Colin MacKay 1951-2003
Interview with COLIN MACKAY, and brief memoir by Jennie Renton following his suicide in 2003.
It seems from the letters that Colin MacKay posted to friends on the eve of his suicide that living and writing had become intolerable burdens. That he considered himself to be a failure as a writer was confirmed in his manuscript memoir, entitled Jacob’s Ladder. Many of his readers would disagree with that.
I interviewed Colin seven years before his death. We met in the front room of the parental home, surrounded by his recently deceased father’s book collection. I had realised on reading The Sound of the Sea that Colin and I must in some respects share a common background – a strongly socialist household. Also, his feeling for Edinburgh chimed deeply with my own. When I mentioned this to him, his response was austere. I got the impression that he was sharing an ironic joke with himself. Later, in more general conversation, he commented that if the Third Reich had triumphed, British society would be little different. He expressed his views regarding contemporary decadence in a quiet voice that contained furious emotion.
At the time of the interview, I was unaware of the complexity of his relationship with his father. In his late teens Colin MacKay rejected his father’s socialism outright. His detestation of what he regarded to be the swill bin of politics is expressed in his political satire, House of Lies, while in Cold Night Lullaby he chronicled his personal experience of love and loss in the savage vortex of war-torn Yugoslavia. However, in his first novel, The Song of the Forest, a sweeter note was sounded, recalling a lost time when Britain was covered with forest and a squirrel could have traversed the country by leaping from tree to tree – an evocation of a magically verdant world that makes the imagination sing. Colin Mackay was born into a rather different time, and taking it upon himself to face rather more reality than Eliot’s recommended dose, his sensitive spirit was outraged and appalled. Finally, he elected to refrain from life altogether.
Colin Mackay was born in Broxburn, West Lothian. When he was four his family moved to Edinburgh. His parents were librarians, and the family lived in a flat above MacDonald Road Library, so he’s been surrounded by books pretty well all his life. Later his mother worked for a while in the North Bookshop in Dundas Street, Edinburgh, for family friend, Fred Douglas.
We have in front of us the copy of Scotland Forever – a book that was produced for a military charity early this century – which your father gave you when you were six.
He thought I’d enjoy the coloured, tipped-in plates. I looked at them, and then I got drawn into the text, which consisted of snippets about Scottish regiments and extracts from military romances by authors such as James Grant – who also wrote Old and New Edinburgh, which I have among my books. I never got round to books intended for children. I began by reading history, and stayed with it. I plundered the bookshelves in our house. My father had always collected books … history, biography, essays. He liked some drama, especially Shakespeare, but he disliked fiction, and regarded it as a parasitic art. He took the attitude that fiction was written by the ruling class to deceive the workers. That may seem rather strange now, but he was born in 1908 and left the Wee Free church to become a member of the Communist Party, exchanging one puritan belief for another. The upshot as far as my own reading was concerned was that I got no encouragement at all to read stories, and didn’t, until I was about eighteen and starting to write myself.
Do you think that you were attracted to writing fiction in reaction to your father’s antipathy towards it?
Not consciously. No I don’t think so. I like the open possibilities offered by fiction, the opportunity to take historical fact and create a new picture by exaggerating this and missing out that.
But as a youngster, it was history that took a great hold of your imagination.
For me, as a child in the Edinburgh of the Fifties, it provided an alternative reality. If you didn’t like school and it always seemed to be raining, then going on a march with Caesar’s Legions was a wonderful escape. The Fifties were pretty austere, and nothing much was happening compared with the excitement of the Second World War that my elders would talk about. The past seemed more alive and passionate than the present.
When did you become aware of your identity as a writer?
I was eighteen. I don’t readily accept imposed authority, and on the day I left school I had such a sense of liberation at finally being free of the horrible place that I wrote a poem about it. I’ve been writing ever since … poetry, short stories, novels, plays.
