Posts Tagged ‘fiction’

Neil Munro: intro.

April 11, 2008

The front page lead story in the Glasgow News of 23rd December 1930 was on the death of the Scottish novelist Neil Munro. Its triple-decker headline read:

Death of Neil Munro

Passing of a Great Novelist

Genius in Journalism

Politics, crime, the economy were all relegated to second place. Over the next few days the News would publish four separate appreciations of Munro from prominent Scottish writers of the day such as R B Cunninghame Graham and J J Bell.

Although Munro was buried in a simple family ceremony at Inveraray, on the same day civic dignitaries, representatives of Glasgow and Edinburgh Universities, the churches, An Comunn Gaidhealach and the press attended a crowded memorial service in Glasgow Cathedral.

          Munro’s death was treated as a major event and all the Scottish and British newspapers carried appreciations of his work and accounts of his career. All would probably have agreed with the comment of one writer who observed: “Neil Munro is dead, and a light has gone out in Scotland.”          A much-loved author had died and his death seems to have moved the nation in a quite remarkable way.

          There was little in Munro’s background or early life to suggest the high place in Scottish literature, or in the national consciousness, that he came to occupy; indeed his birth and childhood could hardly have been more disadvantaged.

          Born on 3rd June 1863 in the Argyllshire town of Inveraray, to Ann Munro, an unmarried domestic servant, Neil Munro grew up with the problem of illegitimacy and in very modest circumstances. He never knew who his father was, although local rumour has persistently suggested a member of the family of the Dukes of Argyll.  

In the 1871 Census the young Neil was recorded as living with his grandfather, a retired crofter.  Ann Munro married the widowed Malcolm Thomson, the Governor of Inveraray Prison, in 1875, but at the 1881 Census Neil was staying with his great aunt Bell MacArthur, a former agricultural worker. This family background, with its roots in the Argyllshire countryside, meant that Munro was brought up bi-lingually. Gaelic culture and the Gaelic spirit informed much of his writing, although he never published any works in that language.

          After attending school in Inveraray, Munro about the age of 13 entered the local law office of William Douglas as a junior clerk.  This was an odd appointment. Nothing in Munro’s background made a career in the law likely; his fellow clerks were from a more conventional middle-class background – a doctor’s son and a lawyer’s son.  The job was in fact wished on Munro. He later wrote he was:

 

…insinuated, without any regard for my own desires, into a country lawyer’s office, wherefrom I withdrew myself as soon as I arrived at years of discretion and revolt.

 

Nor was it just any country lawyer’s office. William Douglas was a central part of the Argyllshire establishment: Clerk to the Commissioners of Supply, Clerk to the Lieutenancy of Argyll, and later, Sheriff Clerk and Justice of the Peace Clerk.  Perhaps the string-pulling that had landed the bright young Munro such a coveted job was connected with the mystery of his father’s identity.

         

 

For the remainder of this article please click here

 

 

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Para Handy

April 3, 2008
Para Handy Scottish icon!
Yes, Para Handy is surely one of the most remarkably resilient comic characters ever created. He first appeared in the columns of the Glasgow Evening News in 1905 and has never been out of print since.
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Created by the Scottish novelist and journalist Neil Munro the Para Handy stories tell of the adventures of Para Handy,  Captain Peter Macfarlane, and the crew of the puffer Vital Spark.
OK – what’s a puffer?
A small steam lighter mainly used to carry general cargoes around the West of Scotland.
Despite the fact that the puffer has disappeared from our waters (apart from a couple of museum ships) and the world that they inhabited has changed almost beyond recognition, the stories have retained their freshness and humour in a quite remarkable way.
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A typical puffer.

My co-editor, Ronnie Armstrong, and I were delighted and thrilled to discover 19 original stories, which had previously been unpublished in book form, in the files of the News  and have included these, along with comprehensive notes and introductory material and archive photographs in our Birlinn edition of the Complete Para Handy.

Click on the image below and you will be taken to Amazon.co.uk where you can buy this book.

