point.

 As if unsure that the import of the Boabdil/Moraes parallel has come across, Rushdie glosses it as follows: Granada, in particular the Alhambra, is a “monument to a lost possibility,” a “testament…to that most profound of our needs,…for putting an end to frontiers, for the dropping of boundaries of the self.”  The palimpsesting of Moraes over Boabdil supports a less trite, more provocative thesis: that the Arab penetration of Iberia, like the later Iberian penetration of India, led to a creative mingling of peoples and cultures; that the victory of Christian intolerance in Spain was a tragic turn in history; and that Hindu intolerance in India bodes as ill for the world as did the sixteenth-century Inquisition in Spain.

Rushdie pursues palimpsesting with considerable vigour in The Moor’s Last Sigh, as a novelistic, historiographical, and autobiographical device. Thus Granada, Boabdil’s lost capital, is also Bombay, “inexhaustible Bombay of excess,” the sighed-for home of Moraes as well as of the author over whose person he is written. Both are cities from which a regenerative cross-fertilization of cultures might have taken place, but for ethnic and religious intolerance.

Like Midnight’s Children (1981), Shame (1983), and The Satanic Verses (1989), The Moor’s Last Sigh is a novel with large ambitions composed on a large scale. In its architecture, however, the Group found it disappointing. Aside from the dynastic prelude set in Cochin, and the last fifty pages set in Spain, the body of the book belongs to Moraes’s life in Bombay. But instead of the interwoven development of character, theme, and action characteristic of the middle section of what might be called the classic novel, the middle section of Rushdie’s novel makes only fitful and episodic progress. New actors are introduced with enough inventiveness and wealth of detail to justify major roles; yet all too often their contribution to the action turns out to be slight, and they slipped (or were slipped) out of the picture almost whimsically. It was also argued by some in the Group that those without a good knowledge of the history of the period both in Bombay and wider India would struggle with the narrative.

To complaints of this kind—which have been voiced with regard to the earlier books as well—defenders of Rushdie have responded by arguing that he works, and should therefore be read, within two narrative traditions: of the Western novel (with its subgenre, the anti-novel à la Tristram Shandy), and of Eastern story-cycles like the Panchatantra, with their chainlike linking of self-contained, shorter narratives. To such critics, Rushdie is a multicultural writer not merely in the weak sense of having roots in more than one culture but in the strong sense of using one literary tradition to renew another.

It is not easy to counter this defence in its general form, particularly from the position of an outsider to India. But to take a single instance from The Moor’s Last Sigh: the episode in which Moraes’s father, Abraham Zogoiby, in a fit of enthusiasm for the modern, impersonal, “management” style in business, adopts a young go-getter named Adam over Moraes as his son and heir. For some fifteen pages Adam occupies centre stage. Then he is dropped from the book. The Group found the episode unsatisfying; further, we would hazard a guess that the reason why Adam disappears is not that Rushdie is following traditional Indian models but that he is only half-heartedly committed to satirizing the business-school ethos; he abandons this particular narrative strand because it is leading nowhere.

Others disagreed, enjoying the stories of Adam and other personages who blazed briefly across the pages of The Moor’s Last Sigh and then expired.

Such characters as Vasco Miranda or Uma Sarasvati or even Abraham Zogoiby himself provide a comparable problem. In their extravagant villainy they seem to come straight out of Hollywood or Bollywood.

In fact Rushdie is far from being a programmatic postmodernist. For instance, he is disinclined to treat the historical record as just one story among many. We see this in his treatment of the two histories out of which Moraes’s story grows: of the Moors in Spain, and of the Jews in India. In the case of the Moors, and of Muhammad/Boabdil in particular, Rushdie does not deviate from the historical record, which is probably most familiar to Westerners from Washington Irving’s nostalgic sketches in The Alhambra. As for the Jewish communities in India, their origins are ancient and will probably never be known with certainty. However, they preserved certain legends of origin, and to these legends Rushdie adheres without embroidering, save for one superadded fiction: that the Zogoibys descend from Sultan Muhammad (called by his subjects El-zogoybi, the Unfortunate) via a Jewish mistress who sailed for India pregnant with his child. This story is specifically (through not unequivocally) singled out as an invention by Moraes in his function as narrator.


The overall reaction to the book was positive. It brought out the complexity and diversity of Indian society and history. It was a rich, extensive, humorous and complex story that was very enjoyable to read. There were reservations  ( see above) expressed by some of our number. The virtuosity and exuberance were entertaining and admirable but sometimes descended into showing off, stylistic confusion and incoherence.  Against this it was also pointed out that those writing in English but brought up outside England were able to call upon a wider range and background in their works, eg Kipling and Paul Scott in earlier times and Rushdie, Seth, Zadie Smith and others .


Fielding is Bal Thakeray the founder of Shiv Sena see ayodhia  riots  and theBombay riots


“give up such delusive  Esperance you rotter “

Sarah “ a large full bodied  girl waiting like an undiscovered  continent, for Abrahams vessel to sail into her harbour”

Laurel and Hardon


The proposer first came across Llosa’s writing when visiting Miraflores, an upmarket neighbourhood of Lima, the capital of Llosa’s native country, Peru, and the setting for the opening section of ‘The Bad Girl’.  The assistant in a bookshop recommended Llosa as an introduction to Peruvian literature.  The proposer had subsequently read a number of his books, but found this to be ‘by far’ the most accessible.  It was also more overtly international in its content and sphere of action than some of the others, which contained, for his tastes, rather more than he wanted about Peruvian history and politics.

