This is an edited transcript of Lindsay Macgregor in conversation with Robert Alan Jamieson for DURA conducted at the Dundee Literary Festival, 23 October 2013. The full audio recording can be heard by clicking on the video image.
LM: Well, good afternoon everybody and welcome to Dundee University Review of the Arts. We’re very privileged today to have Robert Alan Jamieson with us, fresh from the Dundee Literary Festival where he did a lovely reading this afternoon. Jamieson is from the crofting community of Sandness, west Shetland. He published two novels and a collection of poetry before becoming a mature student at Edinburgh University where he now teaches Creative Writing. I’d like to just start with inviting Alan to read us some poems from his collection Nort Atlantik Drift, perhaps.
RAJ: I can do that easily. The sound of the far west of Shetland. A very sort of particular historical period as well because language doesn’t stand still and, given that Shetland has, over the last thirty odd years or so, gone through quite a transformation (thanks to North Sea oil), it’s probably also an historical record. I thought I’d read this poem which has a non-Shetland title called “Atlantis”. It’s the story… of being in primary school in Sandness and finding out about the myth of Atlantis and the effect of that on an imaginative child, let’s say.
Missis Tomsin telt dim
a’da sungkin laand
‘at slippit inanundir
wast an fram fæ
Afriek’s mukkil hill,
quhar Atlas stød himsel,
hunghsin up da globb
læk’it wis choost a stobb
he’s kerrjin fæ da banghs –
an foo Sjætlin’s singkin
sloalie still, choost da taps
at rekt fæ Nevis nort
an æst tæ Jotunheimen,
noo Atlantik diep an lost.
Apo da bakk o a shiet
left owir fæ pæprin butt,
he took his pen an droo
da ootlyn o an ylind,
a laand læk Yrlind,
grien an boannie,
an he krissint’it ‘Atlantis’,
in onnir a’da chyint,
his æin lost laand.
An he næmt da hills an loghs,
he næmt da toons an broghs
an gied’it oardir.
A laand wie waatir fir a boardir,
læk Sjætlin, sookit inanundir,
Atlantik diep an lost.
LM: Well, thanks very much indeed, Alan, for that beautiful poem which I think, in many ways sums up lots of elements of that particular book of poetry – there is a naming of places, the identity of Shetland and the mythology… I wonder what you’re thinking of there in terms of the mythology, as well as the history of Norse and Vikings, and what you grew up with in terms of that story and Shetland that has since informed your writing?
RAJ: Well, I think that poem is probably interesting because it combines a local legend that wouldn’t have featured in my school syllabus, that of the giant Atla, who sat in the middle of the island somewhere round about Weisdale, throwing stones at passing ships and the like, and then the myth of Atlantis which comes via the Greco-Roman intellectual tradition into English, and makes its way, ultimately, to the very edge of Europe. And I think that one of the noticeable things, I suppose, as an adult looking back on that education, was the fact that Shetland itself played such a small part in the syllabus. It’s something that I think has changed and continues to change. But it’s often the case, isn’t it, where you have a community that’s sort of marginal to the mainstream culture that they learn not about themselves but about the Jameses, Mary Queen of Scots, the Wars of the Roses and indeed the Classical myths?
LM: Yes, that’s a familiar story for many of us in Scotland and much more widely afield, I suppose. But I’m also interested in Nort Atlantik Drift and in Da Happie Laand, your novel, where you have the Shetland poems written in a dialect which is particular to your area of Shetland; yet you also have the prose translations in English. I’m wondering about whether you have a particular reader in mind or several readers in mind as you’re writing because your poems are accessible, clearly, to Shetlanders… although some who are not from Sandness might wonder about your orthography…. You’re very keen to ensure that your books are accessible also for non-Shetlanders and I wonder if that’s a conscious process for you. Exactly who is your reader when you’re writing?
