Vanishing point

Rosemary Goring, Scotland on Sunday September 12, 1999

Ten years ago, Ronald Frame was the golden boy of Scottish literature. These days he's as elusive as his characters.

Back in the Eighties, Ronald Frame was the blue-eyed boy of the Scottish literary scene. A Glaswegian writer with a difference - a public school-educated suburbanite whose work focused on the lives of the middle-classes - he was scooping awards from every quarter, from the Samuel Beckett Prize for best first television drama to Sony Awards for radio and, most memorably, the first Betty Trask Award for romantic fiction.

He shared this accolade with another writer for his powerful tale, Winter Journey, a novel told largely through the eyes of a young girl as she watched her parents' marriage dissolve. It may not sound like a subject destined to win a romantic novel prize, but two of the judges threatened to walk off the panel if Frame's book did not win. They believed it showed an exceptional talent, and so it did: one, furthermore, that was confident enough to follow his own imagination and ignore the current literary agenda.

Where his contemporaries - Kelman, Gray, Lochhead and Galloway - were turning their attention to the grim or blackly comic realities of modern-day urban Scotland, Frame pirouetted into another dimension with a string of novels, stories and plays notable for the fact that they were largely set in English seaside towns in the Fifties. To add to the exoticism of his work, Frame's protagonists were often women, into whose lives, emotions and undergarments he showed uncanny understanding.

By his early forties, Frame had written half a dozen novels, among them Penelope's Hat and Sandmouth People, three collections of short stories, and countless radio plays. He was listed in Marie Claire as one of Britain's 20 most eligible bachelors, and his face, when it stared out of newsprint at you, was one of calm confidence. Then suddenly, he slipped off the literary radar. He was no longer to be seen. The flood of fat novels dried up, his name vanished from summaries of the best Scottish novelists, as though he'd been erased from memory, and all that was left was the lingering perfume of his stories: faint but clinging, as if to tell you he would be back.

 

In the meantime he continued to write for radio and television. His soap opera for Radio Four, called The Hydro, became the prime repository of his middle-class stories. It has been so successful that it is about to go into a third series. But to much of the reading public, radio is a lost world. Frame is philosophical about his withdrawal from books: 'I got a bit tired of fiction in the Nineties. I just felt I'd been at it since the early Eighties, and you feel you've given so much... In one sense I think I may have written too much. There's a terrible temptation when you're writing and you're on a roll, to keep going. And you've nothing much to say. If you don't have anything to say, you should leave it. I think you should only do something if you feel inspired to do it or you feel there's a reason to do it.'

As he sits in a busy Glasgow restaurant, he looks back on his younger self with affectionate criticism. Though on the downward slope towards 50 - he was born in 1952 - he looks a decade younger, his face smooth and lean, his hands unlined. There is, though, a word-weariness about him, evident in this words rather than his expression. He has a lively, warm face, a boyish intensity in his way of speaking that is waspish and entertaining. But often his conversation is wistful, illuminating his discomfort at his position in the literary establishment, his disdain for contemporary life.

Dressed in subdued colours, immaculately neat and tasteful, he is clearly a man at odds with the late Nineties, happier by far in a world of his own devising where the pace is slower, life more gracious and, however turbulent the waters underneath, behaviour is governed by manners and etiquette.

Ronald's Refrain, as the next couple of hours pass, is that of being 'incredibly out on a limb', an outsider in his own country who is dismissed for being openly, defiantly middle class, 'regarded as being over-educated or something like that'. He sounds tired. 'When the patron saints of the country are Sean Connery and Ewan McGregor, it's very difficult to break away from that...It's a very difficult age to write what you want to write.

Frame is like an orchid among thistles. You can tell a great deal about his from the title of one of his short story collections, A Long Weekend With Marcel Proust. His writing of old was often heavily scented, reeking with covert passion and subterfuge, illicit desires damped down but smouldering. Talking of that world, as portrayed in this radio series The Hydro, he says: 'The formality of these people's lives fascinates me, it's almost like a Japanese ritual. There's a code of things and you don't show certain things - which is why I rind this business of saying everything and showing everything distasteful. I don't do it in my own life and I don't do it in literature. If people don't care for it there's nothing I can really do about it.'

