Alan Taylor

Give Me Fife

 

The kingdom of Fife – so called because it is believed to have been the site of one of the Picts’ dominions – is, even to Scots, regarded as something of a mystery. Situated between the firths of Forth and Tay, its natives have long had a reputation for plain speaking and unvarnished opinions. This, after all, was where the Enlightenment economist Adam Smith was born and bred. A hotbed of political activity, inspired in large part by the miners who toiled in its coalfields, the county elected one of Britain’s last Communist MPs, Willie Gallacher, who represented West Fife at Westminster from 1935 to 1950.

Heading through Fife recently on my way north, I couldn’t help contemplate its contrary nature as reflected by its writers, prominent among whom are Val McDermid, who hails from Kirkcaldy, and Ian Rankin, who is from Cardenden. The coastal area, known as the East Neuk, is the territory of Christopher Rush, who was born in St Monans. Much influenced by George Mackay Brown, Rush writes in his collection of stories Peace Comes Dropping Slow of the claustrophobia of a close-knit community reliant for its survival on the fish in the North Sea. To him, it is both a wonderful and awful place, replete with tales from the past. ‘There was the old cold gold-earringed sailor,’ he writes, ‘who drew me conspiratorially into the folds of his sea-waistcoat, pointed his white buccaneering beard at me, and whispered unto me the strangest sentence I have ever heard: “I’ve seen monsoons and typhoons and baboons – and teaspoons!”’

Landlocked and unlovely Cowdenbeath is where the poet and novelist John Burnside spent his early years. His first home, as he writes in A Lie About My Father, was a rat-infested hovel, his second a prefab on the edge of town, beyond which were fields and woods. But, as Burnside describes it, Cowdenbeath was to him as Edenic as Proust’s Combray, albeit with slag heaps and weed-infested gardens. Hereabouts, the ultimate aspiration was to be regarded as normal. Anybody who behaved differently was considered abnormal and sent away. Most abnormal of all was a Mormon family whose menfolk, it was believed, kept several wives and whose sons could make babies with their sisters. Burnside, it should be acknowledged, regards himself as one of the abnormal ones.

I am sure Anne Smith, founding editor of Literary Review, would also have been happy to have been described as such. One of four children, she was born in 1944 and raised in the seaside town of Leven. Her father was a miner and money was tight. She left school at fifteen to become a dental nurse but returned a year later to complete Highers, which allowed her to go to Edinburgh University, where she read English literature and earned a PhD for a thesis entitled ‘The Novel of Factory Life, 1832–55’. Asked in a rare interview if her doctorate had been worth the bother, she replied in her native brogue: ‘It gives a great tolerance for frittering about, searching for this wee article here and that wee article there, and when you finally find them, they aren’t worth the reading. It’s a training in patience.’

Anne, whom I got to know in the 1980s when we both wrote for The Scotsman, was a generously built person who shook like a jelly when she laughed, which she did often. Academics were a regular target of her wit. She could see little point in academic literary criticism, of which she read a surfeit as an editor at a publishing house. Apparently, the last book she rejected while working at Vision Press was a study of the influence of the outside toilet in the work of Alan Sillitoe. Shortly thereafter, in 1979, in the wake of the strike that halted production at the Times Literary Supplement, she used her savings to start this magazine, one of her aims being to ‘find academics who could write intelligently’. That proved to be difficult.

In 1981, Anne published a novel, The Magic Glass. Colin Wilson, author of The Outsider, compared her to D H Lawrence, A S Byatt hymned the novel as ‘wickedly funny’ and Rebecca West said it was ‘a beautiful exposition of the riches that can co-exist with poverty’. The Magic Glass tells of the childhood of Stella, whose father had desperately wanted a boy because he already had two girls.

With the odds stacked against her from the outset, Stella negotiates a path through life that faithfully follows the one taken by her creator. She is Anne Smith to a T, eagle-eyed, perceptive, intelligent, empathetic, earthy, funny. Stella’s hometown of Skelf (the Scots word for a splinter) is a thinly disguised version of Leven and serves as a locus for a black comedy, the targets of which are the professional classes – the sanctimonious doctor who is about to become a missionary in Africa, the minister with his ‘smug, boring sermon’ and the teacher who bangs on about ‘the products of the Scottish economy’. Stella befriends abnormal Roberta, who lives in a children’s home, and comes to realise she is more attracted to girls than boys.

The Magic Glass was such a promising debut that great things were expected of its author. A second novel was eagerly anticipated. None, alas, appeared. Anne herself once stated that she had completed a comic novel – ‘somewhere between Evelyn Waugh and P G Wodehouse, letting go my English, constructing long elegant ridiculous sentences just for the hell of it’ – but if it exists its whereabouts are unknown. She died in 2013 and with her passing was lost the prospect of another great Fife novel.

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