My pet theory is that authors write the same book again and again, until they get it right (write). James Robertson writes about Scotland. No headline there. He always writes about Scotland. He can mix it up a bit with Saints, God and the Devil, but you know where you are with him.
Here we have an ensemble cast that takes us from Scotland in the 1950s to the mongrel breed of Scottish Devolution nobody much wanted, but we settled for. The book kicks off with Michael (Mike). He’s gay and a photographer, but not half the man his father, Angus, was. He was also a photographer, but better. It takes a lifetime to admit it, but Mike’s got there in the end. His dad seemed to have married his mum for spite. That, and she was beautiful. The conceit is Mike is arranging an exhibition of his father’s best memorial photographs.
His da’s lost love (one of many) Jean Barbour, keeps a room for Mike in her Edinburgh home. Everybody that is anybody goes to Jean Barbour’s, including Dufflecoat Dick. Jimmy Bond, who changed his name to Peter Bond, after another spy, Ian Fleming, brought a book about with its eponymous hero, James Bond.
Jimmy Bond is testing the waters for MI5. The London establishment can’t quite decide if Scotland is full of windbags or real revolutionaries. Oil in vast quantities, off the shores of Scotland, to a bankrupt Britain makes that a pressing question. Bond is good at snooping, lying low in the background, but Jean Barbour susses him out. He’s an alcoholic that has long and detailed conversations with himself. It’s in the same manner as some of Robertson’s other narrators had conversation with Saints or, in Gideon Mack’s case, the Devil. The demon drink, even if kept in check, answers back more than it should. Scotland might have flushed its heavy industries down the toilet, but there’s still something worth saving even in fictional towns like Drumkirk and Borlanslogie that are just over the hill, near Lothian. There’s a nod to The Great Disruption when members of the Kirk revolted about interference from their so-called betters about appointing ministers—which was surely—God’s work.
Don Lennie was thirty when he met Jack Gordon. In 1950, most able-bodied men had been in the armed services. Jack Gordon was a Japanese prisoner of war. That left a mark on him and he went walkabouts. Don stayed put, kept his job fixing lorries, and largely kept his mouth shut, about working conditions. He married his childhood sweetheart. They have two sons, but his youngest is nothing but trouble. His eldest boy is one he can be proud of. He hooks up with Jack Gordon’s daughter. The two of them school teachers and ban the bombers. Ticking in the background, the youngest son.
Then we have the aristocracy, washed up to be sure, but Michael Eddelstane has his father’s club in London and his father’s contacts, when Unionist meant not Union, but menial workers doing as you were told, while waving a flag for country and Queen. He’s got a sister, Lucy. She doesn’t understand how things work, and can easily be disinherited. And he’s got another brother, much like himself, but not as handsome and not as lucky. He doesn’t get to marry an heiress and inherit his father’s seat in the House of Commons. Michael has it all, but also that fatal flaw, and it’s not even booze or homosexuality (well, a bit of public school jiggery-pokery) or licking a woman’s toes as an Honourable MP for John Major’s government was found out by The Sun.
It’s not James Hogg’s The Private Memoirs and Confessions of a Justified Sinner. Nor is it Nicola Sturgeon’s The Public Memoirs of SNP, but somewhere in between that heaven and hell. Scotland, aye.