'The Book of Iona, An Anthology', edited by Robert Crawford (Polygon)
'Glasgow The Autobiography', edited by Alan Taylor (Birlinn)
These books appear to have a great deal in common. Both, despite Alan Taylor’s more intriguing title, are in fact topographical anthologies. Robert Crawford’s book contains writings concerning Iona – surely still one of Scotland’s most celebrated and memorable locations – from the time of St Columba himself up to the present day. Alan Taylor’s book likewise provides the reader with writings about Glasgow from 1597 up to 2015.
The books are very similar in length – which significantly means that Crawford finds as much material about a tiny Hebridean island as Taylor does about Scotland’s largest city. In fact to read these books together is to be struck by how different they turn out to be – specifically in terms of the impact they have upon the reader. In what follows I shall try to clarify the nature of the difference.
'The Book of Iona' is composed of material from three historical periods. There is a substantial body of striking poems about St Columba, written by Robert Crawford but closely based on a Latin life of the saint by Adomnan, ninth Abbot of Iona, written almost a hundred years after Columba’s death. Then there are translations (mainly by Edwin Morgan) of a few Latin hymns attributed to Columba, and one or two medieval Gaelic poems concerning him.
Surviving for centuries as the major centre of Celtic Christianity and civilisation, the abbey and nunnery on Iona were finally destroyed in the time of the Protestant Reformation. But in the 18th and 19th centuries the ruins on Iona became increasingly a tourist attraction. So here we have descriptions and accounts of visits by such figures as Thomas Pennant, Dr Johnson and James Boswell, William Wordsworth, John Keats, and Queen Victoria. Finally the book contains a range of poems, short stories (some specially commissioned) and extracts by 19th and 20th-century and contemporary writers such as Scott, Stevenson, Fiona Macleod, Lionel Johnson, Norman MacCaig, Seamus Heaney, David Kinloch, Robert Crawford and many more. All of these are about Iona, set in Iona, or in some way have been inspired by Iona and its past.
In his gracefully written Introduction, Professor Crawford insists that although his anthology includes memoirs it is, as the list above suggests, largely 'given over to literary imagination, not to historiography, ecclesiastical chronicling or journalism’. Iona for him is a site where 'spirit, imagination and physical exertion mingle'. His sense is that even for today’s visitors, Iona remains a centre of pilgrimage and contemplation, of remoteness and connectedness. In the following lines attributed to him, Columba seems to anticipate such a future for his island:
In Iona of my heart, Iona of my love,
Instead of monks’ voices shall be lowing of cattle,
But ere the World come to an end
Iona shall be as it was.
The reference here to the lowing of cattle reminds us that early visitors to Iona – including Johnson and Boswell – invariably draw attention to the fact that the former nunnery has become a byre for local cattle and that as a result the gravestones beneath are a foot deep in cow-dung. But despite that 18th-century reality, the transformation of Iona back to its defining spiritual and civilising meaning was soon to occur. Keats visited the island in July 1818 but the letter to his brother Tom, printed here, indicates he did not have much idea of what he would find. 'I know not whether you have heard much about this Island, I never did before I came nigh it. It is rich in the most interesting Antiquities. Who would expect to find the ruins of a fine Cathedral Church, of Cloisters, Colleges, Monasteries and Nunneries in so remote an Island?’
In sharp contrast to this is the extract from Herman Melville’s long religious poem 'Clarel’ (1876) which shows that the American novelist had detailed knowledge of Iona, Columba, and Adomnan.
In one of the commissioned short stories in the book – 'Listening in the Loose Grass’ by Jennie Erdal – which as it happens turns out to be one of two stories featuring Iona’s population of the increasingly rare corncrake – the narrator comments somewhat tartly on today’s visitors to Iona: 'May gave way to June. The summer ferries disgorged their regular loads: sightseers, pilgrims, heritage poppers, mystics, peace lovers'. 'The Book of Iona' will certainly appeal greatly to all of these, but to a wider public as well. Robert Crawford’s poetic paraphrases of Adomnan’s life of the saint are wonderfully vivid and alive, and provide a kind of spine to the whole anthology. Then I find the contemporary poems and stories particularly engaging – they seem to enact Iona’s enduring and continuing cultural and spiritual significance.
