The Silver Eel

"A gape-jawed serpentine shape of pale metal crested with soot hung high for a sign."

Friday, June 02, 2006


What I like about this image (never having seen the painting, I gotta say image - I'm told that reproductions, no matter how good, never match the original) is that though the subject appears to be the bridge, which is precise and definite and firmly rooted, what takes my attention is the the sky beyond and above it, the way it seems to go on forever, not in spite of, but because the bridge itself is so limited and particular.

It strikes me as an illustration of what prose can do, when used properly - the right words used with full intent. Have recently begun a book bought ten years ago and by happy indolence neither read nor re-sold nor thrown out, just laid down until one or other of us was ready: Sam Hanna Bell's December Bride. They made a film of it in 1990, which I saw at the Filmhouse in the days when just about every film seemed to contain hidden meanings, and if I hadn't fallen slightly for Saskia Reeves at the time, I'd probably never have bought the book. Here's an extract:

'Let us be going now,' said Andrew. The ram was urged to the water's edge and hoisted into the boat. Sarah was snatched up by Frank, and as he stood thigh-deep in the water he turned a little towards Pentland with his burden before he seated her in the stern. Already the two men on the beach were vague and indistinct, and their shouts of farewell came torn and disjointed to those afloat. 'He's a crabbit ould blirt, too,' grumbled the servingman, referring to Andrew, as he and Pentland turned away. But his master only grunted. He was preoccupied with the image of the sturdy, pale, smooth-haired woman in whose company he had been for the past three hours. He remembered Frank Echlin's fingers sunk in her thigh and waist and a tremor ran through him. The slipe [sledge] caught on a stone, and Pentland turned round to look down on the lough. the boat had vanished and the grey fretted water was hardly distinguishable from the rain and mist that swept across it.

Bell's compression of time (something Garner goes on about, but which I'm only now coming to appreciate) in this passage is superb, and he gives you what is required, no more, in the way of description and narrative. In limiting himself he creates space, suggests tension, though nothing very dramatic is happening. Though it may not be evident here, in other parts of the novel the evocation of silence underlying action or behind the dialogue is quite incredible - rather like the sky in the Van Gogh - something they brought out well in the film, as I remember.


A lot of it seems to be written in Scots - but I didn't know that Bell was born in Scotland, or that his father was manager of the Glasgow Herald - or even of the existence of Ulster Scots, shame on me. It comes as no surprise, however, that he was a folklorist - from the sounds of it much like Hamish Henderson or David Thomson or George Ewart Evans.


At 8 June 2006 at 14:14 , Blogger Yvonne said...

Sounds like a good read. Talking of books with Scots language in, I also enjoyed Swing Hammer Swing by Jeff Torrington (infinitely better than Trainspotting, and a wonderful evocation of 1960s Glasgow) and The Silver Darlings by Neil M Gunn, all about herring fishing just after the clearances, and full of wistful prose, landscape, folklore, and stuff. Wonderful.

At 10 June 2006 at 18:23 , Blogger Joe said...

I didn't know he was Scots either, although I was aware of the existence of Ulster Scots - Seamus Heaney draws on some old Ulster words in his version of Beowulf, which sprang back into my mind after re-reading John Gardner's Grendel recently (he tells events from Grendel's perspective, fascinating little novel).

Always rewarding to pick up little aspects of the writer's life and interests though, seeing how they influence and pattern their work and words - I think that's one of the reasons I love getting the writer's to talk about their work in their own words over on the work blog.

At 12 June 2006 at 23:03 , Blogger The Silver Eel said...

I read Swing Hammer Swing in 1994 and didn't make much of it, though I got the impression that it was a good book, and Torrington's use of English was certainly energetic, though different to anything else I'd ever come across. One of these days I'll get around to re-reading it. Also read The Devil's Carousel with much the same confused reaction. Too young, not enough experience, either of life or books. Though both novels are still in print, you'll be doing well to find them in the shops these days. Torrington never seems to get mentioned in the canon of modern Scottish writers either (Kelman, Kesson, Gray, McIlvanney, Welsh and Spark are examples), which I suspect is a mistake. It's almost as if folk don't know what to make of him. At a guess of ten-and-some years' distance, it's because his work can't be pigeon-holed - it isn't overtly political or class-based, not in a didactic way, though it's certainly class-rooted. Also, he writes playfully, and that doesn't sit well in the land of Knox and Calvin. There may be desperation at times, but not despair. Doesn't compute.

Have read Gunn's The Green Isle of the Great Deep. Great title. Some very good writing. A kind of religious-cum-philosophical fantasy on totalitarianism and despair (hello again!) and hope. As a novel...ho hum. Fuzzy, self-important, and didn't tell me anything I hadn't got with greater authority from Havel or Irina Ratushinskaya. Strangely, you won't find this one in the shops either; Highland River and The Silver Darlings are acknowledged as classics.

Eh? John Gardner? As in Raymond Carver's mentor, whom Carver writes about with such affection and gratitude ("I consider myself the luckiest of men to have had his criticism and his generous encouragement")? Well, yes...and not to be confused with the English thriller writer John Gardner (, like, um, I just did.

At 26 June 2006 at 21:51 , Blogger Joe said...

First time I came across him I thought, this cannot be the same man who wrote spy thrillers (and later authorised new Bond tales too - still have a couple from my teen years). And indeed it was a different John Gardner - the Fantasy Masterworks version of Grendel has a great introduction by Jeffrey Ford talking about having Gardner as a tutor.

Shame about Torrington not being represented properly in the Scottish fiction sections these days. I had similar problems to you with Swing, in that I wasn't quite sure of it but could feel something good in there I didn't quite have the tools to grasp then - one I should come back to some time as well.

I did always make sure it was on the Scottish Fiction shelves though, just as I always kept some semi-obscure books in the Scots History section which only sold occassionally. Stock procedures say if it doesn't sell x amount of times it isn't worth stocking. Of course, a proper bookseller knows some books simply have to be kept - besides which the few folks who will come looking for them are the sorts of people who buy a lot of books and if they find a bookstore which has them in stock they will come back there for more.


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