Well, that's what McRenegades is for isn't it? The REAL chance for the wee voice to have it's say. Just a shame that our own Indy facing news doesn't want to hear from anyone who diverges from the 'narrative' of the Renaissance men of academia. So here goes...
Renaissance Man still missing the point!
A partial response to Professor Riach’s recent article in The National.
Also in the paper this week the headline: SNP-hating historian who said indyref2 was 'cancerous' gets top job at National Trust for Scotland
Might I suggest that part of the reason this sort of thing happens, and keeps on happening, is because there is still a marked lack of understanding of the value of our own history, culture and literature. As evidence I call upon Professor Riach’s recent article: Before MacDiarmid changed Scottish literature, there was the Kailyard.
Here, the Professor of Scottish Literature at Glasgow University dismisses the writer S.R.Crockett in a paragraph of 150 words which begins with the asinine comment ‘The novels of SR Crockett (1859-1914) are varied.’ 
Following an overlong, wasteful introduction as to what kail is (unless of course the modern literary urban dwelling Scot really doesn’t know his vegetables, including the ‘super food’ properties of kail, which comes of course in many varieties) he suggests that Crockett’s writing is ‘characterised by respect for community values, social conservativism, political unionism and subservience to the authorities of church, state and education’. In this respect his accuracy is a mere one out of four.
He continues ‘The implicit assumptions of these fictions have their foundations in unquestioned imperialist priorities, and these have direct political consequences.’
I have to take issue with this. Crockett was far from an imperialist, and to suggest he was either conservative, or unionist is either ignorance or insult. Such slurs do indeed have direct political consequences – in this case, discouraging the reading of a Scottish writer who falls outside of the Renaissance created Scots canon.
Riach digs deeper: ‘Kailyard conventions: a benign world of small-town Scotland presided over by the local minister and wise schoolteacher or dominie. Summers are warm and sunny, winters cosy by the fireside.’ On this definition, Crockett is far from Kailyard.
Professor Riach is a poet. And one thing I know about poets is that they pick their words carefully, so these two sentences are worthy of in depth scrutiny, aren’t they?
What does he mean by the statement:
‘The novels of SR Crockett (1859-1914) are varied.’
Any writer who published over 65 full length works in his career (to say nothing of the articles, short stories and sketches) is most likely to have a ‘varied’ output in terms of a variety. (Barbara Cartland excepted). Or is he damning with faint praise, repeating the more recent ‘party’ line developed from the late Dr Donaldson’s literary biography; which suggests there are qualitative gradations in Crockettt’s fiction? This view is stuck in the 1980s and Nash’s decade old Kailyard and Scottish Fiction which offers the most recent academic appraisal of any depth into Crockett’s work, still unfortunately focuses on the early works, beyond which Professor Riach himself declines to stray.
Riach summarises Crockett as ‘a minister himself and paragon of Kailyard sensibility’. In the first point he is somewhat inaccurate. Of the five works Riach does cite in his short paragraph, only three were written during Crockett’s decade as a minister. In 1895 Crockett gave up the ministry for a full time career as a writer. And if his many works beyond 1896 attest to one thing, it is that he certainly was no ‘paragon of Kailyard sensibility’ either on Riach’s definition of Kailyard, or any other you care to mention.
Raich offers little of hope for a mature reading or reappraisal of Crockett’s place in the Scots canon as he completes this sentence: ‘But clearly, even Crockett (a minister himself and paragon of Kailyard sensibility) seems to have encountered Nietzsche.’
What can this possibly mean? It seems like nothing more than a throw-away gag – ‘ah the old boy even uses nihilism in his writing, how very droll’. At least that is my reading of the sentence. I appreciate this may not be as intended but what other options are there?
Perhaps Riach is suggesting that Crockett was well versed in contemporary European philosophy? Here he hits closer to home than he possibly intends. Of Crockett’s ‘varied’ output, on a ball-park figure half of his work is set in Scotland, around a quarter in Europe and the rest in England. Crockett was well travelled in Europe, spoke French and Spanish and may well have ‘encountered’ the writings of Nietzsche. So what?
