Tags: andrew drummond


Review of “A Quite Impossible Proposal: How Not To Build A Railway” by Andrew Drummond, pub. Origin

“To make the fisheries work profitably and effectively, better transportation options were needed. And better transportation options meant investing in more and improved railways. As a strategy it made complete sense.
 And so we now turn our attention to the complete foul-up, by government and private enterprise alike, of this laudable endeavour.”

It may seem odd to write a history book specifically about things that didn’t happen, in this case railways that were never built in the West Highlands. But then this history is written by Andrew Drummond, eccentric novelist and historian, and it deals with more than railways. It concerns, in fact, the long-term neglect and abuse of a region and its community by a small class of people, namely landowners, who happened to have managed to grab ownership of most of it. It begins with an overview of the dire state of the region in 1883, when the Napier Commission sallied forth to inquire into the condition of crofters and cottars. It was the first time such a commission had really sought the views of ordinary people, and they may have been surprised by the vehemence of some of the testimony they heard, for instance the Rev Roderick Morison’s fiery denunciation of the way local people were cleared out to make way for deer hunting:

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Review of The Intriguing Life and Ignominious Death of Maurice Benyovszky

Review of The Intriguing Life and Ignominious Death of Maurice Benyovszky, by Andrew Drummond, pub. Routledge 2018

"It Made His Story A Little Suspicious"

Just so we know where we are. Andrew Drummond is a novelist with a background in languages and history. His adult novels to date have all been set in the past and combine surprising but true historical facts with a wildly inventive and slightly deranged imagination. Now he has written a genuine history book, published by Routledge no less, with proper sources, index an' all, but luckily nobody told him he should make it academic and dull, so he has written it as he does his novels, ie with a pleasantly pawky sense of humour (the chapter headings, of which the above is one, are all quotes from historical sources and include "Short And Incomplete, It Is Written With A Bias"  and "Foreign Paper With Horizontal Writing", among others). Oh, and the nominal subject is an historical figure with a wildly inventive and slightly deranged imagination.

It is set in 18th-century Russia, as was his novel Novgorod the Great (also distinguished by its eccentric chapter headings) and concerns both the actual life and the memoirs of the eponymous Maurice. Benyovszky was one of those fantasists, like the Welsh sailor-author Tristan Jones, who genuinely did lead a life full of adventures but who felt driven, and entitled, to embellish them. However, Jones was basically quite an amiable character, while Benyovszky was not. He resembles far more closely a fantasist who came, like himself, from eastern Europe and was known as Jan Hoch until he changed his name to Robert Maxwell.

Benyovszky's actual life bears only a passing resemblance to his memoirs, as becomes apparent when Drummond interweaves them with those of other eyewitnesses to events. These are sometimes fascinating characters in their own right, especially Ivan Ryumin, clerk, and Benyovszky's polar opposite, a conscientious recorder of facts with a positive mania for counting and listing things. His "Description of the capital city of Paris", in full, is a list of numbers – streets ("excluding alleys"), nunneries, bridges, street lights and much, much else. I took greatly to Ryumin and was massively pleased at how things turned out for him.

The events of the book centre on a daring, and historical, mass escape of prisoners from Siberia and what happened to them afterwards, which was exciting enough though nowhere near as exciting as Benyovszky makes it. But its real theme, I think, is truth, and how fiction gets made out of it. Translation plays a big part in this, often acting more as a barrier than as an entry into another culture – as when someone, translating a French description of an island, mistranslates "inhabité" as "inhabited" when in fact it means the reverse – an error which could have meant life or death to any sailor relying on the information. At one point, Drummond finds himself citing a book called Description of the Land of Kamchatka by Stefan Krasheninnikov, published in 1755. It was translated into English by James Grieve in 1764. Grieve had lived in Russia for 30 years, so should have been well qualified to translate such a work, but he had an interesting notion of a translator's rights and responsibilities:

"The third part of this work has been most considerably abridged, as in treating of the manner, customs and religion of this barbarous nation it was loaded with absurd practices, idle ceremonies and unaccountable superstitions. Sufficient examples of all these have been retained to shew the precise state of an unpolished, credulous and grossly ignorant people."

