THE term “literary” has its ambiguities: what does it mean? Perhaps the quickest understanding is to define what it is not. He is not motivated by money. Its priority is not commercial.
That doesn’t mean you can’t make money out of it. Walter Scott was paid per word. The serialization of Dickensian fiction brought financial rewards. And the fiction of George Friel, Fred Urquhart, Jessie Kesson and Ian Niall, like that of Scott and Dickens, arises from an artisanal blend of lived experience and imaginative understanding. He invites readers to patiently engage, not to seek instant gratification but to take the time to understand human desires and motivations, conflicts and resolutions, failures and triumphs, and to enter worlds. with a different character and ethic.
Urban contexts in Friel; personal relations to Urquhart; the contradictions and oppressions of class, gender and decorum in Kesson; and the necessities of farming and country living and how human beings are creatures inhabiting a natural world with all its tenderness and violence to Niall, all of these themes and concerns are written with deliberation and care, rather than in the immediacy of the operation.
Friel (1910-75) published only a handful of books. The Bank of Time (1959), The Boy Who Wanted Peace (1964) and Grace and Miss Partridge (1969) are lucid, uniform and carefully balanced works, but then we come to Mr Alfred MA (1972), his last novel. Here, Friel combines realism and nightmare, the former gradually giving way to the latter in a horrific vortex of insufficiency, evil, despair and tragedy.
The pathos of a hopeful, optimistic but vulnerable, very limited teacher immediately grabs the reader’s sympathy, but then we see him confronted with an adamant satanic opposition figure. The trap is inexorably closing. The descriptions of school life and the angst of the novel’s conclusion are utterly compelling, visually and metaphorically emphatic. It begins in 19th century realism and ends in a world as terrifying and unrecoverable as anything that happens at Kafka.
Edwin Morgan, in Twentieth Century Scottish Classics – published by Book Trust Scotland (1987) – describes the book as a “study of the decline of a pedantic, old-fashioned, alcoholic and utterly inadequate middle-class teacher” gripping the reader with his ” specific detail, whether dark or funny ”.
He continues: “The story of Glasgow’s youth gangs and their graffiti is a common thread throughout the book that leads to Mr. Alfred’s final assault by some former students, and his ensuing mental collapse, reported by an interior dialogue with a mysterious young person who is in fact Satan, architect of anarchy. Morgan aptly sums it up as “not a novel about a ‘social problem’, but a vigorous, grotesque and bitter piece of imaginative writing.”
The novels and stories of Fred Urquhart (1912-95) are consistently impressive and diverse in tone, setting, humor, irony, compassion and diversity of the characters. Edwin Morgan named his debut novel, Time Will Knit (1938) as his best, but noted: “It is in the short story that his touch is most secure. They are diverse “in the settings and the moods, contemporary and historical, racy and deliberative”, but a central and recurring characteristic is its establishment of women as central figures: “the rabelaisly rabelaise but irrepressible heroine of Dirty Minnie; the brilliant quarrels of women washing themselves in the hammam of Dirty Linen; the girl with tuberculosis abandoned in hospital in We Never Died in Winter. He also drew attention to “the grim study of a single farmer and an Italian prisoner in English in three months”.
Urquhart’s short stories are collected in I Fell for a Sailor (1940), Selected Stories (1946), The Clouds are Big with Mercy (1946), The Last GI Bride Wore Tartan (1947), The Year of the Short Corn and Other Stories (1949), The Last Sister (1950), The Laundry and the People (1955), The Dying Stallion (1967), The Plowing Match (1968), The Proud Lady in a Cage (1980) and Seven Ghosts in search (1983). His novels also include The Furet was Abraham’s Daughter (1949), Jezebel’s Dust (1951), Palace of Green Days (1979) and A Diver in China Seas (1980). Jessie Kesson (1916-94), in her unique novels The White Bird Passes (1958), Glitter of Mica (1963), Another Time, Another Place (1983) and the stories collected in Where the Apple Ripens (1985) romanize aspects of her own life, growing up as an illegitimate child in North East Scotland. She has also written over 90 plays for radio and television.