Only the final story – 'To Pick Up a Stone’ by Meaghan Delahunt – perhaps asks a different question. The narrator protagonist of this story is hiding on Iona, an on-the-run, unreconstructed member of the provisional IRA. She was the best sniper in Derry; she had built and planted bombs; despite all those lives she has no regrets – except over the Good Friday peace process. What are we to make of this in the context of the meaning of Iona? Readers will have to decide for themselves.
Alan Taylor’s anthology of writings about Glasgow is structured around four historical periods: 1597-1800, 1800-1900, 1900-2000, and 2000-2015. The first two take up only 70 pages out of the book’s total of 280. The discrepancy helps to explain – or even validate – Taylor’s decision to refer us twice to what has become perhaps the most famous passage in Alasdair Gray’s 1981 novel 'Lanark'. Both in his lively Introduction, and in his heading to Anthony Burgess’s enthusiastic review, he quotes the passage at length:
What is Glasgow to most of us? A house, the place we work, a football park or golf course, some pubs and connecting streets. That’s alI… Imaginatively Glasgow exists as a music-hall song and a few bad novels. That’s all we’ve given to the world outside. It’s all we’ve given to ourselves.
This is why, Gray suggests, Glasgow bears no comparison to great cultural centres such as Florence, Paris, London, and New York – which live for us through paintings, novels, history books, and films. Taylor is not exactly sure how far he agrees or disagrees with this account, but the book he has edited is clearly in a sense an attempt to plug a gap – to put Glasgow, past and present, as it were vividly on stage.
Elsewhere in his Introduction, Taylor tells us his book is 'an attempt to tell the city’s story through the words of those who witnessed it happening’. To do so he has drawn upon 'memoirs, newspapers and journals, historical documents, dictionaries, encyclopedias, travelogues, poetry and fiction, official reports and evidence given in court'. Having done so, the conclusion he comes to is the favourable one that Glasgow is 'resilient, optimistic, kindly, it likes a good time, it won’t be put down, it is inferior to nowhere'. And he closes his Introduction by citing the example of John Smeaton, the baggage handler at Glasgow Airport who tackled a would-be suicide bomber in 2007, subsequently saying his message to the bombers was: 'This is Glasgow. We’ll just set aboot ye’. Loving both Smeaton’s action and his words, Billy Connolly said it was a moment 'that makes you want to tell the world you are a Glaswegian'. For me, the question is how far does 'Glasgow The Autobiography' earn a similar response?
In the book’s opening section (up to 1800), visitors’ comments on Glasgow are largely positive and admiring. In 1726 Daniel Defoe described it as 'the cleanest and beautifullest, and best-built city in Britain, London excepted'. In 1771 Thomas Pennant announced it was 'the best built of any second-rate city I ever saw’ – and if this sounds like very qualified praise in what follows there are references to houses built 'in good taste’, to 'great streets’ of 'vast magnificence’, and to other 'large and handsome buildings’.
Two years later James Boswell records accompanying Dr Johnson to view 'this beautiful city’, and even if the great doctor did famously respond to Adam Smith’s praise of Glasgow with – 'Pray, sir, have you ever seen Brentford? – in 1773 he does concede 'the greatness of many private houses, and a general appearance of wealth’ and notes 'the increasing magnificence of the place'. As late as 1818, like all these earlier visitors, Walter Scott (in 'Rob Roy') insists it is its booming transatlantic trade that has transformed the town of Glasgow into a major and impressive city.
However in the book’s two following sections – 1800-1900 and 1900-2000 – the story of Glasgow that emerges from the range of material that Alan Taylor has assembled strikes me as a much more troubling one. Something has gone seriously wrong. In the passage from 'Rob Roy' just referred to, Scott speculates that the city’s current 'foundation of wealth and prosperity’ will one day 'support an immense fabric of commercial prosperity.’
In one sense he was right – in the 19th century, and on into the 20th, Glasgow’s commerce and industry would continue to expand. But as a result so did its population – a tenfold increase from around 30,000 in the mid-18th century to 400,000 by the 1850s. The impact of this population explosion proved tragic. Extract after extract printed here drives the point home. A report to the Houses of Parliament in 1842 suggests: 'In the very centre of the city there is an accumulated mass of squalid wretchedness, which is probably unequalled in any other town in the British dominions'. In this area 'there is concentrated everything that is wretched, dissolute, loathsome, and pestilential'. And so it goes on.
