Carnbeg - a bit more

'It is not down in any map, true places never are.'
Herman Melville, 'Moby Dick'  

In and out the houses runs the rhyme.

Aged six, across the two centre pages of my school drawing pad I laid out a town in lead pencil.  Houses, shops, streets, a church or two, trees.  Some people, but since figures weren't my strong point I imagined them instead.  They lived out of sight, inside the houses, behind the curtained windows; they were in the shops, they were praying in the churches.

I became a wizard with the India rubber.  The existing houses were erased and new houses appeared in their place.  Even if I liked something that already existed - after some preliminary spoilings, I would replace it, because change is change and at the end of the 1950s we were living in modern times.

Into my teens I hoped to be an architect.  I still constructed buildings with the point of a pencil, line-drawings, face-on.  But in school art class I laboured over perspective, and mine was judged borderline-failure.  Worse: despite being descended (so I've always been told) from the deviser of logarithms, my grasp of maths was atrocious.

No, I wasn't ever going to be an architect.


It's a Gaelic name I made up.

Carn means 'a heap of stones, cairn'.  Beg means 'little, small'.

There is no Carnbeg in Scotland.  But there is now.  A newspaper reviewer said of my book of stories about the town, 'It would be fiction if it weren't so true'.  Nothing could have pleased me better.

Carnbeg exists.

It's on paper.  Readers can imagine it for themselves, from the clues I've laid.   It's already there inside them, dare I say.

And there's a different Carnbeg for everyone who reads a story.
That is its reality.

When I was a little boy I had a fascination for doorbells.

That may have been because we didn't have one.

Any doorbell I saw, I wanted to ring.  I would run towards the door, jump up, stab my thumb at the button, and run off again before anyone could come to answer.

In time they must have known to be ready for me.  Unless - but I forget - my exploits took me further away, because I did run off one day, I went missing for several hours.

Bells offered the entrée.  Bells - 'PRESS' - were a social guard.


Sometimes the sound of the bell or the chimes was very far away, among deep imaginary shadows.

What went on behind high hedges and railings endlessly intrigued me.  Secrecy, defences.  The mystery of other people's lives - which was probably no more than their mundaneness - but which I visualised quite differently.

Snippets of conversation overheard while I ran past - the close, conspiratorial smells of privet hedge, and hot creosote from sun-strafed superlap fences.  And my head already storing up stories.

A little older - I was nine - I went off to a boys' school in Glasgow.

It meant an earlier start to the day.  Getting up, washing, dressing, checking the contents of my bag, eating breakfast, brushing my teeth.  All the while I was making up a radio serial in my head.

Many years later I would write my own radio serial, but it probably wasn't half as zappy or inventive as that one about people living in one of the country's new towns (I called it Teal), just as we did: about modern people, the kind my own family were.

I floated into every day with my regular cast of characters.  In and out the houses.  Round and round the town.  My town.



When I was twelve, we moved, from the (theoretically) classless new town where idealistists of the new Peace like my parents had settled.  We upped sticks for a leafy middle-class suburb on the north side of Glasgow.
It's strange to me that the middle-class experience, the condition of being in the middle, has had so little attention here in the arts.
The Carnbeg I write about is an inland resort in the Perthshire forest hills.  Perthshire is a vast county, the largest in Scotland.  Carnbeg is sited at the centre of that heartland.
A place to celebrate the middle way of life.
The  health-conscious Victorians created Carnbeg.  Its glory days were before the First World War, when it was one jewel in a diadem of European resorts extending from the Crimea by way of Bohemia and Northern Germany to - well, my Carnbeg, among natural springs in the Grampian foothills.

