Tuesday, 15 March 2011
Granite beneath the clouds
IN 1934, the Scottish writer Lewis Grassic Gibbon completed 'Grey Granite', the third in a trilogy of novels tracing the life of Chris Tavendale and her family from Highland crofting ('Sunset Song'), and a small town just after World War I ('Cloud Howe'), to a shipbuilding city during the Great Depression ('Grey Granite').
Tragically, Gibbon — whose real name was Leslie Mitchell.— died the following year, aged only 34.
The trilogy was published in 1946 as 'A Scots Quair'. There have been later editions, as well as a TV series, and it was published again last year.
Born on an Aberdeenshire croft himself ('I think of myself as of peasant stock', he remarked), Gibbon knew the countryside as a place of hard lives and toil, not just scenery. His novels were remarkable, for the bold way they brought history to life in the struggles, ideas and passions of working people, and the skill with which he turned spoken Scots into a modern literary language; a rare unity of form and content.
Also in 1934, 'Scottish Scene- or the Intelligent Man's Guide to Albyn' (Hutchinson), teamed Gibbon with the poet Hugh MacDiarmid, though each wrote their own sections, and a 'Curtain raiser' warned: 'The standpoint of one ... is not necessarily that of the other.' Indeed they were opposites. MacDiarmid, a Scottish nationalist who joined the British Communist Party when Soviet tanks were crushing the Hungarian workers, devoted an admiring chapter in 'Scottish Scene' to Major C.H. Douglas, whose reactionary 'social-credit' ideas were ridiculed by Gibbon.
Gibbon's communism was older, deeper, more critical. Writing on Aberdeen on a Sunday he remarks 'Union Street has as much warmth on its face as a dowager duchess asked to contribute to the Red International Relief'.
But he also remembers :
'The founding of the Aberdeen Soviet when the news of the Bolshevik Revolution came through from Russia, and how I and a cub reporter from another paper attended the foundation meeting; and were elected to the Soviet council, forgetting we were pressmen ..."
On religion, deriding elderly gentlemen with white whiskers and rosy cheeks who, at church gatherings debating war, upheld 'the Sword of Righteousness', Gibbon points out they are out of touch with modern warfare and weaponry. 'Why not the saw-toothed Bayonet of Salvation? Why not the Gas of God?' he asks.
Writing with feeling on the slum tenements of Glasgow, and those condemned to live in them, Gibbon takes us for a stroll on Glasgow Green to hear the various speakers, the socialist and other 'doctors' offering their cures. 'Orthodox socialism', Labour, was the 'feeed physician, plump with the proceeds of the latest Glasgow corporation swindle'. What he would make of 'New Labour' we can guess.
Contrasting the slum conditions he had seen with the endless talk of 'Scottish culture' he encountered in middle class literary circles, Gibbon confesses humorously to being tempted himself by nationalist dreams, such as restoring the stone of Scone, or installing saffron-kilted border guards. 'But I cannot play with those fantasies when I think of the hundred and forty thousand (slum dwellers -CP) in Glasgow .They are something that stills the parlour chatter,' he .says.
Gibbon gives a biting portrait of Labour leader James Ramsay MacDonald and his gradualist 'evolutionary socialism', saying: 'That philosophy of socialism which Mr MacDonald was wont to exfoliate in the days before, glancing down-wards and backwards, he caught sight of the seemly shape his calves occupied inside the silk stockings of court dress.'
And on MacDonald's first Labour government, in 1924, Gibbon says:
'Dazed Conservatives realised that here was the most Conservative government since Lord Salisbury's. Obstreperous Mesopotamians were bombed with great thoroughness by order of the Under-Secretary for Air, the personal friend of the premier, the pacifistic Mr Leach.'
Writing to friends in July 1929 Gibbon remarked:
'What do you think of those snivelling Labourists? Safety first! Keep out M Trotsky a dangerous revolutionist, and whatever would the "Morning Post" say? Keep down the school-leaving age — the dear industrialists will still require cheap labour. Persecute the unemployed like criminals — good for them . . . Swine!'
William K. Malcolm, in 'A Blasphemer and Reformer' (Aberdeen University Press, 1984), says Gibbon's philosophy had much in common with dialectical materialism. Certainly In 'A Scots Quair' Gibbon puts thoughts in Chris Tavendale's mind which suggest the author had read Engels.
Hugh MacDiarmid, interviewed in the l960s, thought Gibbon hud been expelled from the Communist Party us a 'Trotskylst' . Hetty Held, according to Malcolm, had a firm impression that Gibbon had been a CP member 'and that there were some problems which I have now forgotten which caused him to leave the Party'
In 'Stained Radiance', a character called Storman resigns from the party, saying: 'In Russia, a Communist state, I saw the same purposeless disorder as rules in capitalist England: I saw the same aimless enslavement to an archaic economic machine; I saw a ruling class— the Communist Party — in power.'
The final part of 'A Scots Quair' leaves much to argue about. 'Och, this Communism stuff's not canny . . .', says Ma Cleghorn, 'it's just a religion though the Reds say it's not.'
And the hero Ewan Tavendale gives this impression after visiting a Communist Party member's home.
'Neither friends nor scruples nor honour nor hope for the folk who took the workers' road'.
Though contemptuous of Ewan's human approach to fellow-workers, Communist Party members offer their support in his fight against victimisation and police brutality. "The Communists would exploit the case to the full for their own ends first, not for Ewan's, ' says Gibbon.
Driven hy his experiences of capitalist violence and Labour betrayal, Ewan takes the 'workers' road' with the Communist Party. His mother Chris who has already rejected religion, tells him 'Yours is just another dark cloud to me'. She goes back to the country.
In 1935, Gibbon was interested in forming a group of revolutionary writers, but in a letter to Left Review he severely criticised the official 'line' with which the Stalinists were attempting to appeal to writers. 'Because I'm a revolutionist I see no reason for gainsaying my own critical judgement,' Gibbon told them
(first published in Workers Press, 26 November 1994)
For further reading:
A Scots Quair
A Scots Hairst (collection of essays and stories) 1969