For more about Neil Munro check out the Neil Munro Society website http://www.neilmunro.co.uk/

John Splendid

April 1, 2008
John Splendid was Neil Munro’s first novel, published in 1898 after serialisation in Blackwood’s Magazine.  Like most of Munro’s fiction it is based in and around his home town of Inveraray in Argyll and is set in the troubled period of the 1640s and the Civil War. War however in Argyll took on much of the character of a clan battle. The Campbell stronghold of Inveraray is burned by the Royalist forces under Montrose, assisted by Alasdair MacDonald or MacColla, who saw the struggle between King and Parliament as an opportunity to strike back at his clan’s traditional rivals the Campbells, represented by Archibald, the 1st Marquis – Gillespeg Gruamach (Archibald the Grim).
As I write in my introduction to the B&W reprint of John Splendid the story starts in 1644 when: “… Colin, heir to the Laird of Elrigmore returns to his native parts after a long absence. Five years of study in Glasgow University had been followed by seven years of campaigning in Germany and the Low Countries as a soldier of fortune campaigning in one of the Scots regiments fighting in the Thirty Years War.” He returns to Argyll where his family were allies to the Campbells and finds himself in another war zone and meets McIver of Barbreck, a distant cousin of the Marquis and the John Splendid of the title.
Munro’s cast of characters reveal the Highlands in all their complexity – John Splendid for all his military prowess is shown to be less than noble, always ready with the answer that the Marquis wants to hear, while the Marquis, fated to be a war-leader of a fighting clan, has all the instincts of a lawyer and a politician. When his town of Inveraray is burned he takes the prudent but unheroic course of sailing away to seek reinforcements.
John Splendid was a bold choice for Munro’s first novel – the same story of Montrose and Argyll had been dealt with by Sir Walter Scott in  A Legend of Montrose – but it is tribute to Munro’s skill that his version is capable of being compared with the Scott novel.

Click on the box below to go to amazon.co.uk where this book can be ordered

For more information about Neil Munro go to the Neil Munro Society website www.neilmunro.co.uk

The Rat-Pit

March 31, 2008

The Rat-Pit is a companion piece to Patrick MacGill’s Children of the Dead End – it tells the story of  Norah Ryan, the childhood sweetheart of Dermod Flynn the central character in Children of the Dead End.  Her descent through betrayal, the birth of an illegitimate child, life in a Glasgow lodging house (the rat-pit of the title), sweated work as a piecework seamstress, prostitution and death is recounted in graphic and harrowing detail.

Click here for an article about MacGill

Click on the image below to go to amazon.co.uk where this book can be ordered.

Patrick MacGill: the “Navvy-Poet”

March 30, 2008

A writer who swiftly transported his Irish working-class hero from the squalor and danger of life as a navvy, building the Blackwater Dam for the Kinlochleven aluminium works, to a scholarly position at the centre of the English ecclesiastical establishment in St George’s Chapel, Windsor might be thought to be in danger of losing credibility. If the young hero also overcame a background of grinding poverty and limited education to become a best selling novelist and poet the writer could perhaps expect quite a lot of rejection slips.

Yet what would be unbelievable fiction was the reality of the life of the ‘Navvy-Poet’, Patrick MacGill, who shot to national fame with the publication of his autobiographical novel, Children of the Dead End, in 1914.

MacGill was born into a poor subsistence farming family in the rural community of Glenties, County Donegal around April 1890. He described his education in Who’s Who as ‘three years at a mountain school.’ When he was twelve, he was put out to add to the family income by doing casual work on local farms. After a couple of years of this he was considered old enough to be sent to the hiring-fair at Strabane, County Tyrone, and spent the next few years working for a variety of masters as a farm labourer. As a teenager he came to Scotland with one of the tattie-howking squads who made the yearly trip from Ireland to harvest potatoes on the farms of lowland Scotland. 

To read the rest of this article please click here

 This article originally appeared in The Scots Magazine in September 2001.

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The Great Push

March 29, 2008
Patrick MacGill’s autobiographical novel of life in the trenches in the early years of the First World War has many of the strengths of his first novels – Children of the Dead End and The Rat-Pit. It is written from first hand experience and gives an unromantic, unvarnished, private soldier’s account of war at the sharp end.As I discovered when researching MacGill and his army career for my introduction to Birlinn’s reprint of this book he had enlisted in the London Irish in September 1914. Like many Irishmen of the day he saw no problem about volunteering to fight in the army of what many of his countrymen saw as an occupying power – MacGill’s politics always seemed more to be class-based than deeply involved in questions of nationalism. MacGill was gassed in action in September 1915 and two weeks later was wounded in the arm at the battle of Loos on 28 October and invalided home. Although he remained in the army for the duration of the war it seems that the authorities found a more appropriate role for a talented writer than rifleman and he produced a number of other books about the war and ended up in the Intelligence Section of the War Office.
The Great Push is a classic account of men at war and in its brief compass gives many memorable pictures of the horror of war and men’s reaction to war.
For an article on MacGill and his work click here.

Click on the link below to connect to the amazon.co.uk website where this book can be purchased.

