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Sunset Song

Sunset Song

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This novel taught me more about the Great War – its human impact and consequences – than I would have learned in a dozen textbooks. At some passages, I cried – moved more deeply by a book than I had ever been before. Indeed, over the past few years, my First Ministerial duties have taken me to First World War centenary commemorations in Arras, Amiens and the Somme. I have heard and been humbled by the real-life stories of those who fought, died and survived. And yet so often I’ve found myself thinking about the fictional Ewan Tavendale; about how the war brutalised him, turning his happy marriage to Chris into a nightmare of abuse and contempt. And about how, far away in a field in France, he had suddenly come to his senses, overcome by the futility of it all: I think one has also got to be careful about attributing this harshness to Scotland rather than to Victorian and Edwardian generations. My father was not British and although he wrote tenderly of his father after his father’s death in his diary as kind, dedicated and faithful (that’s my memory of my grandfather too) he commented to me once that in the generations before his father (i.e. my father’s grandfather, Stefan, born around 1860) that people of that time seemed to be hard and judgemental. But that ‘nowadays’ (1980s) people were kinder and more inclined to want to assist those who had fallen on hard times rather than judge them as weak, profligate, or failures. Chris Guthrie is the most passionate and appealing heroine in Scottish literature; Grassic Gibbon’s magnificent novel is fresh, powerful and timeless”

Chris subsequently marries Ewan, a local crofting lad. Gibbon’s description of their wedding is lyrical as is his account of the first few years of their marriage. Indeed, his portrayal of the young couple, deeply in love, working the land and raising their young son together is one of the most romantic evocations I’ve ever read. Thank you for pointing out where the blue plaque is – I hadn’t been able to find it on Google Earth ! I’ve never been to Welwyn Garden City. I’ll maybe go sometime! The last sentence with its references to cultural fear and (self) loathing may explain that persistent Scots psychological cringe.The assertion was that ‘there will soon be no ‘normal’ culture to reinforce a distinctive ‘Scots psyche’ [over and against ‘other’ cultures in our society that could be (and are) deemed ‘non-Scottish’ in relation to that norm]. It would indeed be wonderful if plurality rather than identity became the new cultural norm. Because this man Mitchell wrote under the name of Lewis Grassic Gibbon and, in 1932, published his novel Sunset Song, which is now regarded as one of the crown jewels in literary fiction. This is the book I would have voted for as I had fallen in love with it at university when studying it as a set text. The book’s language is mesmerising. Indeed ‘the speak’ of Kinraddie is unforgettable not just because it’s a novel literary device but because it echoes Scottish speech. Gibbon’s description of ‘the land’ is also memorable as is his portrayal of the devastating effects of war and mechanisation on a Scottish agricultural community. How could anyone read sunset song and talk about the brutality of john guthrie, a tenant farmer without mentioning the brutality of the tenure he existed under?

In the novel Gibbon uses the rhythms and cadences of Doric, the north east Scots language to capture the land and people of Kincardineshire and in doing so helped create a new tradition of Scottish writing quite distinct from the English novel. There does not seem to have been any previous contributions to Bella from this author. Just a plug for two books.An unforgettable evocation of a way of life that has slipped away … It is a love song for a landscape and language still familiar – and precious – to a generation born long after [Grassic-Gibbon] died … Chris is one of the great women of 20th-century fiction”

a b Norquay, Glenda Lewis Grassic Gibbon and Women, in International Companion to Lewis Grassic Gibbon, Scott Lyall (ed.) (2015) Outsiders’ perceptions can help jolt us out of cultural blindness. In 1989 the German academic Peter Zenzinger published an essay on contemporary Scottish fiction which is telling. He notes that disenchantment with life is commonplace in the literature of all industrialised countries but that ‘the extreme bitterness with which it is uttered in Scottish writing is remarkable.’ Zenzinger thinks this has to do with a host of factors but he singles out our ‘Calvinist heritage’ with its ‘negative attitude towards sexuality’” The thing to understand is that It was less wage slavery than a way of life. Despite the itinerant nature of this way of life, social relationships were maintained through the farm households and bothies, the weekly markets, and the quarterly fairs. Countries were much smaller: for example, I once worked out that my grandmother had lived her entire life within a sixteen-mile radius of where she was born. My grandfather was only ever displaced from his native country in Stirlingshire by the First World War and its aftermath, which disrupted rural populations in Scotland in ways that Robert Colquhoun eulogises in Sunset Song. Strong and abiding relationships were maintained in the smaller worlds of the farming communities of the time, as evidenced by Robert McLellan’s Linmill Stories. But I am sure I am not the only person who was absolutely aghast at the appalling contribution of this author in 2014.

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I was from Glasgow so I had to learn to speak the (Doric) language, because it was so important, but some of the cast were from the north-east and they helped me in every way they could.

But, for all that, it was Chris Guthrie that gave the novel the place in my heart that it still occupies today. I am genuinely not sure if it is true or a stretch to say, as many do, that the Chris of Sunset Song – and the two subsequent novels that make up the Scots Quair trilogy – personifies Scotland. I have had further time to reflect after my angry comment above. I am no longer angry but feel that this article is an embarrassment.Above all, he portrays the cataclysmic impact of the war on a generation and their expectations. Chris loses her men, she has to cope with rumours of cowardice and desertion, and she sees the territory around her transformed. Life was hard for her – a cruel, incestuous father and a community that was often unforgiving in its iron-clad morality. But she was stirred by the power of the land, and therefore clung with her heart to a past that hadn’t been kind to her. Grassic Gibbon – his real name was James Leslie Mitchell – was radical in the way he used language (as he was in politics) to convey feelings in descriptions that read as if they are the inner thoughts of people, rendered with a poetic pulse that he manages to sustain against the danger that the artificiality might get too much. The book’s personality is shaped by that language.



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  • EAN: 764486781913
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