This is, of course, not only the translator as liar but the filtering of a culture through colonialist eyes, another way in which reality becomes distorted and one which becomes more important as the book progresses. I don't want to give away too much, because the actual facts, and fictions, and downright lies, are so much fun for a reader to discover. You couldn't make it up, except where Benyovszky did.


Review of "The Books of the Incarceration of the Lady Grange" by Andrew Drummond, pub. CreateSpace I

In all Drummond's novels so far, the narrative voice has been key. He tends to choose eccentric, sardonic character-narrators who observe events from the sidelines or get caught up in them in ways they cannot control. They have, however, all been recognisably human… so far. This one calls herself the Cherub of Desire, and though she can take human form she seems to be a spirit who sails, in a globe-shaped sphere, around her assigned dominion of the Hebrides in the year 1739:

To the GOOD LORD the whole of the earth encompass'd so on so forth to each Cherub a Dominion for to watch o'er in which to seek out men to exact tribute and to punish as she sees fit to the Cherub of Desire all that is desirable in the Hebridean Sea.

And here we come to the feature that may put some readers off: the Cherub's manner of forming sentences is not conventional; not only has she, understandably, an 18th-century cadence, she has little time for punctuation. Personally I found I could adjust to it fairly easily, possibly because I have long been a fan of Don Marquis's archy, the poetic cockroach whose inability to work the caps key of a typewriter had a somewhat similar effect. But it's undeniable that some readers cannot handle unconventional use of language and that the novel may be less commercially attractive as a result. I don't know if this is why this novel has been brought out by a self-publishing platform rather than by Polygon, who published his first four books for adults (he writes for children too). If Polygon did turn it down on those grounds, I would urge them to reconsider, and remember that Riddley Walker's unconventional spelling didn't stop it becoming a cult.

Shipwrecked on St Kilda, the Cherub finds her affairs becoming embroiled with those of Rachel Chiesley Erskine, Lady Grange, kidnapped from Edinburgh and marooned on the distant island for being an embarrassment to her husband. All Drummond's novels so far have some basis in Scottish history (even the one set in Russia) and the Lady Grange strand is factual, as are the two letters she wrote from St Kilda, though they were smuggled to her lawyer in Edinburgh by human agency rather than, as here, by the Cherub, who agrees to take them and have a holiday on the mainland at the same time. Thus begins a picaresque which, since she does not exactly go by the most direct route, takes in quite a lot of 18th-century Scotland:

At Allt-coire-uchdachan we stop for the sun is at her highest in the sky the red grouse cackles in the heather there is a fine bridge o'er the road where we may sit take our ease breathe in the parfums of the mountain of the bog of the heather taste the very air upon our tongue heaven upon the lids of our eyes then we mount ever higher. From each turn of the road we gaze down upon the deepest lochs of Loch-aber the vast landskip of Scotland stretched out before us there are distant peaks huge hills fertile glens the precipices drop all around us into terrible foaming cascades truly this is a prospect so magnificent none could with-stand it. We pause at the very heights of the mountain for to take our fill of the wideness of Scotland

The Cherub is just as forcibly impressed, though in a different way, by 18th-century Edinburgh with its mix of opulence and urban squalor, and by the far bleaker poverty of St Kilda. What makes her an intriguing narrator is her blend of caustic wit and a certain outsider perspective which comes of not being human and hence not always understanding what she sees as a human narrator would.

I am not, yet, 100% sure what to make of this novel (I am tempted to quote its end, which is unexpectedly moving, but shall refrain because I don't think that would be fair to the new reader). If I had to, I would theorise that the notion of "incarceration" in something other than a cell, and not necessarily even a physical space, is central to it – Lady Grange, for one, is imprisoned as much by her own nature as anything else. But I shall have to re-read it, and the one thing I am sure of is that I will, as I have all his other novels, several times.

