James Robertson (2021) News of the Dead

The cover of James Robertson’s latest novel, News of the Dead, has a blurb from Ali Smith: ‘A marvellous novelist’. I spend much of my time looking at marketing techniques, when I should be reading, or even writing. Get a big hitter, preferably Scottish, like Ali Smith to say something nice about your writing and copy and paste it to all of your other books. It doesn’t need to be a novelist or writer. Billy Connolly’s good press (Jane Godley Handstands in the Dark). A gold-leaf endorsement of Scottishness and quality. I don’t know Billy Connolly or Ali Smith. I have met James Robertson on the page before. I looked for a review of his debut novel I might have written, but couldn’t find it. His novel, The Testament of Gideon Mack was stupendous. All the fine granular details have fell out of my brain like sand in a broken sandglass.

News of the Dead offers that old trick of bringing things back to life. There’s a ghost that only a young boy, Lachie, aged eight, can see.  

‘Lachie Darroch came to see me, for the first time in a while. It was autumn, the leaves were turning and falling fast, and most afternoons it was cold enough to light the stove before it got dark.’

‘…What’s a ghost?’ he asked.

…He had this story and he knew he could tell it to me and I would not laugh. Or tell anybody else.

‘…A girl. She had a white dress on. Well kind of grey. It was quite dirty, I think.’

I’ve used that trick too, in one of my longer stories, Lily Poole. There’s a holy man. Saint Conach— the story setting, Glen Conach. I’d written something about that too, but hadn’t finished it. Stories are brought to life by believers, so that’s OK, I’m not sure I believed in it enough. No church recognised Conach as a Saint, but a follower left a Latin chapbook, which showed that like all men, he had failings and was a sinner.

Marj, the old buddy, Lachie visits, has an inkling who the ghost was, or indeed is. Ghosts an echo of the past—I was here—but also for some reason a marker of the present.

The Journal of Charles Kirkliston Gibb, a penniless antiquarian, which begins Sunday, 2nd July 1809 takes us back to the beginning of the nineteenth century and before that to the Jacobites and  Highland Clearances. His transcription of a Latin manuscript of Saint Conach and his miracles takes us back to the time of the Picts. A thread of time runs from the Middle Ages to coming to the Glen of the Corona Virus. A backwater that reflects back what Scotland was and is in a whimsical and realistic manner.  

A good book asks questions of you. News of the Dead leaves you thinking this could happen, or this happened. The circularity of time provides answers. Often, not as we expect, but perhaps recognise. Read on.

Notes on ‘Spring’ by Ali Smith

Ali Smith is the same age as me and was born in Inverness, Scotland (for those of you that don’t know Inverness is in Scotland—yeh, that happens). She’s an international star whose writing is lauded. The Guardian, for example, called Autumn, ‘The novel of the year’. I stuck with Spring and read it from start to finish. I found bits of it a chore and probably wouldn’t have read beyond the first ten pages, but for her world renown.

I’ve made some notes, you might, or might not, want to have a quick read through. These would, usually, be the basis of a larger review. The major characters in these odysseys are seeking integrity, and mostly they manage it. I agree with the didactic elements listed below.

A simple journey from London to Inverness.

An obituary appears in the Guardian, …Patricia Heal nee Hardiman 20th September 1932-11 August 2018

The stories Mansfield wrote in Switzerland were her best (sanatorium).

Script about Mansfield and Rilke, literary giants. It’s mindblowing. 37

Virtue signalling problems, Richard tells his imaginary daughter. 27

Don’t talk about climate change or the rise of the right, or the migrant crisis or Brexit or Windrush or Grenfell or the Irish border…

Don’t be calling it migrant crisis…I’ve told you a million times. It’s people. It’s an individual crossing the world against the odds.  Multiplied by 60 million, all individuals, all crossing the world, against odds that worsen by the day. 68

Dying is a salutary thing, Dick, Paddy says. It’s a gift, I look at Trump now, I see them all, the new world tyrants, all the leaders of the packs, the racists, the white supremacists, the new crusaders rabble-rousers holding forth, the thugs all across the world, and what I think is, all that too solid flesh. It’ll melt away like snow in May.

[cf Catherine of Sienna]

[cfDuncan Cambell (bent cop)

Sentenced by Mr Justice Melford Stevenson:

‘you’ve poisoned the well of justice for the crooks, cranks and do-gooders’ [who want to attack the police’]

…the fact that those two writers just living in the same place at the same time in their lives, whether they met or not.

This is the kind of coincidence that sends electricity through our lives. 99

People like feeling.

Some things that Britanny Hall learned in her first two months as a DCO at a UK IRC.

There are 30 000 detained in this country at any one time. 165

Detention is the key to maintaining an effective immigration system. 167  

[ciphers not characters]

If the force of just five more nuclear bombs going off anywhere in the world happens…eternal nuclear autumn will set in and there’ll be no more seasons. 186 Florence Smith and the machine.

You can only legally detain someone in this country for seventy-two hours before you have to charge them with a crime. 204-5

Aldo Lyons (Auld Alliance) 271

235 recent escapes…detention estates.

I had no rights. I still have no rights. I carried fear on my shoulders all the way across the world to this country you call yours. I still carry fear on my shoulders. Fear is one of my belongings…

And the first thing you did when I arrived was hand me a letter saying, Welcome to a county in which you are not welcome. You are now a designated unwelcome person with whom we will do as we please 272

320 face-recognition technology.