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Song of the Earth

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A little while back, 'your favourite novel' was suggested as a theme for a blog post. I wonder, if I perform this task with aplomb, do I get to marry the Prince? Maybe it would be easier to empty the pond with a thimble, or hew down the whole forest and chop the trunks into logs before nightfall.

Certainly it isn't easy to see the wood for the trees. A battery of titles springs to mind.

Readers are hooked on fiction for a myriad reasons. Pure entertainment and comedy are always indispensable. But so are those stories providing escape into another time and place, or insight into someone else's dilemma, a sharing of the mental, emotional and spiritual journey of those who have suffered and triumphed and whose wisdom we can adapt to our own experience. For many, it's fascinating to be drawn into the Byzantine maze of the criminal mind. Then there are authors who inspire us with their dazzling command of language, the picturesque metaphors, the smells, sounds, tastes, textures and colours of another state of being, realms we cannot visit by any other mode of travel than through the written word.

The only criterion which unites them all is that they must be well-crafted in order to linger in the memory.

If I mention one or two, I feel an injustice is done to a hundred others.

I love Anya Seton for her authentic recreation of history, the rich tapestry of interwoven realities from serfdom to kingship, Jane Austen for her arch and wicked humour and, of course, for Mr Darcy! Then there's Susan Hill for uncovering the dark nuances of an 'dinary' psyche; Anita Brookner for her microscopic forays into hidden crises within the mundane. There's William Golding for his archaeology of human nature stripped of civilisation and bereft of redemption. Perhaps this is better realised in RITES OF PASSAGE than LORD OF THE FLIES. The proposition of being confined aboard a vessel on voyage (during the Napoleonic Wars) with its set of characters representing the social compass, is, perhaps, a tamer analogy of our common experience. The imagery of D H Lawrence and his understanding of the treaty between his characters' inner selves, and of the anatomy of possession, is compelling and, for me, has been life-changing.

Virginia Woolf, too, is a writer like no other. She will alter your perception of the world for ever. Her stream-of-consciousness technique is irresistible. The sheer fluidity of her prose, the eclipsing and falling away as the spirits of her protagonists interact with each other, modify and change each other, now darkening and lightening the mood, now opaque, now transparent, motiveless, free-floating. The sheer rhythm of THE WAVES is hypnotic. It seems freed of the striving and yearning and wistfulness of TO THE LIGHTHOUSE.

But if I really do have to play the game and settle for one novel on my desert island, it would have to be SUNSET SONG by Lewis Grassic Gibbon. It describes (records?) the effects of the First World War on an isolated Scottish community with heart-wringing poetry and humour.

This Scottish writer died in 1935 at the age of thirty-four, a tragic end to a promising career. His output was phenomenal. It was as if he sensed that he didn't have long. (He might be compared to André Gide who cited fear of imminent death as his main incentive to write!) Gibbon managed to concertina the normal pace of maturity into less than two decades. Meanwhile, he was developing a mastery of language which is stunning and enthralling. His voice is truly original. Such was his imagination and empathy, that he could so convincingly describe childbirth that some readers thought the author must be a woman writing under a pseudonym.

SUNSET SONG is the first of a trilogy (A Scots Quair) about rural life, just inland of the East Coast of Scotland, below Aberdeen, at the turn of the twentieth century. It has been described as a 'crofting elegy, as eloquent in its championing of human rights as it is lyrical in its celebration of the natural world.'

It follows the life of Chris Guthrie whose mother, ground down and debilitated by endless child-bearing, poisons her young twins and commits suicide. With two older children despatched to relatives in Aberdeen, Chris and her brother, Will, are left to help their father run the farm. Will, however, soon grows tired of the deadly grind and, yearning for freedom, runs off to Argentina with his bride to seek his fortune there. When their father falls victim to a stroke shortly afterwards, Chris is hard put to hold things together. After his death, she wonders whether she should consider urban life and a teaching career, but the pull of the land, its rhythms and its turning seasons, are in her blood and bone. Enter Ewan Tavendale, a young farmer who wants to marry her. Together they try keep their way of life going under the threat of mechanisation and the calling of brave hearts to the Great War. These two factors are soon to alter the face of the landscape and horizon that belong to this folk heritage. The drumbeat of the wider world impinges and Ewan enlists as a soldier, only to lose his life, while Chris gives birth to a new generation.

This close-knit community is full of well-drawn characters. You can feel the pulse of them, hear their mannerisms, in time with the pulse of the land itself. They are funny and sad, tragic, joyful, disgruntled, mischievous. And all of their dialogue is bound into one long narrative prose poem that echoes of fable and rings with the cadences of the old Scots tongue. It is sprinkled with a wealth of descriptive Gaelic words, explained in a glossary at the end of the book.

Finally, as the community assembles at the prehistoric Standing Stones to uncover a memorial to those who have died, Chris clasps the hand of little Ewan, and feels somehow consoled, having learned that his father was shot as a deserter. He had realised the futility of war and had wanted to come back to her and the bairn, to Kinraddie and the precious land he had lost.

"And then, as folk stood dumbfounded...the Highland man McIvor tuned up his pipes and began to step slow round the stone circle and Blawearie Loch, slow and quiet, and folk watched him, the dark was near, it lifted your hair and was eerie and uncanny, the 'Flowers of the Forest' as he played it.

...It rose and rose and wept and cried, that crying for the men that fell in battle, and there was Kirsty Strachan weeping quietly and others with her, and the young ploughmen they stood with glum, white faces, they'd no understanding or caring, it was something that vexed them and tore at them, it belonged to times they had no knowing of.

He fair could play, the piper, he tore at your heart marching there with the tune leaping up the moor and echoing across the loch, folk said that Chris Tavendale alone shed never a tear, she stood quiet, holding her boy by the hand, looking down on Blawearie's fields till the playing was over. And syne folk saw that the dark had come and began to stream down the hill, leaving her there, some were uncertain and looked them back. But they saw the minister was standing behind her, waiting for her, they'd the last of the light with them up there, and maybe they didn't need it or heed it, you can do without the day if you've a lamp quiet-lighted and kind in your heart."

It's no spoiler to reveal that in Book Two, CLOUD HOWE, the widow takes up with the minister.

Comments 2

 
Katherine Gregor on Thursday, 24 July 2014 20:57

I've never heard of it. Thank you for bringing this book to our attention. I'll put it on my list!

I've never heard of it. Thank you for bringing this book to our attention. I'll put it on my list!
Rosy Cole on Friday, 25 July 2014 10:59

We're admitted to a lost world in these books. They're so atmospheric and especially resonant just now with the focus on the centenary of the outbreak of the Great War. And not only that, the Scottish Independence vote.

Thanks for commenting!

We're admitted to a lost world in these books. They're so atmospheric and especially resonant just now with the focus on the centenary of the outbreak of the Great War. And not only that, the Scottish Independence vote. Thanks for commenting!
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