Saturday is Burn’s Night, in honour of Scotland’s favourite son, Robert Burns (1759-1796). I’m posting today however, because tonight I am going to a Burn’s Night supper. This will consist of Arbroath smokies, followed by haggis, tatties and neeps, followed by clootie dumpling, followed by an argument as to whether I’m going to dance at the ceilidh. Although I have two left feet I quite enjoy a dance, but my suggestion that we do it before a three course stodge-fest has been met with derision. Needless to say, I think I’ll be lying down in a corner while the more hardy among my number whizz around in Celtic fashion. To celebrate I’ve chosen a novel written in Scottish vernacular, and a poem by a Scottish writer. I like them both so I hope Burns won’t find me to be one of the “cutthroat bandits” he refers to with such derision. Slainte Mhath!
Firstly, Buddha Da by Anne Donovan (2002). This was Anne Donovan’s first novel, and it is a confident and accomplished debut. It tells the story of Jimmy, a Glaswegian painter and decorator, who becomes interested in Buddhism. His desire to put his newly-discovered beliefs into the practice of his daily life cause strain in his relationships with his wife Liz and daughter Anne-Marie, and all three lend their voices to individual chapters to tell the story.
Jimmy learning to meditate: “It was as if ah’d never felt ma body afore; felt the tightness in ma airms and legs, the openness of ma chest, the wee niggles that ran aboot inside me that usually I never even think aboot. Then as ma breathin slowed doon and ah sterted tae feel mair relaxed he took me through each person in turn. That was the really hard bit because as each feelin came up he tellt me no tae judge it. Wi Anne Marie ah just felt ashamed that ah’d let her doon […] Then Liz. That was haurd too cos ah love her – always have – but somehow ah cannae get her tae unnerstaund how this is that important tae me. There’s a gap openin up between us. Ah can feel it and ah’m scared.”
The relationships do start to break down, but Donovan is very even-handed and you don’t apportion blame, you can just see how it’s happening as people grow apart. The first person narrative from all three characters means you can empathise with them all. Liz doesn’t always behave in the best way, but I still felt sympathy for her as she struggles to make the life she wants:
“It was five o’clock in the morning but ah didnae want tae go back to sleep in case the dream started again. It wasnae the most frightenin dream ah’d ever had but it was confusin. Usually if ah have a dream it’s dead obvious what it means, but this. Ah leaned back on the pillows, shut ma eyes and the feelin came back tae me; the cauld of the water beneath ma feet, the panic as ah started tae sink and the relief as ah sprung up oot the water, the green castin an eerie light all round the sky and this dark, shadowy figure waitin for me on a rock on the other side.”
And between them both, their daughter Anne Marie. After she plays her parents a song she’s made with her friend:
“And ah was dead chuffed that they liked it but efterwards, sittin in ma room, ah kept feelin that there was sumpn missin. As if they hadnae really got it. And ah really wanted them, no just tae like it, but tae unnerstaund it. And ah didnae think they did.”
And that really is the crux of Buddha Da. It’s about how the people we love may not always be the ones who really understand us. It’s about the gaps that exist even in our closest relationships. Donovan writes with real affection for the characters, and so these themes aren’t depressing. It’s a warm novel about living with imperfections and muddling through together. If you’re interested in Scottish vernacular novels, two famous examples you may want to try are Trainspotting by Irvine Welsh, and How Late It Was, How Late by James Kelman.
Secondly, a poem by the Poet Laureate, Carol Ann Duffy, who was born in Glasgow. I love Duffy’s writing, and she’s managed the rather astonishing feat of writing decent poems within her remit of commemorating national events. Warming Her Pearls (from Selling Manhattan (1987)) was written long before she took office, and is one of her more famous verses. However, I still went ahead and chose it rather than something more obscure, as I do think it’s brilliant. You can read the full poem here. It is spoken in the voice of a maidservant to a rich society woman:
“Next to my own skin, her pearls. My mistress
bids me wear them, warm them, until evening
when I’ll brush her hair. At six, I place them
round her cool, white throat. All day I think of her”
This to me is a good example of Duffy’s writing: accessible, simple language to convey an unconventional literary voice, in this case, a maid’s erotic love for her mistress. The power dynamic of the relationship with its “bidding” and the rope of pearls adds a slightly BDSM element, and Duffy plays with the idea of power throughout the poem. The maid is emboldened by her desire outside of social class, rather than cowed by it. I love the following image:
“[I] picture her dancing
with tall men, puzzled by my faint, persistent scent
beneath her French perfume, her milky stones.”
The insidious nature of the maid infiltrating her mistress’ life through her body odour is so clever, slyly humorous and evocative; the idea of bodies betraying themselves is carried on in the next stanza: the soft blush seep through her skin/like an indolent sigh. The tenderness with which the maid approaches her mistress, a reflection of her feelings, is wonderfully evoked through this beautiful language. Warming Her Pearls is as delicate and subtle as the situation it portrays.
Finally, a little bonus, another poem by Carol Ann Duffy, this is from The World’s Wife, where she imagines the stories of the wives of famous men. ‘Mrs Darwin’ is one of the shortest, so here it is in its entirety:
7 April 1852.
Went to the Zoo.
I said to Him –
Something about that Chimpanzee over there reminds me of you.
I could end with a picture of the books, but I doubt Burns would approve of such a prosaic choice. Instead, here’s one of the most Scottish things you’ll ever see: