Wednesday, March 16, 2016

An antiphonal chorus

Alasdair Maclean - a Scottish shipyard worker, a poet, a sometime crofter, and eventually a recluse - was born 90 years ago today. He published two books of poems, but his most memorable work is an unusual literary memoir - Night Falls on Ardnamurchan - in which he uses diaries kept by his father as well as his own diaries to, well I suppose, mourn the passing of the crofting way of life. As he explains in the book’s preface, he wants to tell ‘something of the rise and fall of a crofting hamlet in a remote and little-known region of these islands’ through the life and hard times of his father. However, he is aware that a few of his own concerns, not least his literary aspirations, might appear here and there, and concludes: ‘The reader should picture me as an antiphonal chorus to Father and make what allowance he can when I show myself too much the soloist.’

Maclean was born on 16 March 1926 in Glasgow where his father had come after the First World War in search of work. His father, in fact, had been born in the tiny hamlet of Sanna in Ardnamurchan, a wild and remote peninsula in Western Scotland. Maclean left school when only 14, and worked in the Clydesdale shipyards before doing his National Service, in India and Malaya. He lived for 10 years in Canada, and then, on returning to Scotland, studied English at Edinburgh University (from 1966 to 1970). His parents, who had retired to the family croft in Sanna many years previously, both died in 1973.

Although Maclean had written poetry from an early age, he returned to writing poems in his 40s, publishing a first collection From the Wilderness in 1973. Waking the Dead followed in 1976. In 1984, Victor Gollancz published Maclean’s third and final book, the autobiographical work, Night Falls on Ardnamurchan: The Twilight of a Crofting Family, which brought him a modest amount of literary attention. It includes a substantial section from his father’s diaries (never named, and only called ‘Father’ throughout) in 1960 and 1970, with a commentary by Maclean, as well as a series of Maclean’s own diary entries from the time when he was living in Sanna and working on the book (1979-1980).

Subsequently, Maclean lived an increasingly isolated life at his Fife cottage, journeying less and less often to the Sanna croft. He died in 1994. There is very little further information about Maclean readily available online, but Wikipedia has a short entry, and The Herald has an obituary.

Here are a few paragraphs from Maclean’s preface to Night Falls on Ardnamurchan: ‘I can at least inform the reader that my book is built around extracts from two journals, my father’s and my own, both set (mostly) in the same small village but featuring rather different ways of life and having very different aims and methods. About the circumstances in which each journal was kept and about the plan followed in using it I shall have more to say later. Father was a working crofter, if that is not too much like saying of someone that he was a fare-collecting bus conductor, and his portion of the book constitutes a factual and totally unadorned account of his daily round, an aide memoire for his own benefit as much as anything. His record of crofting life forms the backbone of the book.

Following the extracts from his journal I have included selections from my own daily notes. These sometimes gloss Father in a more extended and looser way, a more indirect way, than the immediate glosses I have given him. Sometimes, too, they reflect on his life and work and sometimes diverge totally into my own concerns. To the extent that I was a crofter it was intermittently and never considering it my chief of occupations. I was a part-time assistant to my father and, briefly after he died, a later and lesser follower. Mainly I thought myself a writer, a poet, and the records I kept necessarily suggested my quite different business. I have tried to prevent the more strictly literary part of my life and thought from overwhelming the rest of my material, reckoning a tale of poetry and its production too narrow a specialization in this day and age for the general reader. But that aspect of things was naturally insistent for me and I have let it intrude on a number of occasions. Were I to present any other picture of myself I should be guilty of serious falsification.

What matters is that there should emerge from these pages something of the rise and fall of a crofting hamlet in a remote and little-known region of these islands, and that this should be displayed through an account of the life and hard times of my father, who was the last man to practise the art of crofting in that hamlet. If, parallel with this account and rounding it off, there should also appear a little of myself, who watched that life and that death and who, perhaps, survived it, I trust the reader will not think it too great an imposition. My literary work, indeed, grows out of that background, or did so when I kept my Ardnamurchan journal, and even where I may appear to depart most radically from the matter in hand a link of some kind could generally be found, for all that it might take a course in psychoanalysis to trace its windings. The reader should picture me as an antiphonal chorus to Father and make what allowance he can when I show myself too much the soloist.’

And here are several extracts from Maclean’s diary.

