A Poem and a Lost Scottish Classic

As we approach the end of this unprecedented year it seems appropriate to post this short poem.

2020

That was the year when

everything shut down

and all we could hear

were the birds.

That was the year when

we hid from each other

and couldn’t say goodbye

to the dying.

That was the year when

the masked looked

askance at the unmasked.

That was the year when

we found out what

was essential and what

was inessential.

That was the year when

I found out there was more

to life than life.

That was the year when

I found out there is more

to death than death.

That was the year when

I unstitched a few

malevolent masks.

That was the year when

I found out there was a

a human need to reach

out and touch others.

* * *

Addendum

I am reading a novel at the moment which is pertinent to our present pandemic. It is titled The Silver Darlings, by a Scottish author, Neil M Gunn. It was first published in 1941, perhaps that date is significant in itself. The ‘silver darlings’ of the title are in fact herrings as the novel traces the Highland fishermen and their families in various situations. (They are silver not only because of their colour but because they provide sustenance and profit for the population.) Each chapter (26 in total) has a title and chapter 10 is The Coming of the Plague. The plague turns out to by dysentery but the effects on the population are the same; the need to isolate those infected and many deaths. With our present pandemic I’ve heard people reference Albert Camus; The Plague and other novels or plays but I’d be surprised if many people have heard of this Scottish novel. The historical setting is around the highland clearances when many were moved off the land and hence found employment in the fishing industries. There is an underlying political dimension to the novel. (Neil Gunn was a Scottish Nationalist.)

As some of you may know my father was a Scot and I may even have heard him mention Neil Gunn. It is a pity I will never know if he read this book. There are salmon fishermen in our ancestry so that is another reason for connecting with the characters.

So, what is it about the novel which makes it other than just a ripping old adventure story? In a word, its humanity. The characters are all believable and three-dimensional. But above that, I have been moved by the honest down to earth evocations of situations involving suffering and joy, for example when he describes compassion in action and the love between the characters. There are many poetic descriptions of the countryside and sea. Many commentators today talk of the loss of community: in this novel there is a strong sense of community. It is easy to feel nostalgia for the past and over-romanticise it, but Neil Gunn writes without sentimentality of a way of life which has vanished from the so called developed world.

The plague chapters are very moving and are impossible to read without comparison to our present situation. Again, he doesn’t exaggerate the suffering and writes with much empathy. (I do wonder how the war affected him and how involved he was. Some research for a rainy day! I had a quick look online and there is no mention of the war although he was living in Scotland in the 40s.)

I am only half way through the novel so I have not made my mind up as to how satisfying it is in the end as a work of art. From what I have read so far, I would recommend it as a novel which provides insights into a way of life of the past and how natural forces (disease and the elements) affect us all.

January 2021

I have now finished reading the novel and can say it is one of the most life-enhancing novels I’ve read. The relationship between Catrine and her son is very well developed. The overall tone of vitality and optimism is refreshing; there is none of the angst associated with mid twentieth century literature. Some may conclude that this is because it is a naturalistic ‘escapist’ narrative, but I found depths of insight here which would contradict this assessment.

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