Here beginneth a heartfelt plea to publishers. The man is unclassifiable: his novels are by turns satire, picaresque, realist, fantasy, historical, and I suspect this may make him harder to market. What they always are is unusually well written, thought-provoking, entertaining and above all original. He says himself that he began writing because he couldn't find the kind of book he wanted to read, and it's a fact that his novels are not quite like anything else out there. They are what I want to read, but unlike him I don't feel equipped to write it and the reason I read more history books than novels is that most contemporary novels are bloody dull and predictable. It worries me that he appears to be self-publishing, because he's worth better and will never attain the readership he deserves without someone to do the marketing. If you're thinking short-term, Mr Publisher, please remember that Dr Johnson, for once, made an awful howler when he said "Nothing odd will do; Tristram Shandy did not last". Anyone considering awards for Scottish writers would do well to bear it in mind, too.

The elephant in the room: Review of Elephantina by Andrew Drummond (Polygon 2008)


Dr Blair's cook is outraged by the storage of parts of dead elephant in her kitchen, while his assistant Gilbert Orum, who is to make sketches and engravings of the beast, finds his mind turning to mortality:

Never mind, Miss Gloag!" shouted the doctor […] "Just think that your splendid kitchen has this evening played a part in the History of Philosophical Experiment!"
Miss Gloag expressed her ardent desire that Philosophical Experiment would rot slowly from its **** upwards, die painfully and be ****** by Satan forever. […]

All I can think of is Death: the age of an Elephant; the age of Man; the age of Woman. Three-score and ten is considered the usual allotted span of our years. But it seems to me that the age of Man is either grossly exaggerated or that it has diminished considerably since the days of the Patriarchs, for the common age of death among the people of Dundee is perhaps thirty or forty, by which time the trials and burdens of the world have taken their toll; a fresh-faced young woman of eighteen may turn, in a matter of three years of marriage, to a woman of middle years, haggard, bitter, bowed, lined, grey; a man of thirty will pass, within a twelve-month, to a white-haired cripple if he suffers one of many possible accidents in his labour

Florentia the elephant died at Dundee in 1706, and remained there in a stuffed condition, having been dissected by Dr Patrick Blair. It will be noted that another death was imminent, that of independent Scotland, for the Act of Union would be signed the following year and the negotiations leading up to it were going on while Dr Blair (an anti-unionist, who would later join the uprising of 1715) was busy on his elephant; indeed Blair explicitly compares his own dissections to those of the Commissioners "cutting and butchering the Body Politick of Scotland".

Of the real Gilbert Orum, engraver, not much is known, but here his imagined journal forms the basis of the novel. It is rediscovered in 1828 by a man using the pseudonym "Senex" and published, with Senex's footnotes, in tribute to Dr Blair. Senex, however, is both an ardent pro-unionist, which means he has constantly to blind himself to the views of his hero Blair, and a prig who disapproves vehemently of the caustic, independent-minded Orum without ever understanding him. His indignant footnotes to Orum's MS provide a rich comic seam running through the novel.

Orum is, in fact, a thoughtful, fallible, likeable narrator who comes to have his own agenda with regard to the elephant. Blair, dissecting and reassembling the skeleton, sees it purely in a scientific light, but Orum has a sense of it as a living creature – indeed he ends up being visited by its spirit – and wants, through his engravings, "to ensure that the world knew what the Elephant had looked like, how it moved, how it lived". Meanwhile though, he also has his family's pressing financial problems to consider, and frequently staves them off by selling various bits of elephant to interested parties.

What is the elephant? We should never forget that she was real; she lived, and died alone and in exile (as will Orum's descendant who inherits the journal and hands it on before departing for Canada, only to die almost as soon as he gets there). But what does she connote, apart from herself? Scotland? Knowledge? A cause; something to live for? All are possible; the novel's sub-title, "A Huge Misunderstanding", rather suggests that no one sees everything about her, like the six blind men in the Hindu proverb who feel different parts of the beast and come to six different conclusions about its appearance.

A final irony: this book about a huge beast is easily his shortest and sparest so far. But that doesn't mean there's any lack of the usual wit, fascinating detail and thought-provoking strangeness that characterises his writing. I've read my way through all his four novels now, more's the pity, and cannot wait for number 5.