‘The Bad Girl’ has been compared with last month’s book ‘Madame Bovary’, by Llosa himself as well as others.  However, the group felt that the comparison was rather stretched.  Like Madame Bovary, the bad girl is seeking escape from her circumstances in pursuit of a flawed ideal.  But Madame Bovary’s ideal is romantic, whereas the bad girl’s is financial: the ‘high life’ at any emotional cost.  A similarity does exist however in that each of them pays a heavy price for their ‘escape’.  We felt that Llosa was less judgemental about his characters however, and both the narrator Ricardo and the subject of his obsession, the bad girl, are treated sympathetically.  The even-handedness of Llosa’s account of the bad girl was evidenced by the range of opinions about her in our group.  Some saw her primarily as a victim, others as a selfish predator.  She had elements of the classic ‘femme fatale’ of noir fiction and film, using her looks and charm ruthlessly to get what she wanted, and not hesitating to break up families and embark on bigamy.  As for Ricardo, we noted that he too had a fascination with the exotic – represented in his case both by the bad girl herself and by the attraction of life in Paris.  Like her, he is following his dream, although he is considerably more timid, and only at the very end of the story is it implied that he will produce the work of literature (the book itself) which will transcend his role as a humble translator of the words of others.

We agreed that the book was a superbly ‘easy read’, being very linear in structure and engaging in its content. Because of the range of characters and locations, each chapter felt like a new short story, although continuing the main thread of the narrative.  There was one reader who felt that sometimes we got too much circumstantial detail about Ricardo’s daily life, and another who thought background research had been a little too overtly displayed.  However, these were minor objections. We discussed whether it would make a good film, which raised the question of how the highly explicit sex scenes would be handled.  It was agreed that these were not pornographic, since the writing did not seem calculated to titillate.  It was pointed out that in today’s cinema, explicit sex scenes had become widely accepted.  There was also some discussion of the portrayal of the bad girl as a woman with a deep need to be dominated, as demonstrated by her acquiescence in the degrading treatment meted out by Fukuda.  Equally disturbing was her comment when Ricardo, for the only time in his life, hits her: “You’re learning how to treat women, Ricardito.”  A comparison was drawn (not in terms of literary merit!) with the current best-seller of the moment, ‘Fifty Shades of Grey’, which takes as its premise a female’s need for submission and rough treatment.  As mere men, we felt disqualified from drawing any conclusions from this, and moved on.

Returning to the qualities of the book in general, discussion ranged over characterisation and structure.  One reader thought that it was a very engaging love story, which was two-way and not a one-sided obsession.  Someone else pointed out that the bad girl was frequently trying to escape Ricardo, and that he was, until the end, the one who sought her out and ‘gatecrashed her party’.

The explication of the initial mystery of the bad girl’s origins was felt to be very satisfyingly delivered in the later part of the book.  Her father was in fact only one of a number of vivid minor characters who came on stage for sections of the book before disappearing forever.  One of the most enigmatic of these was Yilal, the boy who wouldn’t speak.  There was a feeling that his role in the story was rather tangential, but he at least demonstrated that the bad girl was capable of one altruistic relationship.  In some measure it was felt that the coming and going of minor characters left readers with quite a few loose ends, although this could well have been intentional.

Although the book seemed squarely aimed at an international readership, one of us pointed out that there was a continuous strain of political reference in the story, most notably with the account of what happened to Ricardo’s friend Paúl, and with the observations of Ricardo’s uncle on the decline of Peruvian idealism and democracy.  It was noted that Llosa himself was very active in politics, and in fact ran for the presidency of Peru in 1990.

Finally, in the light of Llosa’s award of the Nobel Prize for Literature in 2010, there was some discussion of the qualities necessary to attain this distinction.  Among the requirements were universality, prolific output, longevity, and, no doubt, consistency with various political considerations at the time of the committee’s deliberations.

From the Nobel Prize we meandered to J.K. Rowling’s forthcoming first adult novel, Scottish independence, Catalan independence, whether ‘the further south you go in Europe the worse it gets’ (economically!) and, finally, whether Richard the Second had been unfairly treated by historians.  By now we had really lost our thread, the bottles of wine and beer were depleted, and so we slunk away into the night.


The proposer began our discussion with an account of Flaubert’s background, with particular regard to matters bearing on the novel, which was first published in serial form in 1856.  The book had taken him five years to write, and was set in a part of Normandy that was familiar to him.  The action occurs in the period 1827-46.  It is one of the best-known nineteenth century French novels and counts many eminent writers among its admirers, including Henry James (who wrote “Madame Bovary has a perfection that not only stamps it, but that makes it stand almost alone; it holds itself with such a supreme unapproachable assurance as both excites and defies judgment”) and, more recently, Mario Vargas Llosa.  The eminent critic James Wood  remarked that “novelists should thank Flaubert as poets should thank Spring” because “he established for good or ill, what most readers think of as modern realist narration, and his influence is almost too familiar to be visible”.

The group acknowledged that Flaubert seemed to be revolutionary in his attention to detail and his deployment of a style of narration that anticipated the Joycean “stream of consciousness”.  But in spite of this capacity for getting inside his characters’ heads, the group felt that he was contemptuous of their bourgeois attitudes and essentially pessimistic and misanthropic.  We had all struggled to find sympathy with either Charles or Emma Bovary, and wondered if Flaubert himself had any sympathy for them, despite his famous remark “Madame Bovary, c’est moi”.  We wondered if this lack of sympathy resulted from him being a self-confessed reformed romantic, whereas she never fully understands the falseness of such a world view.

One reader remarked that he had missed any humour in the novel, although the proposer commented that in his case he had found humour that he had missed when he first read the book at the age of sixteen.  He cited the satire on the slow speech mannerisms of rural folk, and Madame Bovary’s visit to the curate.  The figure of the apothecary Homais had comic elements, but it was remarked by the proposer that he felt the focus on Madame Bovary herself tended to squeeze the life out of the other characters.

We turned to discussion of the book’s themes.  We couldn’t come up with any novels of an earlier date that portrayed an adulterous marriage in such detail. Was the novel ground-breaking in this respect as well as in its realist style of writing?  We couldn’t be sure, but we thought so.  There was some discussion of its contemporary reception as immoral, and comparison with later frank treatments of sexuality that got into trouble with self-appointed moral authorities, such as Joyce’s ‘Ulysses’ and Lawrence’s ‘Lady Chatterley’s Lover’.  However, ‘Madame Bovary’ was in fact anything but an apology for adultery.  It contains the observation that adultery ends up in the same banality as an unsuccessful marriage, and punishes the adulterous protagonist with a slow and painful death.