In 1888, Glasgow’s second medical officer of health pinpointed the horrifying rate of child mortality in so many of Glasgow’s homes. 'Of all the children who die in Glasgow before they complete their fifth year, 32% die in houses of one apartment; and not 2% in houses of five apartments and upwards.’ As early as 1832 the English traveller William Cobbett noted the Scots' excessive drinking habit – 'everyone drinks too much’, he said. But in overcrowded Glasgow drunkenness became another Glasgow problem. By the mid-19th century there was a pub for every 130 inhabitants.
In 1889 Sir John Hammerton, the editor of Victorian encyclopaedias, reported that 'Glasgow was probably the most drink-sodden city in Great Britain. The Trongate and Argyle Street, and worst of all the High Street, were scenes of disgusting debauchery'.
Again and again one reads here of a Glasgow of dismaying wretchedness – of a life in its tenements, closes and back courts which seems utterly intolerable for both young and old – a poverty-stricken world of ugliness, grime, noise, and desperate overcrowding – void of privacy of any kind.
Most striking of all is just how long such dire conditions endured in the city. Several of the most vivid accounts of such pain and horror were written in the 20th century. George Gladstone Robertson published his book 'Gorbals Doctor' in 1970. It is an account of his experience as a GP in the Gorbals in the 1920s – but the extract here makes it terrifyingly clear that nothing has changed since the 1880s or before. In 1934 no less a figure than the revered Lewis Grassic Gibbon wrote what is a deeply disturbing account of the awfulness of Glasgow – of the life 'that festers in the courts and wynds and alleys of Camlachie, Govan, the Gorbals’ – in contrast to the splendours of Loch Lomondside. 'In Glasgow there are over a hundred and fifty thousand human beings living in conditions as the most bitterly pressed primitive in Tierra del Fuego never envisioned.’
Finally let me cite the view of John Betjeman. In 1959 the English poet had been sent by the Daily Telegraph to write an article about Glasgow. He is generous in his praise of the architecture of Alexander ('Greek’) Thomson and Charles Rennie Mackintosh, and of both the city’s art galleries and Glasgow University’s Whistler collection. All of this, he says, is 'the bright side of a great city. But there can be no city in these islands which has darker spots. Out of a population of over a million, about 400,000 are not satisfactorily housed. At Anderston Cross, built in the middle of the last century, I visited the worst slums I have ever seen.’
Of course I concede that in this review I have been focusing on what we read here about what Betjeman calls Glasgow’s 'dark spots’. There is ample material included of a quite different kind – material about Glasgow’s humour, about J J Bell, Neil Munro, and Bud Neill, about Stanley Baxter and Billy Connolly, about Baxter’s Parliamo Glasgow and 'The Patter', about the Citizens Theatre and Glasgow’s music hall tradition. There is fine journalism by writers such as Clifford Hanley, Jack House, Jack McLean and the McIlvanney brothers. There is a whole section entitled 'Fighting Women’ (though the majority of contributors turn out to be men).
But in so much of this material the same themes and topics seem to recur: Glasgow’s bitter sectarian divide between Protestant and Catholic – viciously acted out in that between Rangers and Celtic – its drinking culture, and its undercurrent of violence and aggressiveness, its gangs and criminality – what makes it in George Gale’s words, 'the most foreign of towns’ he does not feel lost or abroad in. How many British cities have produced anything comparable to Jimmy Boyle’s prison-inspired 'The Art of Stabbing’ or a poem – one of the relatively few about Glasgow – like Eddie Linden’s 'City of Razors’:
There is roaring in Hope Street,
They’re killing in the Calton
There’s an ambulance in Bridgeton,
And there’s a laddie in the Royal.
The meaning of Iona, blending history and myth, dates from a very distant past. Yet despite the long centuries of ruin, decay and neglect, Iona’s legacy, for many of us at least, remains today a richly positive one. That is why 'The Book of Iona' leaves us refreshed. The message of 'Glasgow The Autobiography' is a much darker and more ambivalent one.