I caught up with James Robertson as he was signing a copy of The Gruffalo for a wee boy who seemed perplexed at the adage ‘Lang may your lum reek.’ Robertson ha d, of course, recently translated Julia Donaldson’s children’s classic into Scots; I had also just witnessed a riotous storytelling session where he not only read The Gruffalo in Scots and The Gruffalo’s Wean in Scots but also put an army of youngsters through their linguistic paces with such terms as “neb” (nose),”hauns on hurdies” (hands on hips) and “wheesht” (quiet). Even I had forgotten the lyrical animal names learned at my Scots grandmother’s knee: “hoolet” (owl), “tod” (fox) and “puddock” (frog).
“Our language shouldn’t be left to wither,” James told me, with his book signing over. “The Scots tongue is not something which is dealt with in our education system, so children have no idea how to read it off the page. With the encroachment of ‘text-speak’ and the language of the media, we are on an uneven playing field, but our own language must not be denied to us. I would like to see a culture of articulate bilingualism; it’s important to the way we see ourselves and the way we are seen by the world.”
I was surprised to learn that recent census results suggest that 1.5 million people speak Scots, with 1.9 million stating that they understand the language, written or spoken. Robertson reveals that he’s had a very positive response from children to his Itchy Coo Scots language translations, which proves that the language is far from “dead”.
I also wanted to find out more about Robertson’s latest novel The Professor of Truth, a compelling narrative inspired by the tragic events of December 21st, 1988, when Pan Am Flight 103 crashed over Lockerbie, Dumfriesshire, resulting in the deaths of all on board, as well as eleven people on the ground. I began by asking him if he had any personal connection to Lockerbie and if had he experienced any qualms about fictionalising a tragic event which is still quite raw in the psyche of those who remember it.He replied that although he has no personal connection, he has always been interested in the case and the workings of the justice system in relation to it. “I recognised that this was sensitive territory and that, for many, the story isn’t yet over. I believe that art should not be barred from exploring the issues that arise from such events; issues such as the nature of truth and justice, which are the main themes of this novel. Fiction can take a different approach, open up new avenues of thought, and it is up to the writer to be as honest as possible when dealing with the subject matter.”
The novel is divided into two parts entitled ‘Ice’ and ‘Fire’ and just as the action moves from Scotland in mid-winter to the searing heat of Australia, one has a clear sense of the main protagonist, Alan Tealing, progressing through the stages of grief after losing his wife and daughter in the tragedy . One reviewer has suggested that this is a nod to Robert Frost’s poem ‘Fire and Ice’, so I asked James at what stage he decided to use this as a device for framing the narrative.
“Actually I began with the image of a man walking out of a snow storm with a single nugget of information. Beyond that, I had no idea where the narrative would take me, which is surely what the challenge of writing is all about. As I realised that Alan Tealing would fly to the other side of the world in search of the truth, it became clear that he would be in a totally different climate. The symbolism of the ice and fire is really up to the reader to interpret in their own way.”
As a writer, I was particularly interested in the “nuts and bolts” of the text, and asked James if he could talk me through one of the most memorable scenes, where news of the plane crash is broken to Tealing by a colleague. Although Tealing recalls the fateful moment in his own voice he actually refers to himself in the third person.“I wanted to reproduce that quality of being slightly removed from oneself,” Robertson explained of the shift in style, “as I would imagine one would be upon hearing such awful news. I rewrote the scene several times, first trying it in the second person. Eventually I settled on Alan recalling the event as if he was seeing himself from a distance, standing beside himself perhaps. I had also experimented with writing the second half of the novel in the third person, but I quickly realised that it wasn’t working and used the first person narration throughout.”
Having recently reviewed Hecuba at the Dundee Rep, I couldn’t help but make comparisons with The Professor of Truth. The character of Hecuba is a woman almost destroyed by the loss of her children and intent on revenge; Alan Tealing is a man lost without his family but driven to uncover the truth about who killed them. I was curious about the effect on the artist of having to “manifest” grief of this magnitude in a sustained way, so I asked Robertson the same question I’d asked members of the Rep Ensemble: is it just part of your job to create this experience for the audience, or do you find yourself investing in this emotion?“I found it draining at times,” he revealed. “I think you have a responsibility to get it right, even though you may not have gone through anything like that in your life. There are some very emotional scenes, especially in the first part of the book, such as when Alan sees a man and his child on the bus and he thinks about his own daughter and that he is no longer a husband and father, and I found that very difficult. I actually witnessed a man and his child on the bus as I was thinking about writing this scene, and found myself getting quite emotional as I thought about how it would feel to be in Tealing’s situation.”
In the novel, we get a real picture of what Alan Tealing was like as a husband and father, and how his life changed after the crash. He has qualities that make him both convincing and engaging. Even before his bereavement, we learn that he is unsure of himself, slightly vulnerable. Would Robertson describe him as a template for a ‘modern man’? “I certainly feel that cultural changes have forced men to re-examine themselves. The balance of power has changed economically and in the workplace; man’s role is changing and many are unsure of themselves. We are living in a less masculine society – not in itself a bad thing, but this has had an unsettling effect, so in that sense Alan Tealing is not untypical of the modern man. He is also having to reinvent himself in the light of this great loss.”
Finally I asked Robertson how he would respond to critics who have described this as a campaigning novel, a manifesto for those relatives who are still seeking the truth about who was responsible for the Lockerbie bombing. “It is inevitable that comparisons would be drawn between the Alan Tealing character and Dr Jim Swire who believes that the Megrahi conviction was wrong and has been campaigning to uncover the truth for the last twenty five years. This has been the biggest case ever dealt with by the Scottish Justice system and has implications for us all, so I have no problem declaring my interest in it. I always knew what my viewpoint would be when I started to write and what direction the narrative would go in. The book is fictional but explores issues which affect us all: justice, truth and how much we can trust the narratives we are told.”
Roberston feels strongly that such events provide legitimate subject matter for writers, and that fiction merely offers a different perspective. He later joined with debut novelist Rosemary Goring to discuss the difficulties inherent in fictionalising historic events, and whether there was a certain point at which tragedies such as Lockerbie could be termed as historical.
The Professor of Truth is published by Hamish Hamiltion (reviewed on DURA here). The Gruffalo in Scots and The Gruffalo’s Wean are published by Itchy Coo.