We discussed the quality of the various translations we had read.  One reader had been put off while reading one otherwise good translation by a number of modern Americanisms which he felt disrupted the nineteenth century European ambience of the story.  The proposer pointed out the similarities in the life of one of the book’s best-known translators – Eleanor Marx-Aveling, the daughter of Karl Marx – with the life of Emma Bovary herself, notably her suicide by swallowing poison.  The usefulness or otherwise of notes and indexing was considered, and it was felt that they drew attention to many contemporary allusions that we would otherwise miss.  For one member of our group, the detailed picture of mid-nineteenth century rural life that the book portrayed was its chief pleasure.

A few structural oddities in the book were brought up.  For example an unidentified “we” begins the narration but subsequently disappears in favour of a generalised omniscient narrative voice, albeit one close to the inner thoughts and feelings of Emma Bovary in particular.  Another oddity identified by one reader was the failure of Madame Bovary’s affectionate father to show any further interest in his daughter once she had married.  For him, this was not credible, but another member of the group pointed out the insularity of life at the time, and the difficulty of making journeys in rural France in those days.

Finally, in spite of its undeniable historical importance and influence on other writers, did ‘Madame Bovary’ stand up as worth reading for a contemporary readership?  The response was a rather muted ‘yes’ from the group.  Certainly for this reader, the experience of a first reading of a classic text that had long been on his “must read one day” list was one of indifference to the fate of the characters, and a sense of having somehow missed the point.  Although others in the group had enjoyed the book more, even the proposer declined to champion the work as a masterpiece.

Tuesday, August 28, 2012



Then turn me inside out over your cock. Like somebody peels off a glove. The puppet master speaks. Is this literature of the highest order, or pornography that aims to shock rather than entertain and inform? That was the main question that faced a full house of book readers of similar age who wondered where it had all gone wrong. Perhaps it had gone right?

The host and proposer suggested Philip Roth was surely not to everyone’s taste, but was very highly regarded in the USA. This was confirmed by the proportion of favourable reviews, both professional and amateur, on the e-verse. Some thought him shallow, some offensive, but most admired his quality of writing. One who did not admire his work was Carmen Calli, a feminist who resigned when Roth won the Booker International prize in 2011. Claire Bloom, his former wife had described him as a "self-involved, all-controlling misogynist".  Not one for the ladies perhaps? Was he a man who writes for men and one who portrays his female characters as less than human? Was Nikki less than human in Sabbath’s Theater? Did the characters come alive? What about Drenka? Nikki was no-one till she came alive as an actress and as Mickey's muse.

Overall, we did not subscribe to Calli’s idea of a woman, but maybe many women are less than Calli’s idea of a woman, irrespective of their portrayal by Philip Roth. If ever a book group needed a mixture of the sexes in discussing a book this was the time. One member noted that his wife had commented 'Are you reading that'? Had she read it, we wondered? Did she know it by experience or reputation?

As with many books, the proposer felt that it really should be read again; he had read much more into it second time round.  Another found the outrageous sex scenes very funny. He liked the Dickensian comments on life, and the tirades against the several targets. He suggested that Roth was skilled in portraying loss, death and bereavement. The book was clearly humorous. There were brilliantly funny scenes throughout, for example the wonderful rummaging about in Deborah’s drawers, in among the panties looking for the Polaroids when Norman or Rosa the maid came in.

Again, like other books, there was a feeling that this book could be judiciously edited (like these comments ... Ed.), and as such could be a greater work. There was an element of overdrive in the book, producing purple passages of prose and then away, free in one bound. Such brilliant passages ranged from sex to death to manipulation of people as puppets. They were very effective descriptions, with some of the most erotic writing in the canon. Some made comparisons to Chaucer. In those days people were much more liberal; it was much easier to write about sex.

Hold on, not everyone agrees! An alternative view was that Sabbath was a self-aggrandising s**t. Roth was, as usual, working in his own character. Another echoed that he did not enjoy the book. As he considered himself a bit puritanical, he felt exposed to the book, rather than enjoying it. Another wondered if the language was that used in a homosexual group. He compared his experience of the language in the book to meeting such a group. He also suggested that favourable criticism was jumping on the bandwagon. A discussion ensued. Was the explicit sex a shield against criticism because criticism of the writer or book would be taken as prudery? Another wondered if criticism would be construed as anti-Semitic. Was this used in the USA as a protection; was it more difficult to prosecute Jewish writers?

We turned to the main themes of the book in our view, sex and death. In the frequent visits to Drenka’s grave by a variety of suitors as well as Sabbath, these themes were explicitly linked. “Birth, and copulation, and death. That's all the facts when you come to brass tacks.” (This taken from T.S. Eliot, not the book!) Other strong themes included addiction, alcohol and drug dependency. Was this more to do with obsession rather than addiction? Another suggested that, really, this was more to do with completely amoral and selfish behaviour. However, the theme of the book in suggesting that so many characters enjoyed such behaviour was subversive. Perhaps the theme of the book was the regret of lost sex, and the need for death as desire fades, as there was no sense of purpose.

Was this just porn? Certainly the telephone sex passage was written to arouse. It was also very funny and a successful literary device. In the trial scene, Roth satirised himself as the judge dismisses the 'art' defence out of court. This was an extremely well written scene, funny and sharp, and sad as the brave girl who defended pornography as art was bullied by the lawyer. Roth rehearsed his own literary defence for posterity, as he drew the parallel between the puppet master and real life.. There were ~45 references to Rabelais, Miller, Lawrence, etc. justifying Mickey's life and art, and by extension Roth's.

