Writers tell their stories

5th July 1996 at 01:00
Scottish Writers Talking Interviewed by Isobel Murray and Bob Tait. Edited by Isobel Murray Tuckwell Press Pounds 9.99 This is a richly rewarding read as well as a valuable record. Unhurried and informed, disposed to listen but not to indulge, Murray and Tait know their subjects well enough to anticipate unproductive lines of questioning. Extreme reticence from Mackay Brown and belligerent whimsy from MacCaig are deftly avoided.

The elusive and self-aware MacCaig is steered beyond those areas where he has honed his responses to a sound-bite - the "one-fag poem, two-fag poem" syndrome - and after a discussion of his pacifism and well known love of all living things is nailed by his love of fishing. Murray says, "He who would not kill, must not kill a fish, must not shoot a rabbit, or whatever."

"OK. Ha, ha," says MacCaig, the familiar voice lifting off the page, "women always have one of those disgusting forefingers that put their point plonk on a polestar." But, pressed, amiably examines his compassion towards, for instance, wasps. "You know, even a wasp. I don't mind killing a fish. And I know they don't enjoy being caught. And I really don't understand why I don't feel compassion. I'm beginning to." At which point Murray lets him off the book by endorsing his inconsistency.

George Mackay Brown, a very private man, is by contrast extremely consistent, innocent even of self-probing. He discusses references, sources, religious belief and biographical details gladly but professes no analytical feelings about his work. Murray asks "Are you conscious in any way of there being a development, a progression from say Loaves and Fishes to Voyages?" Brown responds, "I've never thought about it, you know, but I suppose there must be." And, pressed by Tait - "Do you ever go through the exercise of looking over stuff you've written and summing up in your mind where it's going, what the tendencies are?" - replies "No never, Bob."

William McIlvanney is by contrast extremely self-aware but expresses influences and inconsistencies as part of the wider West of Scotland working class experience, street-cred standing in opposition to intellectual activity. Murray suggests his thriller-writing is an attempt to engage the whole of which he is a more complex part. His is by far the most thoughtful and most contemporary contribution, widening the base to the politics and philosophy of writing, suggesting that violence in his books is both an acknowledgement of reality and a metaphor for the capitalist society.

Jessie Kesson, to whom the book is dedicated, talks at length about her extraordinary life, her speech a counter to the wilder flights of literary theory. "You know how folk often say - reviewers and thesis writers when they're analysing - I read two theses on my work already - and I know that their folk had game to a great lot o'bother obviously and certainly daen their homework, everything - even my short stores - but I do sit back efter they've come to a conclusion and think, God, was that really what I was writing aboot?" And David Toulmin, like Kesson a cottar from the north east, concludes with a largely biographical account of the love of books that led him by degrees to fictionalize his experiences and become a published writer after an over-ambitious start, attempting while still at school a history of the Roman Empire.

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