8 October 1979
‘It is two o’clock in the morning and I feel very tired. But a point of terminology nags at me and I may not rest till I have said something about it.

I have been describing this record of mine, I notice, as a journal, not a diary. What is the difference?

I think that a diary functions at a lower level. It represents - or is thought to represent - a lesser species of literature. It is more gossipy and slapdash, more concerned with jottings, more practical, less obviously intended for other eyes. So we speak of Pepys’ Diaries but of Dorothy Wordsworth’s Journals and mean, I believe, to denigrate Pepys a little when we make the distinction. Yet who would exchange the former for the latter? Not I, at any rate, though I am fond of both.

I suspect that nowadays at least, there is an element of snobbishness involved in the journal-diary antithesis. Schoolgirls, archetypally, keep diaries; poets, therefore, must write journals. (It is true that Yeats wrote a diary but true also that he took the precaution of dignifying it with a fairly resounding tide: ‘Estrangment’ [sic].)

My father, old seaman, was unbothered by such nuances and called his daily notes a ‘log’. I shall stick to journal.

5 December 1979
I came today to a corner on the seaward edge of the dunes where a mummified thistle, one of last summer’s crop, still held its form against rain and gale. It was not a Carline Thistle, so attractive and about here so rare. These commonly survive as husks sometimes well into the next season. This fellow was an ordinary Spear Thistle, brown and shrunken, like an old man dead in all but will. It might have been nature’s master copy, struggling to preserve the idea of a thistle for the next generation of plants. Two or three of its heads lolled brokenly in the wind, yet its spikes stuck out more prominently than ever from its withered leaves. I thought of a cornered dog, retracting its gums the better to show its teeth. How admirable it was, how puritanically beautiful! I stood beside it for a long time, studying it and trying to fix it in my mind.’

10 January 1980
‘How trusting-hungry are the small birds now! When I scattered crumbs at the garden gate this afternoon (later than usual for it was dusk and town-bred birds would have been well-filled to bed an hour before), a dozen of sparrows hung precariously in the gusts, a bare yard or two from my hand. Though the gale thrust them constantly downwind, away from the source of food, still they persisted, flapping like little machines in an effort to keep pace with their own lives. At times they took the whirling nourishment on the wing.

I wonder now, sitting over my late journal, in what corner of this many-cornered village do these birds roost? Surely there is no hiding-place here that can so well hug its angles to itself but that the wind pokes a long cold finger in? Yet somewhere they crouch, fluffed out and twittering, and their thin blood slowly crystallizes as the stars wheel overhead.

Not all survive such nights. You find them here and there in the mornings, on their backs, their claws tenaciously gripping air. Even when they live who can tell what transformations may not haunt them as they perch the dark away? When a night like this comes along I think it is a little hibernation that sees these sparrows through. Ghost birds I think they become, for the space of a few hours; approximate creatures. Yet when day appears, or even the appalling masquerade that may substitute for it at this time of year, out from bush or cave they tumble, like toy trumpets from a lucky dip.’

26 March 1980
‘I am now well into 1970 with my editing task. Another month, at most, should see me finished. As well, too, for I grow very short of money. I must look to the future now. I must consider what may happen when the last shilling goes and I have to leave here.

If I were sure of being able to support myself with my pen I should not care so much. But freelance writing is such a precarious and at times degrading way of earning a living. Constantly a buttering up of editors, constantly a hinting at commissions. And constantly, too, looking out for the postman, with his good news or his bad news and constantly waiting for a cheque that may or may not be coming or may be coming when someone in an office somewhere gets around to sending it.

I have had my share of all that in the past and am none too keen on going through it again. It is hardly even that the freelance is doing what he wants to do or is doing something at least closely related to his vocation. Very often he isn’t.

Yet a small voice inside me says, ‘Still it is better than working.’ Perhaps so. I have had my share, too, of soul-destroying jobs and know what they can do to one. Nevertheless I have taken the precaution of pulling the one or two gossamery strings I yet hold, to see if I cannot arrange for employment of some kind in Kirkcaldy, where I lived before and where I know people. I should get on faster if I were better able to transfer my written notes to typescript. The typewriter is a hateful machine. I had rather have the toothache than change a ribbon. And I have coined a new definition of Sod’s Law: ‘When two typewriter keys are struck at once the one that gets to the paper first is never the one that is wanted.’

The Diary Junction

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