So this book was considered close to the bone of sexual perversion. Which other books had similar notoriety? One of us had bought “The Story of O” at the Church Jumble Sale, so that was obviously well endorsed. Another contemporary example that came to mind was the film 'Shame', with Michael Fassbinder as a similarly obsessed male. None of our book group was under 17, so we could all read the book and see the film. This book also explored taboos, e.g. people p***ing on each other and drinking the product. Roth addressed the issues of old people having sex. As Mickey says, you can only be young once, but you can be immature forever.

Could Mickey establish a long lasting relationship with women? His later inability through arthritis to manipulate puppets was linked to his loss of control of the female characters. The book further explored other elements of old age and loss of function.

What of Matthew, the policeman, Drenka’s son, a force for good, a noble character or the village idiot? The last passage is ironic. Matthew calls him a “filthy sick son of a bitch” maybe echoing the feminist, and some of the group’s, view on Roth. Mickey could not f**ing die, he could not leave, everything he hated was here. Do you know the addictive feeling?

Someone suggested to the proposer that a book cannot be considered good if it has to be read twice. Wow, that is some generalisation! By extension, this book should have been edited and given structure. Slightly differently, the English Literature graduate suggested a good book was enjoyed at the first read, and yet more was achieved in each reading. This was not an easy book. Can we have an easy book? Can we have a short book? Please?

Turning again to Roth’s motives, why was it written? One suggested it was just written for literary position? Was it about excess? Was it a joke on the public to see what the public would take? Could he get away with it? The general view did not support this argument.
Next, there was a pernickety diversion; perhaps so much talk about sex was becoming difficult. Can a Mitchell B25 really fly at 4848 miles per hour? Aha, so we spotted the Ferrari in Ben Hur – gotcha! (Actually, there was no Ferrari, just tyre marks... Ed.)

As the discussion concluded, a detractor suggested that Roth’s problem was to write from a very limited perspective. For example, Graham Greene would travel, meet people, absorb the atmosphere and hence write new material. Perhaps Roth would benefit from 'getting out more'?

So the overall conclusion was a lack of a conclusion. Taking a straw poll, two or three thought the book definite rubbish; two or three were very impressed with the prose, the humour, the tilting at taboos; and the others sat on the fence. There was a uniform distribution of opinion. You will just have to read it yourself.

Wednesday, July 11, 2012

31/5/12 “THE WASTE LAND” by T. S. ELIOT

The Proposer and host for the evening lives in a flat on the top floor of an impressive New Town residence. While this salubrious environment posed a stark contrast
to any literal association with a “waste land”, it nevertheless accurately described the wasted state of the Book Group members who bravely tackled the climb to the top of the building.

Turnout has been better. This could be attributed to the prospect of the aforementioned climb, the challenge presented by T.S. Eliot or,  indeed, both. In order to avoid conflict and controversy, I should put on record that the missing had made their apologies.

The proposer introduced his choice of T.S. Eliot’s “The Waste Land” (1922) by explaining why he had chosen poetry. He had fond, if somewhat faded, memories, of reading and studying poetry at Oxford University where he studied English. He had read very little poetry over the 30 odd years since then and he had utilised his Book Group choice as an opportunity to re-acquaint himself with the genre. He also noted that the Book Group had read very little poetry over the years.

He explained that he had chosen T.S. Eliot partly because he was intrigued by the controversy and wide-ranging critical coverage associated with his work but, more importantly, because he was influenced by the nature and importance of T.S.Eliot’s poetry, and in particular by its musicality,  rhythm, rhyme and range of reference. He acknowledged that reading “The Waste Land” required work, as it presented a challenge to decipher the multiple allusions and layers of meaning. It pushed language to its limits. He was impressed by the influence the poem has had and continues to have on other poetical work. He pointed out that the difficulty in understanding the poem has spawned a veritable industry among academics and others whose efforts to interpret the poem continue to this day.

T.S. Eliot was born in 1885 and died in 1965. He was born in Missouri and educated at Harvard where he studied English Literature. He had a post-graduate year studying Philosophy at the Sorbonne and in 1914 he set out on a travelling fellowship in Europe. He completed his studies at Merton College, Oxford and became a British citizen in 1927.

Twice married, his relationship with his first wife, Vivien, whom he married in 1915, became progressively unhappy She was committed to a mental health hospital in London in 1938 and died in 1947. He married his second wife, Valerie Fletcher, in 1957.

He was variously a teacher, a bank executive and a literary editor He had troubled family relationships and struggled to come to terms with religion and his own religious beliefs.
He was awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1948.

Everyone agreed that reading The Waste Land had been hard work. One member had found that reading The Four Quartets had helped because it was much more accessible.
Reference was made to the differences of mood between the two poems. The Waste Land conveyed a sense of resignation to a sterile and depressed state in the world and a sense of being stuck, while the Four Quartets offered the possibility of not being stuck.

It was for some an easier introduction into Eliot’s work. It was suggested that the more positive mood displayed in the Four Quartets could be attributed to the changes in Eliot’s life. In particular, his marital problems had been resolved and his religious beliefs had been consolidated.

Another member found reading the Waste Land to be rewarding, describing the poem as a complete one –off. He was delighted at the choice and noted that he appreciated the poem much more now than when first read many years ago. He particularly enjoyed the incantatory opening sections of the poem, without worrying too much about the range of reference, but he found it progressively less enjoyable. He described the poem as a “fervent of creation”. It was noted that Ezra Pound had made significant cuts to the original manuscript, significantly reducing the length of the poem and perhaps increasing its obscurity.  It was also noted that Eliot’s wife, Vivien, also contributed critical comment that resulted in adjustments being made.

Reference was made to the use of a “medley of languages” as a stylistic device to cross-refer to a learned and breathtaking range of other works. This layering of supplementary reference or meaning involved drawing on a staggering spread of “literary” work including, Dante, Latin literature, French poetry, Elizabethan drama, Opera, Nursery rhymes, the Bible and Upanishads. Most of the group appreciated this range of reference.