I began writing The Sound of the Sea at the time of the Falklands War, which forms a backdrop to the novel. While I was still writing it, I went back to a long poem I’d started some time earlier and began to reshape it into prose. That turned out to be my first published book, The Song of the Forest. I drew a great deal from F. Marian McNeil’s The Silver Bough for information about Scottish legends, traditions of work and religion. I suppose I was influenced by the ‘The Song of Igor’ – the Russian equivalent of ‘Beowulf’ – which is set in the dark ages. I linked this in my mind with ‘The Goddodin’. There are only fragments left of this seventh-century tale of the men of Edinburgh who rode south to fight the Northumbrians and got wiped out – ‘Gododdin’ was the ancient name for Lothian. I took the glimpses of the dark ages we have from the broken mosaic of the tale, and tried to create the rest out of my imagination. I also used the Jewish legend of the golem. The golem was an invincible giant of clay constructed to fight for people who are otherwise defenceless. But the golem commits the sin of Cain, and in doing that becomes human, and can no longer be controlled. Having created the golem for their defence, the people now can’t use him because he’s too dangerous. The Song of the Forest is a sort of heroic legend, a total fantasy, but it has a certain reference to conditions of modern life: for instance, the golem could be seen as a metaphor for nuclear weapons.
I’m a city dweller, but I loved going walks on the Pentland Hills when they were still a place of wildness and solitude in the days before mountain bikes. Scotland’s turning into a patchwork of industrial estates, motorways, walkways, cultivated land, army ranges and forestry plantations. I wanted to create a wilderness set in the days when ancient forest covered the land.
How did you tackle seeing things through the eyes of someone living in such a different age?
I certainly didn’t want to put fustian language in the mouths of the characters. The past isn’t the present in fancy dress. I tried to give them a stylised sort of expression close to modern speech, though different. Inevitably a writer living in the twentieth century sees things through twentieth century glasses. There’s just the feeling that the society we have today is a boring one.
Is that your feeling?
Yes, it is. There’s such an emphasis on material values as opposed to any other kind. Especially in countries where people generally have a high standard of living, there’s the feeling, what’s it all for. Our society is hedonistic: it’s based on the assumption that what everyone wants from life is to have a good time, and all that amounts to is physical well-being and plenty of material goods. If you’re hungry and have no roof over your head, your whole existence might have to be pitched towards getting material comforts. But for someone who has them, merely to accumulate more is not enough, and life feels meaningless.
There’s a character in a Kurt Vonnegut science fiction book who travels round the universe asking the question, why am I sent here to suffer and die? He doesn’t get an answer.
Well, I think there is some sort of purpose to life, but I can’t make out what it is. As a society, we’ve abandoned a lot of things which gave life meaning … the Christian religion and church attendance, patriotism, military codes of honour and loyalty … these things can be faulted intellectually, but they were emotionally satisfying. They’re largely discarded or discredited, but nothing has really taken their place.
You’ve revised The Song of the Forest for a new edition to be published by Black Ace. What sort of changes have you made?
There’s a new glossary of Scots words and some improvements in layout. I shortened the text by a few thousand words, pruning bits that now seem rather overblown. Hunter Steele of Black Ace, persuaded me to buy a computer last year, and I love the freedom that gives me to revise without having to retype everything afresh each time.
Turning now to The Sound of the Sea. This book gives a loving evocation of parts of Edinburgh and Leith that happen to have been my own childhood stamping ground. Images of the sea run through the story, which is highly poetic even though there’s such a strong discursive political dimension to it. I noticed that echoes of Eliot’s ‘The Waste Land’ kept cropping up.
Eliot was a young man when he wrote ‘The Waste Land’ in the wake of the First World War, partly in reaction to the horror of that war. It expresses the disillusion of that generation who can’t just accept uncritically those things that their parents had accepted uncritically. In a sense I was trying to do something similar with The Sound of the Sea concerning socialism. I didn’t deliberately weave in echoes from Eliot, as you seem to think. They must have crept in unconsciously.
The central character still has all his father’s books. Is that by any chance the same with you?
Yes, I still have all my father’s books. We’re surrounded by them here. There are books in every room in the house. None are valuable antiques – there are a few old books, an 1808 copy of Ramsay’s The Gentle Shepherd, and an early Ivanhoe, but it’s not an antiquarian’s library. The Sound of the Sea is a sort of memorial to my father.
Tell me about your father.
He was born in 1908 and raised in a small, overcrowded flat. He got a job as a clerk in a shipping company, went to night school, taught himself mathematics, fell in love with Shakespeare and Beethoven. This was a time when large numbers of working-class people felt that education was a key to liberation that they could grasp for the first time, and they were hungry for knowledge. There was a tremendous reverence for the printed word.
In the novel the father says you can trust books, you can always trust books. The context gives irony to his comment. A central theme is the betrayal of innocent, idealistic people who sought to achieve social transformation through the Communist Party, and the role of the printed word in all that.
