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James Robertson: And The Land Lay Still
Robertson decides to go for broke on this one and tell the story of Scotland from around 1950 to the present-day or, at least, till the end of the 20th century. He starts off with a proposed exhibition by a well-known photographer, Angus Pendreich. In fact the novel starts with Angus’ son, Michael, sorting out his late father’s large collection of photographs and trying to pick out the best ones. Angus had been very good at getting photos of ordinary people, either at some special event or just caught in a good pose. He has become so famous for this that it is known as Angus’ angle. His son is very different from his father. He does not have his father’s talent (he is also a professional photographer but not very successful) nor does he have his father’s flamboyance. His father’s flamboyance includes having numerous heterosexual affairs (Michael is gay and has only a few affairs). However, it also includes being at the right place at the right time, based on a combination of luck and good contacts. For example, he witnessed and photographed the return of the Stone of Scone to Arbroath Abbey.
Robertson’s technique is to tell the stories of a few relatively ordinary individuals, many of whom appear in Angus’ photographs. At the same time, he outlines, often in great detail, the political and cultural background in Scotland at the time, and how it links to the individuals whose stories he is telling. While he covers numerous topics – from the aforementioned Stone of Scone to Asian immigration, from property development in Glasgow to crime – there are two topics that interest him (and his characters) most, namely Scottish nationalism and left-wing politics. If you know little about Scottish nationalism, you could do no worse than read this book, which acts as something of a primer to the subject. Robertson’s sympathies are clear, though he is quick to point out the weaknesses of many of the individuals and movements involved in the nationalist movement. Many of the characters are involved directly or indirectly in the nationalist movement and those that are not frequently discuss it or are touched by it in some way. Similarly, left-wing politics, touching on such subjects as the miners’ strike, Thatcherism, the poll tax revolt and corruption in high place, are also covered. Robertson takes great pleasure in writing about the various sexual foibles of high-placed Conservative politicians and one of the main characters gets caught out in a foot fetish saga (shades of David Mellor).
The stories we follow are mainly of those that are not too well-off. Apart from Michael Pentreich, we follow the stories of a couple who have two sons who follow very different paths, one a gentle left-winger, another a violent thug, the friend of the man of the couple who, one day, walks out on his wife and daughter without explanation and whom we meet early on (without being aware of it). We follow the story of the posh Tory M.P. who spends much of his time fighting with his wife (often physically but she is an equal match for him) and squandering his money, and their three children, two of whom do well and make money and one of whom, the daughter, drops out. The journalist, daughter of a generally absent father, the woman who keeps a sort of literary/political salon and the reformed thug who may or may not have killed William McRae also feature. The most interesting, perhaps, is the tale of James Bond (it really is his name but he changes it to Peter Bond later on, for obvious reasons), who really is a spy. He is recruited at a low level and remains at a low level, working in London However, he is later sent to Scotland, where he spies on the Scottish nationalist movement, as the authorities are worried it might turn into another Ireland, though Bond does not believe that that is even vaguely likely. The sporadic violence is both amateur and ineffectual.
Robertson, of course, cleverly has some of these stories crossing one another, with people bumping into each other and then not meeting again for many years, or meeting in ways you might not suspect. But, while their individual stories are certainly interesting and do show up the complicated nature of politics in Scotland, we are asked to sympathise with a variety of disparate characters and, inevitably, the most interesting ones tend to be the less than pleasant ones, namely the violent thug and the foot fetish Tory. Did Robertson intend this? I suspect not, though this may just be my perverse nature and other readers may come to love the characters Robertson wants us to love. Nevertheless, it is fascinating account of Scottish history in the second half of the twentieth century, even if not entirely successful.
First published 2010 by Hamish Hamilton