A boy goes out to the shop and doesn’t come back for seven years.
A boy goes out to the shop and when he comes back seven years later he is a girl.
These are stories, if I am not mistaken.”
~ “Story” (2nd January)
As explained in the foreword, 365 is the end result of a self-imposed challenge for Robertson: to produce a short story, of exactly three hundred and sixty five words, for each day of 2013. Open this book to any given “entry”, for want of a better term, and you may be enchanted, amused, revolted, saddened, or moved to deep contemplation, in under five minutes. Like life itself, there is simply no telling what you will encounter.
At first glance, this appears a haphazard collection of micro-fiction, but although each piece stands in its own right, there are several themes and characters to which Robertson returns time and again. Many give new life to ancient Scottish folklore, such as the legend of Thomas the Rhymer, or the Wife at Usher’s Well. Several are cutting political satires, featuring one or more unnamed government ministers – invariably incompetents, deceivers or hypocrites. Five consecutive days in February are dedicated to Simon Stoblichties, a devoutly religious man who brings fame to a remote Highland village through the austere and self-immolating manifestation of his faith.
Some stories have evidently been inspired in direct response to events of the time. “Checkout” concerns three people having a heated conversation in a supermarket about soldiers, terrorism and “those blacks”; its entry date, 24th May, two days after the notorious murder of Lee Rigby. The entry for 18th September imagines Scotland’s future socio-political climate, a year to the day before the Scottish independence referendum. Incidentally, “The News Where You Are” (27th May), a prose poem mocking the hierarchy of international, national and regional media coverage, became an unintended tour de force for the Yes campaign when a performance by Robertson was released on YouTube later in the year.
Personal highlights from the collection are the numerous stories starring Jack, a “daft eejit” – he of the beanstalk and candlestick and other fairy-tales. The charm of these entries is accentuated by their deliverance in broad Scots dialect. With a bumbling but well-intended innocence, Jack ponders love (on Valentine’s Day, naturally), meets wizards and demons, explores mysterious caves and climbs magic trees, tries getting an education to be “no’ an eejit ony mair”, and even has a chance encounter with Death, all whilst trying to avoid a skelp oan the lug fae his Mither. Death himself is a recurring character too; world-weary and mundane, he is seen mulling over things with a bacon roll and cup of tea, taking a seaside holiday on his doctor’s advice, and at one point even undergoing a crisis of conviction.
Between the thematically linked stories are poignant little vignettes, observing the manifold facets of the human condition – an extramarital affair in a hotel; one man’s “invective” against parking tickets; two mountaineers considering whether to finish an ascent in spite of incoming snow, or to turn back. Some are simply personal essays, whether a heart-rending account of Robertson’s father’s decline in old age (“Tidying Up”) or a stream-of-consciousness tirade against the woman talking LOUDLY on the phone beside him on a train (“This is the story”).
In perhaps one in every ten pieces, the word mandate feels slightly forced, either by artificially expanding and diluting an idea beyond its initial impact, or by cutting short an interesting concept for an ending that feels too abrupt. But every one of 365’s works has its own merit, its own breath of life and insistent viewpoint, whether you personally appreciate it or not. If ever there truly were a book that had “something for everyone” in its pages, James Robertson has produced it.