In the middle-middle world of Scotland that I knew, social life had the formality of a Japanese ritual.
People rarely said what they might be feeling: not because they didn't have the vocabulary (Scots-English has many extra synonyms, offering words to go into the spaces between not-quite-adequate English-English words), but because it wasn't considered seemly.
What will other people think?
We put on a front.  (If you suffered, then it was silently done.  The Original Self-Help Routine.)  Dirty linen most certainly wasn't going to washed in public.
Some topics - personal finances, notably - were thought too private:  they were taboo.  
Swearing was lazy and vulgar.  We parsed properly ('whom' for cases of 'who' other than subjunctive and genitive).  
We hazarded smugness, and sometimes succumbed.  But that seems to me now an innocent enough failing.
Think Tales of the Genji, 10th century Kyoto, transplanted half-way round the world - to Europe's rainy outermost Atlantic  ring - and another millennium on.

Carnbeg began as the town I needed for my BBC radio serial about a huge Highlands hotel, called The Hydro.
I wrote three series.  A feuding family, in time-honoured serial fashion, owned the hotel.  (Later there was a buy-out: cue more feuding.)  Staff.  Guests, different ones every week.  I had to keep at least four story-lines going consecutively.
Those people, they all needed to be somewhere.  Hence Carnbeg.
But when I stooped writing the serial. I didn't want to abandon the town.

In my mind, as I sit here, I'm seeing bits of real places, other Highlands towns.  (Or castles, or forest, or rivers.)  I make a mental collage of them.
By some alchemy they become the mortar and bricks - the grey sandstone rather, the weathered roof tiles and serried chimney pots (pluming sweet wood smoke) - of Carnbeg.

The Hydro [Hydropathic Hotel], sprawling on its hill, dominates one side of the town.  Facing it on the east is another hotel, the Sgian Palace, all mock-feudal towers and and turrets and battlements.  The Hydro served as an infirmary in the First War, and a recuperation centre in the Second.  The Sgian Palace was where Services personnel came on leave to relax.  
The Hydro was for many years tee-total, offering Sunday hymn-singing to the accompaniment of the wheezy organ in the main lounge.  The Sgian Palace was only ever dedicated to pleasure - and may have given Walt Disney (a transient in the early 1930s) inspiration for his Snow White castle.
The older houses on the uphill residential avenues have steep chalet-drop eaves, and gardens with the resin-y tang of spruce and pine and fir.  (A St Andrew's saltire flutters from a flagpole on a lawn.) 
On the High Street there's a glass-topped promenade; le beau Carnbeg used to parade there, in the days when the Hydro's glassy winter-garden, called the Kursaal (until 1913), was the other place to be seen.
The hills and white-capped mountains beyond are called the Scottish Alps.  Or they are in my version of the gazetteer, and I've forgotten if it's fact or embellishment or outright invention.  Once I've typed the name a sufficient number of times, it becomes hard usage: the Scottish Alps is what they are.

The Scots are nostalgists.
The siren call of the might-have-been, they lash themselves to the past, like Odysseus to his mast.
The rigours of a classical education at a 1960s Scottish boys' school, having it beaten into us with a leather tawse, equipped us with rational, ordered minds.
At least - for some things I can now be grateful - we were spared the besetting sin of Scottish working-class kultur: sentimentality.
That has become the easy way out, and for just for those writers who would like to think themselves hard-boiled.  It's how Scots are perceived.  They whine, they whinge, they will always believe they're picked on for rough treatment.
(The classes have traditionally looked in different directions.  'Middle' to Europe - at school we realised that our identity was as citizens of a North European seaport, on a mental axis with Hamburg and Gothenburg.  'Working' to the United States and Canada.  My great-grandfather was a painter, and like his contemporaries went off and studied in the Paris ateliers; the stay-at-homes meanwhile would have been watching Hollywood movies and listening to Tin Pan Alley songs.) 
Further from London than Paris is, we unite in feeling undervalued, and so the majority of Scots swing to the opposite extreme: we puff ourselves up, do the big talk, Wha's like us? - who's as good as us?
We're egalitarian and democratic as the English are not: let that be said in our favour.  The 'lads o' pairts', as ambitious young men used to be called, went out to seek their fortune wherever in the world they thought it was waiting, and back in their homeland public libraries were built on the proceeds and helped to open willing minds.  But we have a history too of turning in our ourselves: the clan chieftains were robber barons, duplicitous and vengeful and violent.  Presbyterians and Catholics practise weekly bigotry at football grounds.  We're a compendium of contradictions.
Collectively this nation of five million plus suffers from a psychic disorder.