However, one member considered it pretentious – it simply added to the complexity of what was already impossibly complicated. The device aggravated the frustration that this member felt in trying to make sense of the poem. While respecting and indeed admiring its intellectual content, he had concluded that Eliot himself lacked confidence in some passages of the poem and that this had added to its apparent complexity.

Each member made reference to particular quotations drawn from either The Waste Land or the Four Quartets which they considered to be examples of Eliot’s genius with words and language, and his artistry in weaving together music, rhythm, and rhyme to deliver meaning from a collage of eclectic reference material.

Examples included:

“Summer surprised us, coming over the Starnbergersee
With a shower of rain; we stopped in the colonnade,
And went on in sunlight, into the Hofgarten,
And drank coffee, and talked for an hour.
Bin gar keine Russin, stamm’ aus Litauen, echt deutsch.
And when we were children, staying at the archduke’s,
My cousin’s, he took me out on a sled,
And I was frightened” (WL)

“I think we are in rats’ alley
Where the dead men lost their bones” (WL)

“I shall show you fear in a handful of dust” (WL)


“In my beginning is my end” (FW)

One of the group had accessed the poem by means of an I Pad “App” and thought that the content of the “App”, with its wealth of interactive features, had transformed the poem for him. So to finish off our evening the group sampled the content of the “App”by viewing Fiona Shaw’s reading of the poem. She did successfully insinuate meaning where meaning was difficult to find without recourse to copious notes.

We left the meeting to make the much easier descent from the host’s top floor apartment unburdened by Eliot’s ambiguity and released from his textual knots. Our passage was aided by fresh insights as we hit the dreich streets of Edinburgh. Alas we could not escape the overwhelming feeling of inadequacy that accompanied our trip home.

Tuesday, July 10, 2012

28/6/12 “THE LEOPARD” by Tomasi di Lampedusa


So the story on the street was that the Monthly Book Group was reading ‘The Leopard’. As a fan of Scandic noir your roving correspondent zipped through 700 pages of Jo Nesbo and hastened to leafy Fairmilehead…..

…only to find that “The Leopard” under discussion was Sicilian noir.

Oh dear… a quick gulp of Nero d’Avola to refocus…

….and here was the host explaining that he liked foreign novels as they gave a very different slant on life. And he had read “The Leopard” by Guiseppe Tomasi di Lampedusa in conjunction with a visit to Sicily. It was fascinating to read of the toils and tribulations of the author in trying to get it published (it was finally published posthumously 1958) yet it had become the biggest selling Italian novel of all time.

Amongst the things that attracted him to the novel were the very vivid, strongly delineated, characters. He liked the contrast between their thought processes and their actions – this even applied to the dog! And the novel was full of contrasts, such as order and disorder, respect for the church co-existing with lechery and greed, a Prince contrasted with a dog, and so on.

The translator must have gone to enormous efforts to capture the quality and subtleties of the original. The only small flaw was that the title would more accurately have been translated as “The Serval”, a serval being a North African “tiger-forest-cat” now extinct in Sicily.

All agreed on the quality of the writing. There were some enlivening touches of humour, such as the account of the Prince’s visit to the brothel in the great opening scene. The language was eloquent, evocative and rhythmic. Lampedusa could conjure up with equal intensity both the opening scene - with its imagery of luxury, languor, rank perfumes, and eroticism - and the contrasting scene fifty years later with its imagery of dessication, of sterility, and frustrated virginity. He bought alive the smells and atmosphere of the countryside. There were sharply etched vignettes of violence – the dead soldier with his guts hanging out, or the death of the hunted rabbit – and death was always there in the background imagery.

The only reservation was that the author occasionally used a metaphor drawn from the mid-twentieth century, which jarred given his success in persuading the reader he was living in the 1860’s.

One enthusiast for the novel was a fan of historical novels, which he greedily consumed as a guilty secret. For him “The Leopard” was in the top ten – or indeed maybe five -  historical novels of all time. It was even better –wonderful – on a second reading. Some such novels merely use the historical setting as an interesting context, whether for a lightweight or heavyweight story. However, others, such as Scott, are interested in exploring the process of history itself -  sociological, political or economic developments.

Lampedusa’s great novel was a heavyweight both as a serious exploration of history – of political and sociological developments in Sicily and Italy – and as a serious exploration of the history of a man, his family, and his values. It had many layers of meaning. And even one reader who did not normally like historical novels had much enjoyed it, despite being obliged to read it on an iPhone (….run that one by me again?…………a novel read on an iPhone??! – ah, you see, the iPad failed…...).

The structure was unusual, and, for most of us, brilliantly effective. Lampedusa had started with the idea of telling a whole history through the events of twenty-four hours (drawing on the structure of “Ulysses”). This proved too ambitious, and instead he offered eight different episodes. Six were set around the time of the Risorgimento between May 1860 and November 1862, one in July 1888 at the time of the Prince’s death, and one in May 1910 with his three daughters in old age. However, Lampedusa succeeded in revealing the whole history of a man, a family and a society from these few emblematic episodes. He draws on the stream of consciousness techniques pioneered by Joyce and fellow modernists to help reveal the whole person through their sequence of thoughts.

We knew that Lampedusa was drawing much of his story from his own family history. We also knew that he was battling depression, triggered by the destruction of his family palace in an Allied air raid in 1943. He was being nostalgic for the great days of his family – but also realistic. But what was he really trying to tell us?

One of our globetrotters, discussing “The Leopard” while dining in Amsterdam with his Italian researchers (as one does) reported that they were all enthusiasts for the book. They thought the take home message was “everything has to change to remain the same” (a quotation from Tancredi referring in context to the need for the aristocracy to engage with Garibaldi and the revolution).

And another reader also admired how the seemingly infinite capacity of the human spirit to adapt to changing circumstances was beautifully depicted. However, he had found the book a struggle (“…one of these books that I had to force myself to re-open. The time frame, pace and setting of the story were turn offs….”).

