I don't know why I have always felt drawn to Scotland, as I was born and brought up in a foggy English Midlands town. Maybe it was because my aunt was an enthusiastic reader of The People's Friend
, whose Scottish-set stories represented the country as the abode of serious professionals who were all doctors, vets or teachers, or 'salt of the earth' types like farmers. She used to pass on her copies to me and as a voracious reader, even at the age of 10, I took them as representing a mythical country that was far more romantic than the one I had the bad luck to inhabit.
It's interesting that there is one story I remember in some detail over 60 years later. It concerned a young girl from the Highlands who was a talented student but had to give up hopes of higher education as she needed to work to support her widowed mother. This being the 1950s when the British economy is still recovering from WW2 and jobs are scarce, she ends up working in London as a typist, living in a grotty wee bedsit at the top of a crumbling house.
Desperately homesick for her Highland home, but not wanting to pass on her misery to mum back in Scotland, she composes a letter in which she describes where she lives, and wants to say something positive about her surroundings. So she writes: 'From my window I can see...' and can only see a gloomy grey landscape, still scarred by the damage from the blitz. She finishes the sentence: 'From my window I can see ever so far'.
In the story the girl gets rescued – I forget how – by a 'Dea ex machina', a lady writer she meets who is planning to move back to Scotland and employs her as a secretary there, encouraging her to complete her education. This is The People's Friend
after all, so stories must have a happy ending… But I've always thought the phrase 'I can see ever so far' a rather appropriate metaphor for grace under pressure.
The power of two?
It's rather odd that in beautiful downtown Banchory we seem to end up with two of everything. We have two opticians, two butchers, two undertakers, two hairdressers, two furniture stores and two sets of lawyers. What rather spoils my model is that we now only have one flower shop, whereas at one point we had three – a couple too many for a small town – and like many places these days, we have a plethora of charity shops but only one bookshop. I am not sufficiently acquainted with any of these paired businesses to know whether they are deadly rivals or whether they rub along happily together. But is this another metaphor for life?
For several years now, I have frequently bought a magazine called Amateur Gardening
(AG), which claims that the free seeds they often give away with it would cost more than the price of the actual publication. I guess I could become a regular subscriber but it's a bit too right-wing for me and every so often I stop buying it until I've forgotten what irritated me about its political stance. However, AG does have a deadly rival in the shape of Garden News
(GN) and the two are always trying to outdo each other. If AG offers one packet of free seeds, GN will offer two. If GN has to increase its price by 10p, AG will only increase its price by 5p… and so it goes.
Now, I have always been an advocate of 'both/and' rather than 'either/or'. Given that both publications come out fortnightly, why not merge the two titles to create Amateur Gardening News
and come out weekly with a free tree every quarter as well as a wee packet of seeds every week? Is the tacit rivalry between them like the grit in the oyster, driving them both to greater efforts of gardening journalism?
Having had at some point in my career to review articles for publication, I find it difficult to switch off my editorial role when reading fiction. I must admit that I cannot read Walter Scott. I did battle through Rob Roy
as I was given it, but Rob hardly came into the story, which seemed to be more about a family of Yorkshire alcoholics. And why did Ivanhoe want to marry that soppy Saxon girl when he could have had Elizabeth Taylor? She was wasted on him anyway.
I do love Robert Louis Stevenson but recently re-reading a battered copy of Treasure Island
from the charity shop, it struck me that if I had been RLS's editor I would have suggested that he didn't drop so many hints about Long John Silver's real character so soon in the book. I mean, surely it would have been better to let the reader make up her mind about what's going on when Jim Hawkins spots Black Dog in Silver's pub? Having said that, I love the fact that (spoiler alert!) Silver doesn't get his just deserts but trots off with a bag of loot to rejoin his wife, a lady of colour who certainly has all her wits about her.
There are other classic writers I can't get to grips with – why is Graham Greene obsessed with being a Catholic? He was hardly a very good one, by all accounts, and seemed to see it as his membership of a rather exclusive club. And I don't like Philip Pullman either. If Greene dines out on 'I am a Catholic', Pullman's refrain is 'I'm an atheist'. Pullman makes God an archetypal grumpy old man figure, and then blames the Divine Being for being something he's created himself. What really annoyed me about His Dark Materials
is the way that Pullman creates an alternative Oxford, with all sorts of arch comments only intelligible to those who know the place. Having been there and observed this esoteric and exclusionary culture at first hand, I did not wish to be reminded of it.
But these are all authors I take issue with – maybe next time I'll mention some that I think should be better appreciated.
Dr Mary Brown is a freelance education consultant