When I was a student of moral philosophy at St Andrews (where we also studied English not Scottish literature) Nietzsche was considered something of a joke. I am minded to think that little may have changed in the past 30 years. Certainly, picking words such as ‘even’, ‘paragon’ and ‘encountered’ in a sentence together works to suggest that Riach is, in common parlance, taking the piss here. Making a joke at Crockett’s expense. If not, then what is the point of the sentence?
And what of the hundred odd words between the opening and closing salvos? Perhaps here I might permit myself, if not to mark his card, then at least to mark this part of his essay:
The Raiders (1894) and The Grey Man (1896) are adventure stories set in Galloway, the latter with the 18th-century cannibal family of Sawney Bean as central villains.
The Grey Man is actually predominantly set in Ayshire. A fact, perhaps of little interest to most, but quite important to those living in either Ayrshire or Galloway. The Lilac Sunbonnet (1894) and The Stickit Minister (1893) are rural romances and gently satirical sketches of the church in small-town Scotland, where melodrama and moral fortitude prevail.
Describing The Lilac Sunbonnet as a ‘rural romance’ is like describing Hamlet as ‘a play about a prince.’ The sketches in The Stickit Minister (most of which date from the late 1880s) are ‘satirical’ yes, though ‘gently’, I’m not so sure. Perhaps in the former case a lack of understanding of the rural working class, and in the latter case a failure to appreciate ‘Scots’ humour, are the keys to the inaccuracies offered here.
Moving on, does Riach mean that melodrama and moral fortitude prevail in the church in small-town Scotland, or in the works of Crockett? Or doesn’t he think it matters to draw a distinction? Falling into the trap of seeing ‘rural’ as ‘nostalgic’ or ‘melodramatic’ reveals dual errors. The first is one of interpretation from an urban centric view, the second is little more than failing to fully explore the nature of melodrama, its uses and function in Scots culture.
Urban Edinburgh is the setting for Cleg Kelly, Arab of the City (1896).
It is true that Cleg Kelly starts in ‘Urban Edinburgh’ but, as with many of Crockett’s Scottish novels, it juxtaposes the urban with the rural and shifts between Edinburgh and Galloway (there are over a dozen novels which do this, The Lilac Sunbonnet being one of them). In the case of Cleg Kelly, the transformation of Cleg from urban to rural environment is every bit as significant (and skilled) as Dickens employs in Great Expectations – though the journey is in the opposite direction – which in and of itself is worthy of study for depth and significance.
Riach also accurately quotes the ‘shocking’ opening sentence of the (serialised) novel:
‘which begins with Kelly’s astonishing exclamation that throws his entire Sunday-school congregation into astonished silence: “‘It’s all a dumb lie! – God’s dead!’”
There is much to say of this sentence. Riach’s comment is somewhat fuzzy logic at best. And for a poet, who picks his words carefully, I find this unsettling. For the Professor of Scottish Literature at Glasgow University, I find it nearly as shocking as the reader might have found Crockett’s opening statement.
The words repudiate the Sunday-school teacher’s comment that God sees all, punishes the bad and rewards the good. On this assumption, the Kailyard school of benevolent fiction, boy’s own adventures or small-town homiletics, rested.
Here one might suggest, lies a fundamental inconsistency of Riach’s making. These final sentences suggest that Cleg’s outburst repudiates the assumption on which the Kailyard school rested. Therefore suggesting that Crockett himself is doing this? If so, why set him up as ‘minister and paragon of Kailyard sensibility?’ Is Riach misguided? Is he sitting on a fence? Has he actually read any of Crockett’s output beyond 1896?
I appreciate that Riach can say a limited amount in a hundred and fifty words. But he chose to ‘deal’ with Crockett in that word count. Maclaren is disposed of in the same amount. He allows 500 for Barrie and 600 for Munro, so I think we may reasonably assume that words dedicated to the writer offer some form of privileging or statement of judgement on ‘quality’. That he throws in a token ‘woman poet’ for 250 words (presumably for ‘balance) as his final offering certainly suggests as much.