A different angle was that the Prince had failed with all his children and his wife. His legacy was a broken household, which never recovered. He lost one son who escaped to England. The other son Paolo was no great use and stayed at home. At least he married and continued the family line. The three daughters did not marry. Should the Prince not have tried to persuade Tancredi to marry his daughter Concetta?  He treated his wife Stella badly. He failed to manage his estates properly. He gave Don Calogero recognition and indeed promoted him in the best circles but what did he get in return? At the conclusion Don Calogero’s daughter Angelica was well connected and the Prince’s three daughters were nothing. The resources they had left were devoted to God and fake relics. Only Benedico the dog really adored the Prince. Thus the story was one of bitterness and decay, although told with exquisite style and insight.

Another who shared that interpretation saw the last episode (May 1910 – “Relics”) as the key to the book. By shifting the viewpoint to the Prince’s daughter, Concetta, instead of the Prince himself, we finally see him in perspective. We learn for the first time that Concetta has spent her life hating her father. The Prince can now clearly be seen as too obsessed with Tancredi, his charismatic nephew, with whom he identifies. Tancredi’s skills of ironic charm, manipulation, dissembling and financial acquisition have led to a predictable outcome as a serial adulterer and politician. As an aside we learn that Tancredi – so skilful in monopolising the attention and money of his “nuncle” -  described him to a friend as “his terrible old uncle”. And the importance of Tancredi to the interpretation of the novel is reinforced by the fact that Tancredi is the only main character not based on a historical person.

Against this background the Prince’s behaviour, while in many respects gracious and noble as befitted a “leopard”, can also be seen as lazy, self-regarding and self-indulgent. He looks for his own image in his children, and fails to find it, rather than respecting them as individuals. The fact that having daughters end up as bitter old maids was common in contemporary Italian (as in Scottish) society did not absolve the Prince of his failure to consider their needs. Even though there are signs that Concetta has some of his own spirit, he fails to recognise it until too late. And his son with spirit has fled to London.

The story told so late in the day to Concetta by Tassoni, which, she thinks, puts Tancredi’s behaviour  in a different light, is reminiscent of the themes about time and memory recently explored by Julian Barnes. Concetta’s conclusion that she should have taken more control of her own life instead of being consumed by hatred is no doubt valid. But her conclusion that, with more encouragement, Tancredi would have married her rather than the rich and beautiful Angelica, is probably yet more self-delusion, yet more manipulative charm exerted by Tancredi from beyond the grave. Meanwhile, despite the Prince’s efforts to get in touch with the eternal world of the stars through his astronomy, there is no escaping the remorseless destruction of time. His last relic – the mouldering rug formed from the skin of his faithful dog – is thrown out of the window.

We felt less confident in interpreting the book’s view of Sicily and its history. Those who knew the island felt that the author captured its texture and mood, and a Sicilian had confirmed that the book was totally in the spirit of Sicily. But are we to accept the Prince’s view that Sicilians, after centuries of rule by an endless series of invaders, are too proud to consider that changes suggested by outsiders will ever be worthwhile, and so it is not worth trying? Is this the author’s view? Or the Prince’s world weariness? And is the Prince’s political accommodation with the new regime to be judged as sensible pragmatism?  Or is it typically half-hearted - or indeed downright unprincipled? It was intriguing that – the moment when the Prince became less aloof and invited local citizens into his home – is pinpointed as the moment he began to lose his authority.

Our historical expert could, however, confirm that the plebiscite on Italian unification was a sham, with a question doctored to get the desired answer (…good heavens – couldn’t happen now!...). Garibaldi was none too bright – simply a catspaw manipulated by Cavour, who wanted to claim popular support for the takeover by the Piedmontese House of Savoy. A recent book by David Gilmour (“The Pursuit of Italy”) argues that the 1861 unification of the country was a mistake. Gilmour says many thinking Italians have begun to wonder why their country has for so long been intractably dysfunctional, crippled by corruption, organized crime and a hateful bureaucracy, and governed by an endless parade of shady leaders. Was it in fact a real nation or was it just a 19th-century invention? He argues that, despite the massive propaganda effort by the House of Savoy, Italian unification began simply as a war of expansion by Piedmont against Sicily.

So – at least for the majority  – this was a multi-faceted work of genius. Those who had read it once, or indeed twice, wanted to read it again, in anticipation of finding more meanings.

“I say” ventured your literary correspondent, keen to enter the debate, “isn’t it interesting that there is a character like Tancredi in Jo Nesbo’s ‘The Leopard?’….”

…The only response was a decision that it was time to switch on the Italy v. Germany Euro semi-final. Just in time to see Balotelli’s stunning second goal.

Balotelli, born in Palermo, our sporting adviser informed us. Well, he has the feline power and grace of a leopard….so…suggested your ever-alert correspondent….

  “the Prince reincarnated!”

 “…And perhaps the Azzurri are the only good thing to emerge from unification?!”

Dazzled by my contribution, I settled back for the last swallae of Nero d’Avola…

Sicilian noir – geddit??

Thursday, May 24, 2012



The proposer of “A Dance Called America” (1994) is well-versed in history. At Edinburgh University he read Scottish and American history. His interest in this particular book was sparked during a visit last summer to the US and eastern Canada, particularly Quebec and Nova Scotia (Quebec City, Cape Breton Island, Fortress Louisburg and Halifax). He read the book during his travels.

The author of this month’s book, James Hunter, is a Highlander by birth and residence, and has written a few books on Highland-related subjects. Our proposer gave a brief résumé of Hunter’s output and life. There are about 14 books.  “Last of the Free” is an excellent history of Scotland from the ‘Highland viewpoint’.  The author tends to view the Lowland Scots much in the same way as Lowland Scots view the English, i.e. aggressive centralisers. He is a well-kent face in the Highlands and formerly the Chairman of Highlands and Islands Enterprise.  One of our members recalled that in this role he had a major influence on the "Fresh Talent" proposal to encourage immigration into Scotland, and had a vision of the Highlands being repopulated.