RAJ: Well I’d like to think that although these books may be quite specific and local, … an intelligent reader from anywhere could pick them up and get something from them. There would be subtleties in pronunciation or in semantic subtleties, maybe, that the reader from elsewhere may miss but I’d like to think that, although they’re very deeply rooted within that place and culture, that they’ll spread from there to reach the world…
LM: …not a hardline poet in the sense that there are some poets who would maybe refuse to translate a poem in Scots into English, for example…
RAJ: Well, I think this is a decision… one thing I would say about the translations here is that I haven’t poeticised them. The model that I had in mind was the old Penguin Poets series where you might get the Baudelaire in [original] French… and then at the bottom, you’d get these little prose translations in a tiny point size that you really had to work at. They weren’t poetry; they were just there so that the reader could decode the meaning and [their]… subtleties…. So the [English translations are]… not poems. They’re there [to]… remove the need for the local to deliver a semantic pay-off to a non-local reader. That allows me the freedom to really explore the sound of the local without worrying whether anyone’s going to understand it.
LM: It’s clearly been important to you, also, to use the sounds of the area that you come from in Shetland and to get back to that. I wonder if you could just talk a little bit about how you’ve come to your own orthography or where you’ve found the way to transmit the sounds for the non-Shetland reader.
RAJ: Well, the first thing I should say, probably, is that my beginnings are quite particular, linguistically. That is to say, I grew up in a house where there were four generations in it – a house and a half really; the oldest was my great-grandmother who was born in eighteen eighty-four. Therefore I had access, really, to quite an antiquated form of the dialect. She looked after me quite a lot when I was young and everyone else was off working and I had a curiosity. I had always had a curious ear as far as language went; I picked up quite a lot of very old forms of Shetland, without being even aware. Then, when you sort of stray beyond your family or beyond the village, you realise that actually, that’s quite strange. But it was absolutely the voice of that experience. I would say that this book varies… because of the subject matter; I really wanted to be able to get as close to that as possible.
In the establishment of the orthography, I looked a lot at versions of the dialect that had been written, you know, historically. There’s a lot of variation within the islands from one island, one parish to another. And there was a time when dialect writing would just be done according to how the individual felt. There wasn’t a systematic approach to it. For the local audience that was fine. I mean if there was some sort of deviation or misdirection in the way it was written down, the fact that the reader knew what they were – what they meant – they could read through that. Then in the nineteen-forties, when the New Shetlander magazine is established, becoming a sort of hub for literature and writing in the islands, and when the Graham brothers, John and Lollie, take over, they attempted to standardise. They get material in from different parts of the Islands written in, sometimes fairly idiosyncratic and inconsistent ways, and they take it upon themselves then to edit. But they’re working from their own knowledge of the dialect which is based upon the fact that they come from the centre… Shetland has its own centre.
LM: Yes, there are dynamics there too. For yourself as a Shetlander who’s is not now living in Shetland, how important is your geographical dislocation… in your writing about Shetland? Almost the outsider, [living] in Edinburgh in the centre of Scotland as a Shetlander and in writing probably in dialect as well, I wonder if that’s a kind of route into poetry for you in terms of an otherness that is important to you?
RAJ: I do live in exile. I feel that and I don’t really understand how contemporary Shetland functions and operates, not in depth, as an outsider, so the fascination that it holds for me as a writer now is largely historical; my interest is in obviously my own period but further back as well. The effect of exile on the individual? Well… I think if you do come from a very particular case, and not everybody does, folk shift around a lot and they don’t necessarily have that very particular sense of belonging, then that’s always with you, wherever you go. It doesn’t matter whether you’re Joyce living in Trieste… it’s always working upon you. It does give you … a certain intellectual distance, perhaps, from the place. It allows you, in a way, to make it yours. It becomes a place of your imagination as opposed to a real place…. So there’s a creative freedom in that which, hopefully, is a good thing.