Kesson’s biography by Isobel Murray is carefully judged and her selection of Kesson’s early stories, poems, radio works and autobiographical reflections has been published under the title Somewhere Beyond (2000). Morgan said of The White Bird Passes: “The heroine, Janie, was raised in the slums and wynds of a town in North East Scotland in the 1920s, and from there went to a orphanage, triumphantly surviving these environments in her determination to do something with her life.
The tones of miserability, whining or complaint are ESPECIALLY absent, because the liveliness and energy of the central character uplift and support the narrative and invest vitality, enthusiasm and smeddum in the prose. Norman MacCaig, poetic master of lucidity and brevity, praised him succinctly: “Beg, borrow or steal this book. Compton Mackenzie said, “She can make the printed page come alive.”
Glitter of Mica gives us a tough and lonely farming community, exploring its characters, focusing on the Riddel family, a milkman, his wife and their graduate daughter, their humor and animosities, loyalties and jealousies, spanning 30 years. It is a story of trials and struggles but also of the indomitable spirit which was the essential character of its author.
The novels, autobiographies and “nature writings” of Ian Niall or John McNeillie (1916-2002) maintain a strong emphasis on rural life, non-sentimental encounters with animals, women and men. He grew up in Galloway and moved to North Wales in the 1940s and from there to England, but the landscapes and life of South West Scotland inhabit some of his best writing.
His first novel, Wigtown Plowman (1939) introduces us to Andy Walker, the son of a violent father who went to World War I and who will never be seen again. Andy finds work on a farm but his temper is short, he is eager to fight, and his attitude towards women is brutal and straightforward. He is forced to move from one place to another, always a victim of his own character and victimizing others, without remorse and increasingly ugly in his moral turpitude. The book was serialized in the Glasgow Sunday Mail and caused a scandal. As a portrait of the lives of farm workers and the homes they lived in, it sparked a public inquiry into the living conditions of farm workers and reform through the Rural Workers Housing Act, with the issue being raised at the House of Commons.
McNeillie admired Emile Zola and John Steinbeck, and one reviewer noted that Wigtown Plowman was “a vigorous counterattack” to Burns’ pious poem, The Cottar’s Saturday Night. The author’s son, Andrew McNeillie, wrote of the novel: “Its plot is minimal, its trajectory wide and full of darkness and light, earth and sky.
It was published in the same year as James Barke’s Tolstoyan epic of farm life in the same territory, The Land of the Leal, and McNeillie notes: as to the depiction of farm life and its associated hardships ” . He is also in the literary company of Lewis Grassic Gibbon, J MacDougall Hay, George Douglas Brown and Neil Gunn, not to mention Thomas Hardy, Patrick Kavanagh, Seamus Heaney and RS Thomas.
Using different names for different works, John McNeillie / Ian Niall has published over 20 books including the Glasgow Keelie (1940) and Morryharn Farm (1941) novels and like Ian Niall, No Resting Place (1948), Foxhollow (1949) , The Flood (1951). Niall’s “nature writings” are among the best of their kind, from The Poacher’s Handbook (1950) to Fresh Woods (1951) and Pastures New (1951). The latter two were reissued as a single volume in 2012, where Andrew McNeillie notes in his introduction that their titles derive from Lycidas by the great English poet John Milton:
And now the sun had spread all the hills,
And now has been dumped in the West Bay;
Finally, he got up and waved his blue coat:
Tomorrow in fresh woods and new pastures.
There is also a warm and loving autobiography A Galloway Childhood (1967), The Galloway Shepherd: A Story of the Hills (1970) and My Childhood (2004), published posthumously. All bring back treasures, as does Andrew McNeillie’s biography, Ian Niall: Part of His Life (2007).
George Friel, Fred Urquhart, Jessie Kesson and Ian Niall: four authors whose works deserve to be researched, discovered or rediscovered. As with any great literature, the more you read them, the better they get.