Wednesday, 28 January 2015

Josephine Tey's unflattering portrait of a Scots Nat from 1952 shows that nothing much has changed

The Scottish crime novelist Josephine Tey (née Elizabeth Mackintosh) is best known as the author of The Daughter of Time (1951), in which her bed-bound Scotland Yard detective, Inspector Alan Grant, sets about rehabilitating the character of Richard III. Her final novel, The Singing Sands (published after her death in 1952) finds the  detective on a train to the Highlands where he is to spend some weeks with his childhood sweetheart and her family recuperating from a nervous breakdown. While out fishing with his hostess’s son, he is confronted by a strange apparition in a music hall parody of traditional Highland dress who turns out (inevitably) to have a “barbarous” Glaswegian accent:

So they made tea for Wee Archie, glum and polite. He produced his own sandwiches, and while they ate he lectured them on the glory of Scotland; its mighty past and dazzling future. He had not asked Grant’s name and was betrayed by his speech into taking him for an Englishman. Surprised, Grant heard of England’s iniquities to a captive and helpless Scotland. (Anything less captive or less helpless than the Scotland he had known would be difficult to imagine.) England, it seemed, was a blood-sucker, a vampire, draining the good blood of Scotland and leaving her limp and white. Scotland had groaned under the foreign yolk, she had come staggering behind the conqueror’s chariot, she had paid tribute and prostituted her talents to the tyrant’s needs. But she was about to throw off the yoke, to unloose the bands; the fiery cross was about to be sent out once more, and soon the heather would be alight...
Grant wondered what the creature lived on. ‘Pomes’ did not provide a living. Nor did free-lance journalism; or, rather, not the kind of journalism that Archie was likely to write. Perhaps he scraped a living from ‘criticism’. It was from the ranks of the ineffective that the minor critics were recruited. There was always the chance, of course, that he was subsidised; if not by some native malcontent with a thirst for power, then by some foreign agency with an interest in trouble-making. He was of a type very familiar to the Special Branch: the failure, sick of a curdled vanity. 

In the book, it turns out that Wee Archie makes his money from smuggling, but we know what now subsidises these discontented fantasists: the public purse, via their public sector jobs and political office, thanks to the Scottish and – disproportionately – the English taxpayer. And it's to these England-hating wretches that Ed Miliband’s Labour Party is sucking up (and to the even ghastlier representatives of Sinn Fein – but, of course, Labour is the nice, moral party of fairness, equality and social justice, and we must never dare to question Ed Miliband's patriotism). It’s just a pity, what with oil prices plummeting, that the SNP didn’t win their referendum so we could have enjoyed watching them trying to pay for their fantasy policies with fantasy money – which is exactly what the No campaign predicted would happen. And, of course, their thoroughly immoral MPs have reneged on their commitment not to vote on legislation which only affects England, and on their promise not to indulge in a Neverendum - I'm half-Scottish, and that half is thoroughly ashamed.

Having worked in England for several years, Josphine Tey had to return to Inverness at the age of 30 to look after her sick father, and that’s when she began to write fiction. One can only assume that the virulent Scots Nats she met there got right up her decidedly conservative nose. If you’ve never read any of her books, her clear, unsentimental prose is a treat. The Singing Sands is excellent, but I'd probably start with The Daughter of Time or Brat Farrar.


  1. I like the term "barbarous Glaswegian accent."

    It would also have been relished by my geography teacher, ( ) who, when provoked by a class member imitating a proletarian accent, rasped "No Swahili in class, please."

    1. I almost didn't quote that phrase, as the Scottish half of me is entirely Glaswegian, and some of my relatives would no doubt have attracted sneers from Miss Tey, who, one suspects, like her detective hero, didn't sound Scottish at all (I could be wrong, of course). However, I think Miss Tey was more interested in making fun of the fact that Wee Archie had learned Gaelic (badly) and had taken to writing execrable poems in the language and to reciting them in a broad Glaswegian accent to Highland audiences - it was his bogusness rather than his origins she was laughing at. Her attitudes form a contrast to those of John Buchan who, although a fairly posh native of Edinburgh, was always casting working-class Glaswegians in heroic roles.

  2. A small correction, if I may, Scott, viz., John Buchan was born in Perth.

    His father, a 'Wee Free' Minister was given charge of a parish in Glasgow. Buchan attended Hutchesons' Grammar School, then situated in Glasgow's most unsalubrious district (tough competition indeed) - the Gorbals. You may remember the 'Gorbals Diehards', that group of ragamuffin heroes, from Huntingtower.

    I enjoyed the story of Buchan, while Governor General of Canada, touring some of the remote fur - trading posts of the Hudson's Bay Company.

    It seems that Buchan made that journey in the company of a fellow Scot who was the Governor of the Hudson's Bay Co and remarked to that businessman how odd it was that all the Scots managers of the company's branches had taken Eskimo wives while none of the English managers had done so.

    The businessman laughed and said , "Well, the Eskimos have to draw a line somewhere."

    1. I stand corrected. As an adult, Buchan suffered for years from crippling stomach pains - I've never been able to figure out how he got so much done (apart, obviously, from an extraordinary work ethic).

      I've never read "Huntingtower" but I listened to a dramatisation on BBC Radio 4 Extra last November, which was excellent.

      As was your Buchan anecdote.