LM: And certainly, with your novel, Da Happie Laand, you’ve certainly used very much your own knowledge of Shetland – your upbringing there, as well as drawn on a range of historical documents. You’ve got an imaginative narrative but there’s a real blurring between fact and fiction, truth and memory. And so on… for a really sort of thrilling story of Shetland from Norse, pre-Norse times, right through to twenty-first century, and I wonder if you could just talk a little bit about how you came to actually embark on such an ambitious project…
RAJ: I think it just kind of grew, layer by layer. I would use the analogy of oil painting where you apply a certain covering to the canvas, a sort of base, and leave it for a while and then you go back and you add more and you keep adding layers. But there’s something of those early coverings that sort of protrude through or influence in some way, even up to the very last layering.… The very first sketchings would have been, I think, nineteen ninety-five. It was published in two thousand and ten. So that’s sort of fifteen years of not working on it consistently but returning to it with a new idea… with a new approach. It begins with a contemporary story, the father-son-colonial, the returning child of this particular family line who has gone out to New Zealand in the nineteen hundreds. I had quite a lot of that to begin with, maybe sixty, seventy thousand words of that story. Before that I had about forty thousand words written by the father who disappears that now plays no part in it…. I reduced that sixty, seventy thousand words down to about forty in the final draft.
But then around that grew a… real event… this bloke [who] turned up at my door when I was living in Perth, with blistered feet and a pair of brogues under his arm and asked me if I was the minister. There was another layer that went on as a result of what was a real-life intervention, if you like, into the world of the novel. That introduced the religious aspect too and so I had a lot of material. I mean I had the real-life story of the landed family, the real-life story of the local folk who established the school, and then the sort of fictional story of the colonial family returning. What I liked about it was the combination; the way that the narrative works as a whole is that the reader sort of makes their way through the history of Shetland via the old minister who’s discovering that for himself. You’ve got the other narrative…of returns playing with that. I think that the novel completes itself with the hundred year-old woman who was there at the very beginning, you know, when the family first left, and is also there at the end. She has her key information that hopefully. An arc if you like, although it’s not a straightforward arc….
LM: Yes and structurally, it’s very interesting that you have parts where the storyline has been scored out because the writer has changed their mind on what’s to be included.
RAJ: The minister self-censors … but giving himself away.
LM: … he lets us see what’s there. You have, as I say, the historical documents and so on. Again, I wonder, similarly with the poetry book, you have photography, notes and commentary as well as the English prose translation and the poems. At what point does the structure inform what you’re writing. Which is coming first in what you’re doing – the creation, the structure? How does that happen?
RAJ: I think for me, it begins with kind of a mood or an intention or a feeling, without anything very specific being there. And then I research, and I don’t mean I just go to archives, I mean I go places and think about them, dig around and talk to people, and just generally explore the world and the work, wherever that is. In this case, I lived it anyway so it wasn’t so hard, but with the novel I spent a long time of just sort of wandering around lost, I suppose, inside a world [hoping] that one day, you know, I would manage… It’s kind of like putting up a tent or something. You need to go inside the tent in the dark .
LM: Yes, not always successful…
RAJ: It takes a while, that’s right. And the structure begins to show itself the more you gather of the material, the more naturally, it seems at any rate, the different bits fit together. Then I think once you’ve got a sense of what the narrative strategy is, you much more consciously start to work towards that feeling that will fulfil whatever that core idea is. But the discovering of the idea, for me, at any rate, takes a while… Which is great fun; the fun for me, in it, is not knowing what I’m going to do. There was a long gap when I just didn’t quite know how to finish it. And it was only when I got the idea of the hundred year old woman who had the memory to link back to nineteen hundred-ish – that’s when it fitted into place for me.
LM: And did that then allow you to order the fragments that you had as well? That was the key to it for you?
RAJ: Yes, it retrospectively organised from the end. I mean obviously you have an idea of where it’s going but the sort of final adjustment you do, or I did, in this case once I had got that…
LM: And has the reception for the novel been different in Shetland from mainland Scotland and elsewhere – the way that it’s read and understood in Shetland is perhaps different from the way it would be understood elsewhere?
RAJ: I think, in Shetland because the historical side of it is to some extent known, it’s a skewed history in that everything is true but it’s moved sideways; names are changed. Not everything. Ninety per cent of it is true. And I think that there’s a certain readership in Shetland that wondered why I’d done that, you know? “Why change the names?” The reason is a straightforward one – I just wanted the creative freedom to make up the things I needed to make up…. If you break from that at the outset by changing the names, then it’s your world. You can do anything. Also, I think it’s important that, in my mind at any rate, for the conceit of New Zetland to work, which is completely invented, it almost needs to be set, juxtaposed with a fictional Shetland rather than a real one. Then the whole thing has that integrity of being invented.