"What is Love but..." - review of "Novgorod The Great", by Andrew Drummond (Polygon)


Innkeeper Voronov regrets losing touch with his sons:

        "What have they done," he concluded nervously, "but run off with the maids?  What young man would not do the same, if he was kept in the same house with them […]?"
       Mrs Voronova saw the justice of this observation and dried her eyes. "It is only natural," she admitted.
       Her husband continued on this romantic vein of thought: "Until that night when, all being quiet, he slips on his boots and coat and-"
       "A young man will always follow his-" judged the wife.
       "-breeches," finished her husband, continuing to paint a simple picture of elopement, "and set off into the world with nothing but a knife in his-"
       "-heart," she concluded.
       "-pocket and a girl on his arm," Voronov sighed.

This conversation, its two tracks occasionally crossing, more often running alongside each other, is typical of a novel in which communication is constantly hampered by the fact that people are better at talking than listening. Even Horatio, infatuated with Ksenia, finds it hard, when she is telling him her story, to stop his mind wandering to inconsequential mental arithmetic. Most people in this novel have a story to tell, and since each is more interested in his or her own story than in any other, there are several of these two-track dialogues. Indeed there are two tracks to the novel itself; one concerning Horatio, who may be a merchant, and Ksenia, who may be a widow, who spend a night together in 1833 at the bedside of a dying man in Novgorod, and the other concerning the adventures of the Cochrane family, one of whom, the traveller John Dundas Cochrane, had been married to Ksenia, while his father Andrew had been a friend of the dying man, Major Sinclair.  The novel's two strands, therefore, cross and interact from time to time; indeed Andrew's ghost occasionally turns up at Sinclair's bedside, along with a bookseller who appears to be a werewolf and a soldier who is an imerach (a human mirror, forced to reflect everything others say or do). The structure of the novel itself is reminiscent of the imerach:  John Cochrane's fascination with arcane facts and measurements reflects Horatio's, while the way in which Ksenia mirrors the Major's dead love Amélie causes another conversation to go off at cross-purposes.

It will be seen, then, that as in Drummond's two earlier books An Abridged History (reviewed here) and A Hand-Book of Volapük (reviewed here), this one contains rich potential for comedy, and this does exist, not least in chapter headings such as "He took the only course open to an honourable man  and fled to Europe" and "Degeneracy, rhubarb and millions of squirrels". But this strikes me as his most serious novel so far: its leitmotiv is a rhetorical question that keeps being asked, and variously answered, "What is Love but…."  There are as many answers as there are questioners, and I don't think any one is meant to be definitive: the implication is more that the question needs to be constantly asked and considered. 

Most of the main characters are historical personages, but while there is much in print by and about the Cochranes, far less has been written about Ksenia and Horatio. Strangely enough, it does seem to me that they and their strand of the novel come more alive than the Cochranes do, perhaps because their creator felt he had a freer hand with them.

Drummond has been quoted as saying that he writes novels because nobody else writes the kind of novel he wants to read. I can believe that, because he doesn't really write or sound quite like anyone else. I found his first novel in a cut-price Aberdeen bookshop and have been hunting down others ever since.  I'm off now to read the one novel by him that I haven't caught up with yet.

Review of "A Hand-Book of Volapük", by Andrew Drummond, pub. Polygon

"Then a small band of Leibnitzians suddenly emerged from the shadows at the back of the church, academicians to a man […] blinking in the unaccustomed light, shouting out anathema and castigating us all for sullying their fond memory of a great Mathematician and Thinker. "Prime numbers are indivisible!" seemed to be their battle cry".

These unseemly goings-on interrupt the funeral, in 1891, of Prof. McInnes, a member of the Edinburgh Society for the Propagation of a Universal Language. Our narrator, Mr Justice, is the General Secretary. The Society, which hopes to achieve "Universal Peace, founded solidly upon Universal Comprehension", is, needless to say, riven with misunderstanding, acrimony and downright aggression, mainly because nobody can agree on what this universal language shall be – Latin, English and several invented tongues all have supporters, but none can carry the day. The cause of Solresol, for instance, is severely hampered by the fact that its only two adherents in the Society, or indeed in the country, are not on speaking terms.

