I’ve recently been invited to join a reading group at one of my local libraries and my first meeting will be on Monday. While I welcome the opportunity to meet a new group of fellow readers, I do have some concerns about groups based around a library system, the most pressing being the choice of books. Like many libraries, this one has a collection of sets of books kept specifically for reading groups and so rather than the members having any say as to what is read they simply have to take the book that is offered. The results can be very mixed. As a consequence, this past month I’ve found myself reading a book that I certainly wouldn’t have selected by preference and one whose qualities are at best ‘iffy’.
Of course, it’s often the case in my other groups that I’m reading a book that sits outside my reading comfort zone, but I can normally rely on its having being chosen because of its quality rather than its plentitude. Also, the other groups are so well established and founded on respect for each other as readers that any concerns can be voiced without fear of them being taken the wrong way. Coming to this group of readers completely fresh, knowing only the librarian who invited me, I have to say that I am approaching tomorrow with some trepidation. If everyone else has loved the book, then I am going to have to shape my criticism very carefully.
The book in question is the first novel by Anna Smith, Spit Against the Wind, and to be fair, it has much to recommend it. Set on the west coast of Scotland, not far from Glasgow, in the late 1960s, it tells the story of four ten and eleven year old children from the point of view and through the voice of, the only girl in the group, Kathleen Slaven. One of the things that I think Smith does get right is that voice. I believed in Kath and I found the dialogue convincing, whether it was that of the children or of the adults they observe. I also thought she captured the tremendously harsh conditions that pertained in Scotland at that period. What work was to be had was hard, with long hours and poor pay and many families lived in a poverty it is difficult to equate with the idea of ‘the swinging sixties’ that held sway further south. As a result many of the adults resorted to drink as a way of hiding from their misery and the resulting violence is also not hard to believe. Two of the four children, Jamie and Tony, live in constant fear of what the men in their household will do when they return every evening and even Kath knows that her father is as likely to drink his pay as bring it home to her mother. Reading this it isn’t hard to see why, a decade and a half later, when Margaret Thatcher’s government tried to impose the Poll Tax it was in the west of Scotland they met their strongest opposition. These people had nothing with which to pay the charge and certainly weren’t seeing anything in the way of benefit from it.
The other aspect that I think Smith gets completely correct is the antagonism in the west of Scotland between the Catholics and the Protestant. We tend to think of this issue as an Irish one and if we associate it with Scotland at all it is likely only to be in relation to Glasgow and the rivalry between Celtic and Rangers football supporters. But, as the composer James McMillan pointed out quite recently, this is a much wider problem and certainly, on that west coast, where many families originated from Ireland, religious hostility is as much a fact of life as it is in Belfast.
So, if I liked that much about this novel what’s my problem? Ah, well, that comes with the plot, which I have to say would do one of Enid Blyton’s Famous Five books proud. Not that I don’t think some of the events wouldn’t have happened; the daughter being sent to Ireland to have her illegitimate baby, the abusive priest, the humiliation of the hated teacher, the beloved elder brother emigrating to Australia, these are all perfectly acceptable, but when you then throw in the terrible pit accident, the suicide of the despised loner, the near death experiences of three of the four children, not to mention the Nazi Concentration Camp guard disguised as a Polish immigrant, all in a period of about nine months and two hundred and fifty pages – well, even my credulity begins to be stretched. I don’t think there’s a plot cliché she hasn’t run with. And yes, the children do run away to camp, although with less than Famous Five success.
So, what am I going to say tomorrow? Well, I think I am going to try and keep very quiet, at least to begin with, until I’ve tested the temperature of the other members of the group’s taste and opinions. But if I’m asked directly then I’m just going to have to find a way of suggesting that it would be fascinating to see how Smith developed, given that certain aspects of her writing showed such interesting promise and hope that I can indicating that there are other facets of the work that are not so promising without causing too much offence.