LM: I saw some sort of reflection in your photos in Nort Atlantik Drift where the sea has got a little shimmer on it as if it’s reflecting the reality and yet it’s a slightly refracted reflection and it made me think of the novel… a kind of prefiguring… a concept of a New Zetland where things have kind of happened that have happened before with the Norse settling in Shetland.
RAJ: Yes, exactly.
LM: And now people settling here and the way that language develops and is colonised by the incomers…
RAJ: That’s a very acute observation because it was in my mind that, you know, by sort of inverting, if you like, the story of Shetland and this colonising that goes on there, I was echoing what had really happened here, this part of the world, the Scots colonisation of Shetland. So yes.
LM: And there’s also something in telling the history of Shetland in this fictionalised narrative form which actually also gives you a freedom to give us, as readers, more of [a way].. into the history because it brings it alive and, I think, particularly, in the sections, for example, on the Truck Commission, where you’re using first hand reports, presumably, and yet you’re able to take a much more nuanced view of different perspectives on what people might have thought of a system which in many ways was barbaric and dreadful and yet was also very difficult to move away from because it also would have brought some pain and poverty to people.
RAJ: There was nowhere else to go other than to emigrate. The laird was all-powerful and the prospect of change that the Truck Commission brought was only that until … there was actual political change based from that. So you could understand why a certain proportion of the population, would be reluctant to come out strongly against the prevailing order, even though in their hearts they may have felt it. I think it’s a really interesting moment in history, not just in Shetland, but … to some extent all through Scotland and elsewere, … Ireland and the like…where the peasantry who’ve kind of had a hard time of it for centuries, were finally beginning to sense some sort of freedom and… it sends them to the edge of the world…
LM: with its impact then on the peoples that they meet up with.
RAJ: … and a loss of continuity. I think that’s one of the things I was interested in in the novel, was how, over two or three generations of not being here in Shetland, people lose contact. Families, are broken by that…to the point where the contemporary character, protagonist, doesn’t even know that he’s in the house of his forefathers.
LM: Yes, yes, that’s right. There’s an irony. And, for some people there will be no historical documents, there will be a reliance on memory and on letters and fragments and so on. So there’s a sort of difference in what sort of historical record is left for people.
RAJ: That’s right. I mean, there is… if you’re prepared to seek, I think. That’s the thing, really, it’s having the motivation, or the impetus to go and find out. And, you know, people are busy. They’re trying to survive. It’s not everyone that has the time or the inclination to sift through all of these documents. And records. Some people live quite happily in the contemporary world and have no desire to know whatever where they came from.
LM: Nort Atlantik Drift is going to be appearing on film, I believe?
RAJ: An odd turn again is that I got an email a few weeks ago from a woman called Susan Kemp who is… an independent film-maker. She’d read the book and thought that there was a lot of potential for doing something with it film-wise. She’d been looking at Margaret Tait’s Portrait of Mac Diarmid. So we arranged that we would go up to Shetland and take her around a few places to. She would shoot, I would read and we would talk a bit. The week before we were meant to go, my father died. So it was a very …odd few days of filming but…Well, I did something. I mean it was, from my point of view, I can’t even remember because it was such a blur. But hopefully, it’s got a bit of a charge to it because of that.
LM: They’re poems of childhood, many of them.
LM: A fitting tribute too. So that will be on in Glasgow for people to see.
RAJ: It’s for the Glasgow Film Festival. Part of a day of Shetland or northern related things that she’s curating. They’ll be showing Grierson’s Drifters and Michael Powell’s Edge of the World as part of this day and then in the evening we’ll have a kind of live cabaret with projections and people doing things.
LM: Sounds wonderful. Well, Alan, thank you so very much for the interview this afternoon and for reading for us from your book of poetry. We look forward very much to your next novel and the film of Nort Atlantik Drift – both sound like riches in abundance. Many thanks indeed.
RAJ: Thank you.
(Interview transcribed by Lindsay Macgregor.)