It is of course possible that the next exciting instalment (this is part one of three of course) may deal in more depth with ‘our boys.’ I hope so. But given that many people have little to no knowledge of Crockett, this is not an entirely flattering, honest or even intelligible introduction. Perhaps Riach might have been better to start on Crockett as he says of Barrie: ‘[his] fiction make[s] up a complex, significant body of work, a greater achievement than many critics have allowed until recently.’
I will write of Barrie another time – Riach’s paragraphs on him are better, but still somewhat what I dare to call modernist partisan – but of Crockett in this essay all I can say is: Someone here is missing the point. It may, of course, be me. But if I, one who is well versed in Crockett’s fiction, cannot make sense or ‘see’ an accurate picture of the writer in the paragraph he is given in Riach’s essay, what chance is there that anyone coming fresh to him will do so? Readers are not all academics or intellectuals. Nor should they need to be to appreciate Scottish fiction.
Crockett’s strength in his own day was bridging popular and intellectual tastes. He writes of politics and economics while wrapping up this fare in the style of popular fiction, bought by the masses. That’s quite a feat to accomplish and should, I believe, be worthy of critical respect or at least awareness a century on.
Within the broader compass of this essay I find other areas of critical weakness. Riach finishes, with a flourish, but perhaps without much substance:
that deliberately unsentimental pathos is essential to all these writers at their best. They knew their world was coming to its end.
It seems to be saying that the so-called Kailyard writers were at their best when they were deliberately employing unsentimental pathos (I wonder if by this he means Scots Humour?) Or is it a reflection how we view them retrospectively?
Is he suggesting that we the reader need to ‘appreciate’ their deliberate unsentimental pathos to understand them? Then he is surely denying that they are kailyard? But I’m not sure that is his argument. He certainly seems stuck in the glaur of his own definitions. And, well, I am pure scunnered by the final sentence. ‘They knew their world was coming to its end.’ Here I want to take a big red pen and write: What do you mean?
What can this possibly mean? It sounds good as a sentence, I’ll give it that. But what does it actually mean in context of these writers? It strikes me as the worst kind of literary retrofitting.
Crockett died before the First World War and so he didn’t ‘know’ it was coming. He didn’t write of his world as one that was coming to its end. He wrote historical romance/adventure fiction spanning from the medieval to the contemporary period. ‘Varied’ you might say. But is the only value in his writing our placing it in the context of nostalgia for the past? This seems to have been the literary critics’ playbook since MacDiarmid. But, I ask, whose nostalgia?
Riach accuses Crockett of frequent ‘placatory nostalgia’ but Crockett does not write ‘nostalgically’ of the past, as anyone who reads his work either in depth or with maturity will attest. He writes (sometimes) of times and ‘worlds’ which are seen as nostalgic both by the urban dweller of his own day and definitely by the urban dweller of the modernist/post war era.
However, one man’s realism is another man’s nostalgia. It all depends on where you stand. Perhaps it is inevitable that urban-centric academics will read rural realism as nostalgia. That in and of itself does not make it nostalgia. Perhaps Professor Riach has not ‘encountered’ rural realism?
It is a fact that the First World War changed the world, in life and in literature but you can’t just retrofit all literary output from before that time. Today, generally, Grassic Gibbon is held up as a realist in the way he deals with Scots rural life. Crockett was the original rural realist in that respect. He combines the realism of Galt with the romance of Stevenson (perhaps even Burns) in his fiction. This level of depth is both well worth exploring and sadly lacking in Riach’s somewhat weak exploration, as evidenced in this essay in which he dismisses Kailyard as the place where ‘sentimentalism and small-mindedness go alongside anti-intellectualism and evade the difficult questions.’
This may be the case, but if so Crockett is no Kailyarder. I suggest that Renaissance men like Professor Riach have also, from time to time, shown the habit of evading the difficult questions – such as – why keep referring to Crockett as Kailyard? I have been digging up the Kailyard now for many years. Barrie is beginning to be recognised as a superfood by the modernists, though the harvest is at present limited, but there is still much work to do on Crockett’s behalf.
B+, could try harder Professor Riach.
 Although we should at least be happy that the date of his birth has finally been got right! For generations academics have been stating it as 1860.