Frame's new novel, the Lantern Bearers, is a paradigm of understatement, its sinister mood lying as much in what is not said or disclosed as in what you are shown. It marks a dramatic turn in style for Frame, not least in the conciseness of its writing, sentences picked clean as a wishbone. 'That's something I've learnt from radio, this ability to use the minimal number of words to create the most powerful reverberations.'

The Lantern Bearers is exceedingly powerful, laced with impending menace from the opening page. It is the story of a 14-year-old boy, Neil, who is sent to spend the summer in Galloway with his spinster aunt in the early Sixties. back home his parents are trying to sort out their troubled marriage. In Galloway, Neil finds trouble as devastating and much further-reaching. The town of Auchendrennan, where Aunt Nessie lives, is home to a famous composer, Euan Bone. With his intimidating companion Maitland, he lives in an alluring 17th-century house. In need of a young boy's voice to inspire his latest composition, The Lantern Bearers - taken from Robert Louis Stevenson's story of the same title - Bone invites Neil to become his musical muse, and so begins a summer of revelation that is to end in disaster.

It is a book suffused with sex, from the name of Aunt Nessie's bungalow, Skerryvore (after the lighthouse), and her encroaching menopause to the tense but passionate bond between Bone and Maitland, not to mention Neil's emerging sexuality, which focuses on Bone. Underpinning this is the cleverly fragile motif of the singing idyll, haunted at every turn by the knowledge that one day Neil's voice will break, and with it the summer's spell.

Frame talks about his characters as if they are close but perplexing friends. 'Sometimes they walk off the page or out the door and you feel like saying, 'I haven't finished with you yet', but they're gone. Maybe they'll be back.'

Evidently they have a life of their own, which intrigues him. 'What interested me about Neil is that the terrifying about being the age of 14 is the combination of worldliness and naivete, the fact that for the wrong reasons - or in fact what you think are the right reasons - you can do the most terrible things. So I wanted to enter into the mind of a 14-year-old boy where the logic is quite clear, you could understand what he felt, but at the same time see the terror of what he did.'

It is, in every sense, a terrible tale. Told 30 years on, by the seriously-ill neil, it reeks of lost hopes, of lives wasted and unlived, of frustration turned inwards. yet the redeeming feature lies with the genius of Bone, whose music runs through the story like quicksilver, a constant flash of brilliance. Music, for Frame, is a compelling theme, one to which he keeps returning, as if hoping to penetrate its mysteries. 'Music is a very difficult subject to write about. it's very difficult finding the vocabulary to describe the effects of music.'

At it's heart, The Lantern Bearers is a story of seduction and betrayal, a nasty, unsettling tale told with stealth and disturbing clarity. After a first, unsatisfactory prose draft, Frame turned it into a play for Radio Four. but there was still more he wanted to do with it, and he returned to it as a novel. Apart from the tautness of style, it is distinct from his earlier work in its Scottish setting and concentration on male characters. Throughout, however, are his lingering themes. 'Moravio said you end up writing the same book, you're always answering the same questions. I'd hesitate to say what the question was, but you know you do come back to the same things that draw you.'

The essence of Frame's outlook is his awareness that things, and people, are not always what they seem. An ambiguous figure himself, he is hard to pin down or categories. That, for him, is the nature of human existence. 'I think people are very fluid. You can become what you want. people can be very sexually unsure at the start, or socially unsure. They can have completely different natures with different people, you know. And somehow this ties in with the way a lot of fiction is being written, which seems to be all the things that I don't like: I like things to be enigmatic and elliptical, rather continental.'

Not only is his work Proustian in its sensuality and ambivalence, but it appeals to the French for some of the reasons it fails to find favour with Scottish critics. 'It's to do with not pinning your characters down, and not restricting them by social, sexual definitions.'

Across the Channel, Frame is gaining a reputation, his newly translated earlier novels being warmly received. After one particularly glowing review he thought: 'Thank God, somebody understands what I'm trying to do'. On a recent trip to a book festival in Nice, he began to consider moving to the south of France. Sitting on the Promenade des Anglais, he watched roller-bladers gliding past him. 'It should be naff, but it was very graceful.' If it weren't for his bad back, he says sadly, he'd have strapped on a pair of blades and taken off with the others.

It's an appealing image, the self-contained author coasting along, liberated from the constraints of a critical homeland, his jacket tails flapping good riddance to the country he no longer feels is home.