Solresol was real, as are the other universal languages mentioned in the book; there seem to have been a considerable number of universal languages being invented around the last quarter of the 19th century. Two of them were Volapük and Esperanto, whose causes in the society are espoused respectively by Mr Justice and his opponent Dr Bosman. There was also, in the time of the English Civil War, a Sir Thomas Urquhart, who claimed to have invented a universal language, and if you ask what is the relevance of that, I can only say that he is an active character in the novel, despite being some 300 years old. It's that sort of novel.

Sir Thomas's plan for a universal language differs from most in preferring complexity to simplicity. Nineteen genders may be overdoing it, but he points to one of the chief problems of "simplified" language when he asks for a Volapük translation of strumpet, trull, Cyprian, wanton, hussy, slut, cocotte, Delilah and fille-de-joie, to find that Justice can offer only the same phrase for each (meaning, roughly, dishonourable young lady). Volapük, or any language like it, might do well enough for text-speak or office memos, but it has none of the nuance of languages that have evolved naturally. Later in the novel, Miss Smyth, an inhabitant of the lunatic asylum in which quite a few of the main characters are temporarily residing, asks Justice "When did a language ever come in advance of a conqueror? [..] Language, sir, is a means of Rule, an instrument of Power, a weapon of Oppression."

It will be clear by now that this novel is very much concerned with the nature of language, and indeed communication in general - one reason for the fracas at the funeral is that Justice, at the organ, is playing the tune of "O Tannenbaum", but the congregation are hearing the tune of "The Red Flag". There are two striking and game-changing moments when we realise that our narrator, while he hasn't exactly lied to us, has been failing to mention some quite important facts. There are also moments when our author communicates in Volapük, for the novel has a sort of primer running through it, with exercises which, you may be glad to know, have solutions at the back. Though you can perfectly well cheat with these, it's actually possible to follow the primer and read the Volapük phrases en route; as the novel progresses they become more relevant. And funnier, for like his first novel An Abridged History, which I reviewed here, this is a very funny book. I shall long cherish the scene where the Edinburgh census forms, collected by Mr Justice and accidentally damaged in a brawl with the obstreperous Leibnitzians, are reconstituted by the asylum inmates:

"Mr Oliver, however, was outraged at the scandalous replies that had been given. "What manner of man", he demanded to know, "lives with six children, a wife, his mother, a brother-in-law and two lodgers, in a house which barely has two rooms?" I tried to persuade him that a great many of our citizens lived in such conditions, or worse, and that this form merely described an unpleasant truth. But Oliver, who was possessed of a mis-placed sense of social justice, was having none of it. At the stroke of his pen he gave the family another five good-sized rooms, evicted the lodgers and brought some comfort to the declining years of the house-holder's widowed mother, by resurrecting her late husband."

This notion, that you might be able to make a thing so, simply by writing it, underlies the novel. It has elements of realism, fantasy, politics, the picaresque: in short it's unclassifiable, which is probably why it isn't better known, as it ought to be. Oh, and you could also learn Volapük from it, if you wanted to. By the end, though, you'd probably conclude that this is a fruitless exercise – which is odd when you come to think about it, because though it is clear that the author is encouraging that conclusion, it's also clear that he himself can speak it… But as I said, it's that kind of novel.

Review of "An Abridged History…" by Andrew Drummond, pub. Polygon, 2004

Actually the title is "An Abridged History of the Construction of the RAILWAY LINE Between Garve, Ullapool and Lochinver; And other pertinent matters: Being the Professional JOURNAL and Regular Chronicle of ALEXANDER AUCHMUTY SETH KININMONTH". Apparently some bookshops mis-shelved it under History, which says little for their acumen, as the words "A novel by Andrew Drummond" also appear on the front cover. But he may well have intended them to be misled, for a major theme of this book is the divide between truth and fiction, and how far we can be sure that what we think fact actually is so.