Always looking in.
Moravia said every writer is trying to answer the same question, over and over again.  In each novel I've written, the main character is a spectator.  Others' lives seem richer, more glamorous.  The character is granted (limited) admission.  Something will happen, in the nature of corruption or a betrayal.  (Who corrupts or betrays whom is intentionally unclear.)
It's always the same thing, time and again: and it's always - somehow - different.  Permutations, and a few subversions (if I can), of the familiar.

Carnbeg I've populated with shop-owners, farmers, white settlers (those expats who once serviced the British Commonwealth, the red countries on a globe of the earth), with tourists and conference delegates from - chiefly - the cities eighty or ninety miles to the south, Edinburgh and Glasgow.
I've rescued from oblivion the matchmakers who used to sit about the big hotels, those percipient women (spinsters themselves) regularly consulted by parents looking to pair off their children. 
Some of the characters are ghosts, but I don't do much to distinguish them from the flesh-and-blood variety.
Carnbeg people are the ones I grew up observing.  Scottish types, but all individuals.
Carnbeg and I were destined for each other.  For years I failed to notice that the material was staring me in the face.
I can't be right or wrong about it.  Those people were, and Carnbeg is.  It's as simple and as complicated as that.  I AM all these characters.  
Back in the 1980s when Modern Scottish Fiction=gritty urban realism, it was suggested to me that because the lives I wrote about weren't deemed as real as other writers', ditto mine.  But I toughed it out.  I was determined to last the course.  These days the upwardly mobile journalists find me too unpitying - too unsentimental, I think they mean - about the middle-class existence they used to make fun of and which they've now bought into.  (I've tried explaining that middle-classness in the '60s wasn't a material condition so much as a sharing of certain puritanical values, but their eyes glaze over with alarm or just tedium.)  

From somewhere the short stories come.  They bubble up to the surface, unbidden.  The 'best' ones will write themselves, at white heat.  (They've been preparing for this moment for years.)  I'm oblivious to everything else.
On slow days, if a character won't oblige, it may be that another character - out on the sidelines - is wanting attention instead.
From somewhere, thank God, the stories still come.

Russian literature, as Brodsky pointed out, began with poets like Pushkin writing to defend a world that was disappearing, and its tenets with it.  Not all 'literature' (inverted commas - I'd like to be literate, but literary??) is right-on, cutting-edge, anti-establishment.  Traditionalism is part of many writers' make-up.   They're recorders, of what hasn't had a voice, and which needs to speak before it's too late.
I have my own town with decades of history to account for.  

I tell stories.
Story-stories.  I don't do 'style'.
The trick is to preserve some degree of enigma for your characters.    Bring them to some forced recognition about themselves, yes, but we shouldn't know everything about them, just as in life.
At the end of a story, leave your reader wanting to track back to the beginning.  Give your reader ingress.  If you narrate and insist on knowing everything., there's no air for the story.  Describe just enough.  And let your reader imagine the rest.

It's so hard to explain the process.
An example.  W C Fields juggled before he came to acting, and continued to keep in practice.
Then he read an article about juggling, and how it was done.  For the next five years he found he couldn't juggle, because he was thinking of what was in the article.
Finally, employing his full will power, he forced himself to forget what he'd read.  He was juggling again! - by instinct, by not thinking about it, and so everything was restored to how it used to be.
A writer will be the last person to tell you HOW he does what he does.

Indian master Narayan's fictional town of Malgudi ended up containing the world.
Walking on New York's West 23rd Street, which was a second home to him, he would see women and men he recognised from Malgudi, only their skin might be a different colour and they were dressed not for Market Road but for Broadway and they were speaking Americanese.
But there they were: without any doubt, Narayan said, it was them.    

