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Wednesday, 13 March 2013

Glenshiels - James Lennox Kerr 1932

I surveyed the various works of JLK some years ago (here at and am returning to his adult fiction in the 1930-40 period. He is noted as a Scottish socialist writer, which is vague enough to be not untrue.

Glenshiels (John Lane The Bodley Head, 1932) is an early work and rooted in his memories of childhood in Paisley near Glasgow. It is heralded as an outstanding Scottish novel by such as J B Priestley and Compton Mackenzie. It went into a second impression in 1932. It is now totally forgotten, such is the fickleness of public taste.

It is a story of a working class family in a small Scottish town, alert always to what other people might say about them, and keen to put on a prosperous face. The author ran away to sea just from such a place in 1916. The plot has a circularity, as we shall see, as class attitudes are reproduced across generations.

The dramatis personae are: Hector Mackinley (his first name never again mentioned) who lived with his wife and family in a three roomed tenement. Daughter Winnie was 16, son Sam aged 8. Mackinley was a bombastic bully, without a pleasant thing to say to or about his wife, and threatening to thrash his children, even spanking his daughter's naked bottom in the street. We never learn Mrs Mackinley's first name. The family relationship was based on fear. Mackinley also bullied other men, being particularly hard on 'Socialists' who in his view supported scroungers. His 'besting' of a Socialist supporter in the early pages returns throughout the book as a sort of chorus. 

The opening scene is of the Town going to church, in their best clothes and putting on their best airs and graces. This Sunday is described in ritual terms, the procession to church, the stilted conversations, the behaviour in the service, the thanking of the minister, and the procession home. This was something that is 'done' without any involvement of niceness or ethics. Bullying the socialist is part of the Mackinley Sunday ritual, as Socialists are clearly ungodly.

The after church walk also reveal attitudes and prejudices. One side of the road was considered posher than the other - you could expect very little from the folks 'over there'. Although Mrs M expressed concern about the poor bairns in the streets, Mr M had a very clear view: 
"Mackinley, to whom such poverty only made more conscious of his own worthiness, grunted impatiently, "It's their own fault ...they had as much chance as others. If they spent less in the public houses..."
The story follows Sam into adolescence, meeting Agnes and becoming a street lad. Then part 3 follows Winnie, as a shop assistant (a job she enjoys) walking out with friends and becoming the target for a grotesque lad John, a butcher's apprentice (as JLK had been once). We are not told, but get the impression, that he raped her and she fell pregnant. Although he was not pleasant even when courting, John considered himself trapped (the pregnancy was clearly Winnie's fault, done deliberately to catch him) and most surly. The wedding had to be rushed, the pregnancy never admitted but understood by everyone. Mackinley funded a lavish wedding, not out of affection but for public show. Sam got drunk and spoilt all that - we never hear the consequnces. Winnie had to give up work on marriage. Her husband John was the same bully her father was, and the same stultifying bore, to be scivied for, pampered, but never loved in return.

The story ends with a hard edge, Winnie realising that the housewife's life was very boring, and her mother visiting. Mrs M asked her outright when the baby was due. After she left, Winnie broke down, sobbing:
"The auld bitch!" she cried, despairingly. "The auld bitch... she knew all the time".
Curtain, the book ends with that expression of family tenderness. Nevertheless, Mrs M is presented as the person to be most pitied, with the realisation that her pointless life would be reproduced by her daughter Winnie.

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