And the Land Lay Still - James Robertson
Literary novelist pens panorama of modern Scottish history
Literary novelist James Robertson has penned an Underworld-style panorama of modern Scottish history. David Pollock talks to him about identity politics
‘I’ve always had it in mind that I wanted to write a big, sprawling novel about Scottish politics and culture in the second half of the 20th century,’ explains James Robertson. ‘When I sat down to write my last book, The Testament of Gideon Mack, I thought that was going to be it. It very rapidly became a story about one individual and his battle with himself and his lack of faith, though, so when I’d finished it I decided I should have another crack at the panoramic novel.’ The result is And the Land Lay Still.
The sometime writer-in-residence at the Scottish Parliament, co-founder of Scots language publisher Itchy Coo and – as of this summer – writer-in-residence of Edinburgh Napier University’s Masters course in Creative Writing speaks clearly and confidently of his intentions while writing it, stoking our excitement with not just his enthusiasm for the tale, but for the history and possibilities of the land in which it’s set. This isn’t the kind of novel you whizz through to form a raw opinion of, however. At 671 pages and featuring various narratives that skip back and forth between characters and through the latter half of the 20th century, an already remarked-upon billing as Scotland’s answer to Don DeLillo’s Underworld seems, on first impression, well-earned.
‘It begins with a son curating an exhibition of work by his father, who was a very successful photographer but has now died,’ says Robertson. ‘This leads him, in 2008, to examine aspects of his father’s life and to re-examine aspects of his own. Then at the start of each of the six sections, you start again with a new character, all of whom have their own story to tell from over a period of 46 years, but as you progress you realise these stories actually overlap and intersect at various points.’ The characters featured include a Conservative MP, Scottish Home Rule activists, a WWII veteran and an Asian shopkeeper, the possibilities for engagement with Scotland’s recent political history strikingly apparent.
‘Part of my reason for writing the book was to explore this history for myself,’ says Robertson. ‘From the 1950s to 2008, a lot of obvious things have changed: the Scottish Parliament, North Sea Oil, deindustrialisation, the sexual revolution. The characters come from different walks of life and different social classes, so these changes have happened to them all, but not necessarily with the same effect. The reader will decide at the other end if the big journey they’ve been on actually tells them anything about Scotland, but I think what I really wanted to examine was why, in the period covered, the questions of what it is to be British and to be Scottish have become much more prominent, and also the related shift from the politics of class to the politics of identity.’
Since Gideon Mack (longlisted for the Booker and given an unlikely commercial shot in the arm when championed by Richard and Judy), Robertson’s reputation has grown to the extent that he’s now viewed as the Scots literary novelist to watch. It seems rather a weight to lay on his shoulders, but perhaps he’s the only novelist who could have written a book like this.
And the Land Lay Still is published by Hamish Hamilton on Thu 5 Aug.