Because there was no Jewish experience worth talking about in those Perthshire hill towns, I decided there ought to be one.  Eight stories in a row - and a future title, The Rabbis of Carnbeg.  Old Rabbi Shevrin, in the 1950s, is reminded of childhood holidays from Warsaw in the Tatra Mountains; his successor at the problematic synagogue on Glasgow's suburban South Side, Rabbi Simon Zeff, keeps up the custom of Carnbeg retreats -  although they rarely prove restful, and bring dybbuks and gilguls in their trail.
No rabbi is ever lonely, at least; he has all the other rabbis across the centuries to have dialogues with, already written into the commentaries that accompany the Talmud.  I envisage a line of rabbis, like the figures in Bergman's Seventh Seal (as it happens, the picture-house in Carnbeg was one called 'Cinema Bergman', owned by a cinephile who willingly spent what money he had showing his favourite continental films to those who would appreciate them - ) - I'm losing the thread: oh yes, those rabbis, silhouetted in fur hats and long coats and stockings, are dancing along the top of a hill, singing and jigging joy into their beings.
Not only rabbis.
As an 'hommage' to Narayan, there's a series of stories about an Indian gent of letters, one Ramanujam V. Raman of Mahbapur, who was once a cub journalist in Carnbeg - thirty years ago - writing up the town's strange customs with a fresh and bemused eye: for instance, in the first, how on Burns' Night the haggis is fondly addressed before being stabbed (repeatedly).
Why not include India?  Think of a Highland cow walking down the middle of a road, unhurried and untroubled, as if it owned the road.  The other Indian ideas scribbled themselves into my notebook.  Near Glasgow there used to be a private zoo: every lunch-time an elephant was walked down to a village pub by its keeper, and while its owner partook of a bevy inside, the elephant patiently reclined, outside, on the pavement.  That elephant  lives again in Carnbeg.  A maharanee appears, accommodated in splendour at the Sgian Palace, but she is not what she seems.  Some time before, at the acid-bright diminuendo of the 1960s, a maharishi enchants - or is enchanted by - a posse of young, rich, exquisitely wasted devotees.  Earlier still a middle-aged couple return to Britain, along with their native cook and housekeeper, after Independence, but fall on hard times.  Veneka it is, the cook, who saves the day by setting up as the Tiffin-Maker of Carnbeg, running in baggy trousers and kameez-tunic along the station platforms selling hot chappatis and dosas and milky, sweet cinnamon and ginger tea to the passengers on the trains halted between north and south on the main line.
Shalom, Carnbeg.  Salaam.  (Palms together.)  Namaste.  (Incline the head.)  Sat sri akal.        

I only recently saw for the first time the painting by Grant Wood, called 'Midnight Ride of Paul Revere' (1931).
From above we're looking down on a village, while the title takes place.  (The model for Revere's black steed was, in fact, a rocking horse.)  I then found myself remembering the big model railway displays which used to be set up at Christmastime in the three main Glasgow railway termini, in the days when it was presumed no one would want to vandalise a model train lay-out.
I would spend ages walking round them.  Crouching forward a little, I had the trains and buildings and papier-mache hillsides at eye-level.  I could hold several miles in my line of vision.
Wood's village street of clapboard houses and high-spired church, bluish-white by moonlight, is as neat as Toy Town.  The vastness of life is contained, just as Carnbeg orders all the possibilities.  Every house has its tales.  Start small, but see how far the stories reach.
In Carnbeg's case, to Buenos Aires, to India, to Xian in China, to 1920s Nice, to Baba Yaga's forest in Russia, to the backwoods of North Carolina, to Piranesi's Rome.

Dali.  Jacqueline Bouvier.  Edward Gorey.  Callas.  Allen Ginsberg.    
They've all been to Carnbeg, in the course of Scottish sojourns, and had their visits catalogued.
Why not?  Semi-fictional constructions anyway, they were - briefly - quite at home there.
Two stories ago I was recounting the May morning when Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton came walking along Mercat Street.  Another time it was Barbra - or someone uncannily like her - who stepped centre-stage, into the spotlight.

In and out the houses.


Carnbeg is like coming home.
To steal from Flaubert (if you're going to steal, why not from the best?), Carnbeg: c'est moi.