In the first half of this century a lot of people came to socialism naively, they thought everything was going to be so easy: the new literate working class would take power through the labour movement, enact half a dozen laws, and that’s it. (You can see the same thing working in reverse in Russia: they thought they could make a market economy in 500 days. Of course it’s not turning out like that. It will take generations, and involve a great deal of suffering.) When news filtered down that concentration camps were being built by leaders like Stalin, people with integrity spoke out against this as a betrayal and perversion of socialism – that’s what my father did. Some reacted rabidly against socialism, and went into fascism. Others lied about it, and that’s what a lot of western intellectuals were prepared to do. Socialist beliefs aren’t in themselves hollow. It’s what people have done with them. They’ve made them very bloody. There’s been a great deal of brutality in the name of socialism.
This personal history feeds into the story, which is shot through with a moving sense of wasted lives and wasted dreams. And in its treatment of the city of Edinburgh, the book rather reminded me of a conversation in the Louis Malle film, My Dinner with André, in the intimate way it conveys how city streets are charged with layers of both private and public history.
I do get that feeling of waste when I look back on the hopes my parents cherished. As far as the city is concerned, for me its streets are humming with memories of past events, and that probably comes over in the book.
Your latest book is a horror story, employing the shudder-inducing shock tactics of that genre. House of Lies stays with the political issues we’ve been discussing, but the tone of this novel is far harsher and angrier.
I wanted to try a popular style of book, a horror novel that has satirical, political content. It’s set in a communist newspaper office in London at the time of the fall of the Berlin Wall. Newspaper workers who have spent decades sanitising and distorting what was really going on in the Soviet Union are faced with a general public which now knows more of the truth. They start being visited by the ghosts of people who were tortured and lost their lives in Russia.
In the book, you take pot shots at some fairly recognisable characters. What about Jimmy Glasgow, ‘the outstanding member of the school of subsidised Scottish writers who produced writing of indescribable bleakness, in which terminally depressed men sit in pubs on rainy afternoons staring at half empty pints and whinging on about capitalism … his books received orgasms of praise from reviewers, all of whom seemed to be English women with large salaries, and prizes sponsored by various public limited companies.’ It doesn’t take a great stretch of the imagination to know who “Jimmy Glasgow” is supposed to be.
Do you mean, am I thinking of James Kelman here?
Yes. And I’m also interested to know why the ‘reviewers’ had to be ‘English’ and ‘women’.
Kipling once advised a young writer never to get engaged in literary controversies, because they’re a waste of time…
Well, you’ve certainly thrown yourself in at the deep end.
Praise has come from what I would call surprising quarters for a number of Scottish writers presenting a so-called working class reality. I question this ‘reality’. You can almost imagine a Unionist political party publishing this sort of caricature of Scotland as a country inhabited by deadbeats, drunks and drug addicts in order to put over the argument that Scotland should never have independence.
There’s a lot of machismo among these writers, they’re men writing about males. In choosing to say these ‘reviewers’ were ‘English’ and ‘women’, I’m not having a stab at English people or women, I’m pointing up the question, why are so many establishment critics going overboard for this rancid image of Scotland?
A MacDiarmid-like figure also makes a short, nightmarish appearance, along with Sartre and Brecht.
MacDiarmid was one of those intellectuals whose stance on the Soviet Union deeply offends me. For instance, he once wrote that the Gorbals were far worse than all the horrors of the secret police.
Thinking about what directions your writing might take now, I wonder if you’ve laid the ghosts of the traitors who stalk The House of Lies.
I’ve written a book about a British tabloid press journalist who pursues a story about a child molester, and feels in some measure responsible when the man commits suicide. His paper puts him out to grass on what it regards as an unimportant assignment to the Russian city of St Petersburg … if it finds a publisher, you’ll be able to read it.
Buchenwald, Schopenhauer, Goethe, School of Poets, 1983
The Song of the Forest, Canongate, 1986; Black Ace, 1996
The Song of the Forest, with wood-engravings by Alson MacNeill, Old Stile Press (edition limited to 160 copies), 1987
Red Ice, Poems, Chapman, 1987
The Sound of the Sea, Canongate, 1989
House of Lies, Black Ace, 1995
Cold Night Lullaby, Black Ace, 1998
© Jennie Renton