James Kennaway - Tunes of Glory (1956)
- 1 January 2005
100 Best Scottish Books of all Time
If James Kennaway were still alive he would be 76 and might well be considered the grand old man of Scottish fiction. Like Muriel Spark, though, he would probably live elsewhere: he disliked what he saw as the conformism and ‘inbred inferiority complex’ of the Scots. ‘I suppose if you’re going to stay in Scotland and never move out of this teeny little circle and never want criticism from anywhere, then fair enough,’ he once remarked. But that was back in 1957. What would he have made of the country now, with its revitalised culture, changed social and economic structure, and its Parliament?
He died in 1968, aged 40, of a heart attack while driving. He had completed seven novels (two published posthumously) and numerous film scripts. Kennaway, according to his biographer Trevor Royle, was ‘a classic candidate for a heart attack, somewhat overweight, a smoker with a high voltage lifestyle’. There was an edginess, a liking for risks and emotional if not physical danger, that comes through very clearly in his fiction.
Tunes of Glory, his first novel, grew from his National Service experience in a Highland regiment. The plot centres on the antagonism between Colonel Jock Sinclair, a hard-headed, hard-drinking Scot who has fought his way up from the ranks, and Colonel Basil Barrow, a cold, humourless Old Etonian to whom Sinclair, whose wartime ferocity has turned into peacetime boorishness, seems both offensive and frightening. Barrow arrives to take command of a regimental barracks in a Scottish county town in the middle of winter. He tries to impose his own rules on the mess, is forced into a confrontation with Sinclair, and when things get out of hand cannot take the pressure and commits suicide.
The bare bones of this plot give no indication of the deceptively simple accuracy of Kennaway’s prose, nor of his brilliant depiction of characters and indeed an entire society – the male military world enclosed by the high wall of the barracks – in just a few sentences. Kennaway went on to write stylistically and thematically bolder books, like Some Gorgeous Accident and his last work, the short but wonderful Silence, a love/hate story set in a racially divided, riot-torn American city. But Tunes of Glory remains his best-known work, partly because it was made into a superb film starring Alec Guinness and John Mills but also, perhaps, because it is his most Scottish novel. It’s an irony, considering his attitude to Scotland, that might have both amused and irritated him.
Further reading: Some Gorgeous Accident (1967) deals frankly with infidelity, inspired by Kennaway’s wife’s affair with John Le Carré; The Cost of Living Like This (1969) also focuses on a triangular love affair.
View the complete list of the 100 Best Scottish Books.