Children of the Dead End

March 28, 2008
A number of years ago I was asked by Birlinn to write introductions for reprints they were doing of novels by the Irish writer Patrick MacGill. At first sight this seemed an unlikely project for Birlinn but in fact MacGill’s best works –Children of the Dead End and The Rat-Pit are based on his own experiences as an Irish labourer working in early 20th century Scotland. They are deeply-felt books which take no prisoners in their description of the poverty and degradation of members of an under-class and the social, economic and religious forces which keep them in that condition.
Having a great interest in the works of Neil Munro I was delighted in the course of my researches into MacGill to find a connection between MacGill and Munro.  MacGill was interviewed for the Scottish socialist weekly Forward in June 1914 and told how some years earlier he had sold his first, self-published, collection of poems  “Every night I went round the houses in Greenock district and tried to sell my book…one way and another, I sold about one thousand copies of the book, one of which fell into the hands of Neil Munro, who reviewed it in the Glasgow News.”
This took me to Munro’s column in the News in February 1911 where he wrote: “
At present working as a navvy on a repair gang on the Caledonian Railway between Greenock and Wemyss Bay there is young Irishman who has been a manual labourer since he left school at the age of twelve, and yet has had the time to cultivate no inconsiderable degree of literary taste, and even to write and publish a small volume of his own poetry.”
In a transformation that would not be believed in fiction MacGill in a short time went from being a navvy to working at Windsor Castle as secretary and librarian to one of the Canons of St George’s Chapel.
For more about MacGill’s remarkable career read the introductions to the four novels Birlinn reprinted – Children of the Dead End, The Rat-Pit, The Great Push, and Moleskin Joe.
For an article on MacGill and his work click here.
Click on the image below to be taken to the amazon.co.uk website where you can order Children of the Dead End and the other titles.
For more information on MacGill look at the website of the annual MacGill Summer School in Donegal http://www.patrickmacgill.com/

The New Road

March 27, 2008
Neil Munro’s historical novel The New Road was first published in 1914 and John Buchan reviewed it in the Glasgow Herald -saying
It is a privilege to be allowed to express my humble admiration of what seems to me one of the finest romances written in our time. Mr Neil Munro is beyond question the foremost of living Scottish novelists…”
This tale of adventure and betrayal in the Highlands in the years between the two Jacobite risings stands comparison with Stevenson’s Kidnapped but despite this and the praise of Buchan and others it, and all Munro’s other novels, had gone out of print by the 1980s. I was fortunate enough to be able to persuade B&W to reprint this great Scottish novel and to be allowed to write an introduction to it. 

Click on the box below to order a copy from amazon.co.uk

Jimmy Swan, the Joy Traveller

March 27, 2008

Neil Munro’s Para Handy stories are widely known and loved, his Erchie Mcpherson stories are also remembered but for some reason the third series of humorous sketches that Munro wrote for the Glasgow Evening News in the early 20th Century have been comparatively overlooked, although those who know them are aware of their very special qualities of gentle humour and real charm. Their central character, Jimmy Swan, is a commercial traveller for one of the great Glasgow drapery warehouses, and he travels round Scotland bringing the latest fashions to  small towns. However Jimmy is much more than a travelling salesman, he is a philosopher, friend and universal provider to all with whom he comes in contact.

Click on the image below to go to the Amazon.co.uk where you can purchase this book, which comes complete with notes and introductory material.

For information about Neil Munro check the Neil Munro Society website http://www.neilmunro.co.uk

Erchie Macpherson

March 26, 2008

“Erchie, My Droll Friend” is the title for a collection of humorous short stories written by the Scottish novelist and journalist Neil Munro.  First appearing in the Glasgow Evening News  a collection of 29 of the stories was published in 1904 and recounted the events and opinions in the life of Erchie Macpherson, a native of Glasgow who earned an honest living as a waiter and a church beadle. (A beadle in this context is the person who looks after the fabric of a church, stokes the boilers, cleans the building and carries the Bible into church.)

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The cover of the 1st edition of Erchie, my droll friend.

My co-editor and I were amazed to find that Munro had written another 113 stories which had never appeared in book form – these cover the period from 1902 to the General Strike of 1926 and have Erchie reflecting in a humorous and pawky way on everything from Royal visits to Exhibitions, from the census to the First World War.  A delightful resource of light-hearted reading, which we have tried to complement with notes and introductory material to set the stories in their context and explains some of what now may be obscure references.

The “Hugh Foulis” on the title page above was the pen-name Munro adopted for his comic short fiction, to distinguish it from his historical novels and other writing.

Click the link before to go to the Amazon website where this book can be bought.

For more information on Neil Munro why not checkout the Neil Munro Society website http://www.neilmunro.co.uk/