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James Robertson: To Be Continued

Douglas Findhorn Elder, the hero and narrator of this book, is a hero we have met before in many books. A cynical man, who is unemployed, with a relationship just ended and a difficult parent to look after. He has just turned fifty. Indeed, Scottish birth certificates give not only the date and place of birth out also the time of birth, so he knows exactly when he is fifty, riding on the bus to a funeral. He has all that a man newly turned fifty can reasonably desire, other than a job, a settled relationship and confidence in the future.

The funeral is of a former colleague, a man he barely knew and did not particularly like. No matter, as he is going to be late for the funeral, in fact too late to attend the service. Douglas used to work for The Spear, an Edinburgh newspaper, which, like many newspapers, has fallen on hard times. There have been a series of voluntary redundancies and Douglas decided to opt for the most recent one. His job had required a lot of shift working, which had put considerable strain on his relationship with Sonya. He felt that if he did not take this one, the next one might be less voluntary and less generous. He received a lump sum, a reasonable pension once he was sixty and a promise of freelance work from The Spear, though, six months later, the latter has not happened.

He had been living for some time with Sonya and her two children from a previous relationship but had to all intents and purposes moved out. Firstly, his shift work had meant unsociable hours, with the result that they no longer shared a bed. Secondly, his mother had died two years previously and his father had become increasingly difficult, so Douglas had decided to move back into the parental home to take care of him. The relationship had drifted apart since then. For all these reasons, I am feeling somewhat detached, he comments laconically. His job gave him some attachment to reality. Since his redundancy, this has been lost.

He arrives at the funeral but is not allowed to enter by one of the undertakers (a man who will come to play a key role in this novel) as the service has nearly finished. After the funeral, he chats to his former colleagues, who have the same cynical view of life and the newspaper that he does. Interns have moved in – They can do top ten listicles and Google so called scientific research into what makes people fancy other people, but any thing much beyond that is outside their comfort zone. (Douglas himself will later produce his own listicle: Ten Reasons Why Having Your Physically And Mentally Infirm Father Living At Home With You Becomes Too Much To Cope With.) Douglas and his former colleagues decide not to go to the wake but, instead, adjourn to a nearby pub. Only at the end of their drinking, do we learn what Douglas is doing with his life, as he admits to a former colleague that he is writing a novel. However, he does get a chance to talk to the editor, John Liffield, who has not given him the promised freelance work. Liffield asks him to come and talk to him and offers him some work.

The Scottish referendum had taken place a few weeks previously and though The Spear had supported the winning Yes vote, other publications that supported the No vote seem to be doing better because of their support. Liffield has decided to write a series of articles and interviews about Scots and their views, but avoiding the obvious politicians and celebrities. He wants Douglas to interview Rosalind Munlochy. Douglas’ response is straightforward: Who the fuck is Rosalind Munlochy?, he asks. She comes from a family of landed gentry, whose land has dwindled away for various reasons, was married to a minor Scottish lord, was a communist, liberal and radical socialist at various times and, as the latter, was an M.P. in 1945. She was also a novelist and poet. She is about to be a hundred years old and lives in a remote part of the Highlands.

The book now changes tone and we follow Douglas’ adventures in getting to Rosalind Munlochy. His adventures are reminiscent of Richard Hannay’s in The Thirty-Nine Steps and, if we had not realised this, one of the characters points it out. It is also, in some ways, reminiscent of Michael Powell’s film I Know Where I’m Going!, and we even get a very oblique reference to this, too, though without the film being named. His adventures include meeting people with multiple identities, smuggling, casual sex, the history of the Highlands and, of course, lots of whiskey. The fact that he is accompanied by a talking toad, who provides a down-to-earth approach with a refreshing honesty, only slightly distracts us.

I do not think that anyone could call this a great novel but it is witty, Robertson tells his story well and there are lots of interesting plots twists to keep us surprised. As with his other novels, aspects of Scottish history are important, in this case the Highlands and their depopulation since the First World War and, as with his other novels, it is a plot-driven novel with a fascinating tale to tell.

Publishing history

First published 2016 by Hamish Hamilton