This book is an account of those Highlanders who emigrated to North America. It complements another book we have been reading lately, the novel by Neil Gunn The Silver Darlings.

Our proposer donned his historian’s cap and reminded us of the context of Highland emigration. Until the Union of 1707 Scots were unable legally to go to England’s American colonies. Early Scots emigration did occur, to America (e.g. Georgia), but a trickle became a flood after the collapse of traditional clan system following the 1745 Jacobite Rising.

Outline of the chapters

Chapters 2 and 4 discuss the Highlanders who went to what became the US. Those who had supported the Stuarts in 1745 mainly supported King George in 1775. The author makes a parallel with the French Canadians who supported the British both in 1775 and 1812. Indeed many of the Highlanders who were on the losing side in the American Revolution made their way to the surviving British colonies in Canada.

Many of Highland descent remained in the USA. A diversion is the way the whites in the South, whether of Scottish descent or not, have emphasised their Celtic heritage. Celtic South has a long pedigree. Mark Twain said Walter Scott caused the War Between the States.  Now that overt racism is out, a lot of Southerners have hit on something to which blacks cannot belong. Tying Southern history into Scottish history enables an emphasis on the heroic and romantic elements without the politically incorrect baggage of slavery.

Chapter 3 deals with the Highlanders’ military contribution to the defeat of the French in Canada. General Wolfe’s infamous quote probably sums up the initial English view:    “They are hardy, intrepid and no great mischief if they fall.”   But the British Government needed troops able to operate in N America and the Highlanders fitted the bill, thus launching a military tradition. Clan tradition and solidarity has been a very important part of regimental esprit de corps.  The victory of the Highlanders in Canada elevated their reputation amongst the English and Lowland Scot for ever. Somehow, Scots now identified with the British Empire.

Chapter 5 deals with the emotive topic of the mass evictions/ clearances on Highland estates. The author’s analysis of the emotional and controversial subject of the Highland Clearances is balanced and persuasive. Our proposer had visited the Hector in Pictou, Nova Scotia, a replica of the ship that brought the first Highlanders to Nova Scotia in 1773. A good point made by the author is that conditions on the emigrant ships were no better than on slave ships. Indeed emigrants paid in advance. Money for slaves was paid on arrival, so some have argued there were better conditions on ships for slaves. He also makes the important point that Highlander emigrants in the 19th century were much poorer than their predecessors in the 18th century. Nonetheless, as he makes clear, the emigrants considered they were better off in Canada than in Scotland, in particular through being in charge of their own destinies. Even so, farming small crofts - whether in Scotland or Cape Breton - has not for many years provided an acceptable standard of living.

Chapter 6 deals with Cape Breton Island. Our proposer reported this as being a fascinating place, with many familiar Scottish surnames including his own. It has a Gaelic College and much Celtic music (and festivals). Signs are often in Gaelic. In the 1930s there were as many Gaelic speakers in Cape Breton as in Scotland, but the inexorable advance of English has much reduced the number (read Alistair Macleod’s great novel No Great Mischief).

Chapter 7 deals with the fur trade and the exploration of Western Canada, and the Highlanders’ role in it. The North West Company was a Highland family business.

Chapter 8 deals with the Sutherland clearance in Kildonan, and how many of the cleared Highlanders went to the Red River from Thurso via Hudsons Bay.  Others of course stayed in Sutherland, and turned to herring fishing.

Chapter 9 describes the contribution of various Scots (in particular John Macdonald) in the bringing together of the various provinces within Canada to form a Federation. Undoubtedly this was motivated in part by the fear of USA territorial ambitions. The Canadian Pacific railway was vital to the Canadian national identity. Highlanders made an immense contribution to it.  Whereas it would be a wild exaggeration to claim Canada as a Scottish Highland creation, they certainly played an important role. Perhaps as the author is writing about the Highlanders’ contribution, a somewhat unbalanced picture emerges.

What we discussed

The title of the book is strange. It comes from James Boswell’s Journal of 1773. He describes a whirling dance coming from Skye, presumably invented to represent the emigration to America. They call the dance, America. Later, in the 1980s, the Celtic rock band from Skye wrote the song Dance called America.

The landlords came
The peasant trials
To sacrifice of men
Through the past and that quite darkly
The presence once again
In the name of capital
Improvers, it’s a name
The hidden truths
The hidden lies
That once nailed you
To the pain

Not all of us are as familiar with Scottish history as our proposer!

One of our members, unable to attend, sent an enthusiastic set of comments: “I found almost all of it riveting. The militias in the US in the eighteenth century were of course particularly absorbing for me given my military history interests”.

But some of us thought the book was ‘heavy going’, with so many clan names, place-names and dates. We would have liked a few maps (Scotland and N America) to show where the places were. Perhaps some statistics on the numbers emigrating could have been given. One of our members complained of having to use Wikipedia to follow the narrative. It was in that encyclopaedia that I found the following remarkable factoid:

 “According to the 2001 Census of Canada, the number of Canadians claiming full or partial Scottish descent is 5,219,850 ”.

That is about the same as Scotland’s own population, and hugely more than the present-day Highland population. Of course, there are Highland diaspora all over the world, and plenty in the USA. But can we be given some data?  Or perhaps a Table to show the chronology? Other books about Scottish history have been more helpful in this regard  (Prebble’s Highland Clearances, Smout’s History of the Scottish People).

Probably, one needs to be a Highlander oneself or a historian from the Lowlands to enjoy this book without ‘further study’. If, like your humble scribe, you are English (!) then this book is an uphill struggle, although one undoubtedly learns a lot, and in the end it is a satisfying read. But Prebble and Smout write for audiences anywhere.

