Tuesday, 28 July 2015

Notes from the ghost of a Scottish writer

In a moment of synchronicity, a writer ancestor paid me an unexpected visit a few months ago.
My friend Alex Smith, author of Devilskein & Dearlove, phoned to say with amazement, 'I was looking through some of my grandfather Leonard's literary journals and found an article about your great-grandfather!' She immediately emailed me pages from The Bookman December 1931 issue about Scottish novelist and poet Neil Munro (1863-1930).
Leonard, 'a lover and buyer of rare books' according to Alex, had probably read the article on Munro, and may even have bought and read his novels. Fast-forward 84 years, and two of the literary men's grand-daughters meet up regularly, as they have all their adult lives, for tea and conversation about life and literature. In fact, when Alex found the article, she and I were living in the same road, just a few houses apart.
You've probably never heard of Neil Munro, unless you took a course in Scottish literature, but during his time he captured the imagination of the Scots with his historical novels offering commentary on the shifts in contemporary Scotland, his light-hearted Para Handy tales about a crafty boat skipper on the River Clyde, his poems and newspaper columns. Munro's younger son, Neil junior (also a journalist and writer of fiction), was my mother's father.
The Bookman article raises aspects of writing relevant to South African writers today. With our diversity of languages, many novelists and poets may write in second-language English – and thereby stand to benefit from the influence of their mother tongue. The article's author writes of Munro, 'Though expressing himself in the purest English, he kept a Scottish accent of mind.' And, 'He thought in Gaelic and wrote in English, and it was this bilingualism that lent such charm to his rich and allusive style – a style pregnant with the rhythmic cadences, suggestive turns of speech and poetic metaphors that come straight from the Gaelic.' (Read the article for more).
Secondly, Munro's love of the Scottish Highlands - an 'exquisite responsiveness to the moods and suggestions of nature' - infuses his work. My great-grandfather wrote about the places he and his fellow Highlanders loved, the places they yearned for when far from home. Writing powerfully about a place you know intimately is something you do not only for yourself and your current audience, but for posterity. As Cape Town author Henrietta Rose-Innes noted in a recent interview about her new novel, Green Lion, 'I want to write my patch of the world into existence, and trust that others around me are writing theirs. Otherwise, I fear these unique locales will vanish from our literary map.' (I recommend Helen Moffett's anthology Lovely Beyond Any Singing: Landscapes in South African Writing for a tour of local places through the eyes of our novelists, past and present.)
A portrait of easy-going, witty Neil Munro stands on my desk, gently reminding me to keep writing, to keep going - as does Alex, whom I've known since the age of five. If only Leonard were here to see the titles written by his granddaughter lined up on bookshop shelves...

The Neil Munro Society publishes a twice-yearly magazine. See http://www.neilmunro.co.uk

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