The story indeed is a melange of "real" history, fictionalised history and downright invention which is near-impossible to disentangle. There really was a projected Garve-Ullapool railway, which was partly built but abandoned for lack of funds. And there was a Melchior Rinck, a German Anabaptist, though he lived some three centuries before the events in which he is here concerned. The Kerguelen islands exist, but were never home to a colony of Scots abandoned there by a heartless captain – though, of course, plenty of Scots during the clearances were duped into sailing for promised lands that turned out to be places of desolation. The revolutionary events of 1897 in Ullapool are pure invention… probably, for as our narrator observes, "it seems likely to be in the interests of Government not to report such events as I believe took place in Ullapool, for fear that similar sedition might be sown in other parts of the land […] This would not be the first time that historical events have been concealed from an en-thralled Nation."

This narrator of ours, Kininmonth, is a railway engineer, a rationalist who ends up embroiled in a religious revival in which he never believes, and a basically conventional, respectable man whose politics, by the end of the book, are on the revolutionary side of socialist. He's a loner with a great curiosity, a certain primness and a dry wit, and he can be, both intentionally and unintentionally, very funny. His story begins in the reality of constructing the line from Garve, hampered by weather, midges and a fancy for one of the navvies' wives: "Wicked thoughts cross my mind, which I can attribute only to the increasing temperature and the scents on the breezes of April". But with the advent of the hedge-preacher Rinck and his friends the Irvines, refugees from the community on Kerguelen, events begin to take a surreal turn. The Kerguelen Scots had stayed two generations on their desolate island, because passing whalers, who stopped to revictual there, constantly told them of dire events in the outside world- the Great Whaling War between Finland and Paraguay, tidal waves in Paris and Rome, plague in Spain. To Kininmonth, hearing their narrative, the truth seems plain: "it was to the advantage of the Norwegians that the poor emigrants stayed on Kerguelen, to stock the whaling ships [..] and for this reason alone, the Norwegians had fabricated such sagas and tales. My spirit grew heavy with thoughts of the wickedness of men against men."

Later, however, he has a surprise. He and James Irvine meet an Icelandic widow in the wilds of Scotland and Irvine condoles with her on the "war" between her country and Turkey. Kininmonth, naturally taking this for another tall tale told by the whalers, is astonished when the woman confirms its truth. This is in fact a reference to the raid on Heimaey in 1627 by Barbary pirates, who kidnapped and enslaved 234 Icelanders. All the Barbary pirates were known in the West as "Turks", and to this day the Icelandic liturgy includes a prayer for protection against the wrath of the Turk. The whalers, presumably, had based some of their tales loosely on real events, but it leaves Kininmonth disoriented: "what if all the other stories told to the people of Kerguelen also had some basis in truth? What if there were wars and campaigns indeed between the most unlikely opponents […] What if the stories we read in newspapers were undiluted invention, as much a fiction as this History is fact?" From this point on, Kininmonth is never entirely sure if any person is speaking the truth, and nor can we be.

This sets up an ending with a device whose use in any novel is very daring, because it has been much discredited. In this case I think it works, because of the kind of novel this is. Even after the end, the writer has not done playing with our sense of what is real, for there are pages of the kind of publishers' advertisements that books of Kininmonth's era used to include. Some are straight spoofs on the improving and juvenile books of the day – "Dick and His Donkey: by the author of Hugh and His Husky", but some are allegedly by characters in the book and would, if real, necessarily subvert the facts as we now think we know them. Some have reviewers' endorsements, like this, allegedly from The Midlothian Advertiser; "A Most Interesting and Clever Book. I was startled at how little I understood".

That made me laugh, as this novel often did, but I suspect Drummond may mean it seriously and indeed it would serve to describe this book – not at all in the sense that it is a difficult read; it's anything but that, never forgetting its entertainment function, but in the sense that having read it, we realise that it may be saying far more than first appeared, and that we shall need to read it again to be sure. Luckily, this is no hardship. I found this in a cut-price Aberdeen bookshop; if you have to look in AbeBooks, be assured it'll be worth the trouble.