We discussed the Highland Clearances at some length. We English (of whom I was the only representative this month), may well be ‘aggressive centralisers’ and we do feel a little uncomfortable discussing the sins of our forefathers, especially in Scottish or Irish company. Interestingly, I found my Scottish friends (Lowlanders all, I think) also sensitive on matters to do with the Clearances.

In his enthusiasm for all things Highlander, we thought Hunter had not always been fair to Lowlanders and the English. Our member who could not be with us expressed it thus:

The Glencoe massacre was portrayed as English imperialism rather than yet
another internecine clan horror - in his world Highlanders don't slaughter
each other. He applauds Highlanders finding jobs for their nephews and
cousins as admirable clan solidarity, while others might see this as nepotism (which I can vouch is rife to this day in the Gaelic speaking world). However, it was in his favour that his more sentimental or emotional points were generally then qualified by a more rational appraisal”.

It is difficult to imagine the living conditions in the Highlands at the time when the Scottish Enlightenment was in full swing in the Lowlands, and the Industrial Revolution was well underway throughout Europe. These huge cultural and social movements had touched the Highlands only inasmuch as they created demand for product such as herrings and kelp, and then sheep.

Prebble’s book may have exaggerated the level of oppression associated with the Clearances, with its focus on the ‘Year of the Burnings’ (1814) and the single incident at Strathnaver in which Patrick Sellar the factor to the Sutherland family torched dwellings, sometimes whilst people were still inside them. It rapidly became a cause célèbre partly because of the literary skill of one Donald Macleod, a stonemaker from Strathnaver, who later emigrated to Canada and wrote passionately about the incident. The author confronts us with these words, written by Richard Hugo an American poet who lived in Uig for a few months:

Lord, it took no more than a wave of a glove,
A nod of the head over tea. People were torn from their crofts
And herded aboard, their land turned over to sheep.
They sailed. They wept.
The sea said nothing and said I’ll get even.
Their last look at Skye lasted one hour. Then fog.

But clearances were not confined to Scotland. They occurred earlier in England during the British Agricultural Revolution. And much of all social change during the Industrial Revolution has the same ingredients: a nod of the head, people losing livelihoods, violence, long-lasting resentment and then sadness.

It is impossible to visit the Highlands today without being struck by a sense of melancholy.

Before the Clearances, however, life in the Highlands was no bed of roses. It should be kept in mind that the climate and soils of the Highlands are marginal for agriculture. The growing season is short and unreliable. Moreover, the period covered by the book was especially cold and stormy. A succession of bad harvests may well have been a factor forcing people to flee to the coast where kelp and herring could provide a livelihood, as portrayed in Neil Gunn’s novel, The Silver Darlings.  During the so-called Little Ice Age (from about 1550 to 1850) the temperatures of the Northern Hemisphere were about a degree colder than in the late 19th Century (hence ice skating and curling were popular sports in Scotland, and Ice Fairs were held annually on the Thames). The year 1816 is known as ‘the year without a summer’ and sometimes ‘Poverty Year’ – this occurred in the midst of the second phase of the Clearances and must have exacerbated the hardship and misery.

We digressed into a discussion of how to pronounce the word Gaelic, as in the language. You should definitely pronounce it ‘Gallic’ for the Scottish version of the language, and ‘Gaellic’ for the Irish form. No-one told the editors of my Longman’s Dictionary (i-pad edition with sound).

We learn from Hunter’s book that the more fortunate emigrants who had survived the transatlantic journey were more or less dumped on Canadian soil, and had to build their own shelters and attempt to grow crops. Winter was damn cold in Canada too. Many starved when their first crops failed. This is hardship on a scale far beyond the experience of our generation. One imagines that a high degree of selection must have occurred, a human example of the Survival of the Fittest.  Certainly those who survived did well, keeping up the Highland traditions of music, bagpipes, shinty and curling. Bonspiels today are nearly as important in parts of Canada as the Olympics elsewhere!

Given this enthusiasm for all things Scottish, one might expect a few of the successful Scottish Americans to send money home. A few have. Andrew Carnegie emigrated to the United States with his parents in 1848 and made a fortune in steel. He was a scholar and philanthropist who gave much back to Scotland (and England).  Not all have been as generous as Carnegie. Donald Trump’s wealth is said to exceed 3 billion dollars. His mother was born on the Isle of Lewis. Hasn’t he done well, a real-estate magnate and owner of the Miss Universe Organisation?  Rupert Murdoch, the Australian newspaper owner of Scottish descent is no philanthropist either. The descendants of William Cargill, a sea captain from Orkney, amassed immense wealth from the family agro-business; in recent times Margaret Cargill became known as a major philanthropist. Scottish-American business woman Mary Maxwell Gates helped her clever son, Bill Gates, get started. Blame Bill for all those bugs in Microsoft Word if you like, but salute him please for the good works he has done thorough the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation.

A complete list of Scottish-Americans is lacking in this book. The author might have made a bit more of this. Again, I had to do my own research! 30-40 million Americans claim Scottish descent.  Scots are certainly well-represented in a roll-call of American presidents (there are 23 of them, including Lyndon Johnson and Richard Nixon), famous astronauts (Neil Armstrong, Buzz Aldrin), food magnates (Campbell’s soups, MacDonald’s fast-food, the secretive Cargill family), car-makers (David Dunbar Buik), musicians (Elvis, Bill Munro, and John Baez’s mum came from Edinburgh) and even Uncle Sam himself is supposed to be the son of a nice young couple from Greenock.   For further details of the widespread influence of Scottish people in the USA, possible not entirely without a Scottish bias, be amused by this:

The Scottish Government organised Homecoming Scotland in 2009 to attract talent and money back home. However, it was reported to have been a financial failure.

The night was drawing on, and as we gathered up our belongings to go, our host suddenly remembered the special treat he had waiting for us. He produced a bottle of Cape Breton Malt Whisky. It was like a Speyside, not as good as a Dalwhinnie but pretty decent.