Allan Massie

The country of criticism

On Karl Miller's essays

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Tretower to Clyro

Karl Miller

Quercus, pp. 240, £

Karl Miller wrote a book called Doubles, exploring the duality of human nature, Jekyll and Hyde, and such like. Duality fascinates him. Another book was Cockburn’s Millennium, a study of the Scottish judge and autobiographer, an Edinburgh Reviewer, a figure so prominent in Edinburgh’s Golden Age that the society which sets out, not always successfully, to defend the urban heritage, takes its name from him. Cockburn, intensely sociable, was however never happier than when able to retire to his rural retreat on the slopes of the Pentland Hills.

Miller himself, academic and journalist, founder of the London Review of Books, is a hard man to pin down. He is a Londoner, having passed most of his adult life there, but one who delights in urban foxes and other wildlife at home in the city; he is also a Scot of Irish extraction who seeks out country places, and quotes with approval Ronald Blythe’s assertion that ‘it is man’s rightful place to live in Nature and be a part of it’, whereas ‘city life fragments a man’. Nevertheless he seems whole enough himself, unfragmented perhaps, as this collection of often rambling essays, and the affectionate introduction by Andrew O’Hagan, suggest, because of his forays into the countryside — with an especial fondness for the Border Counties — and his absorption in that species of literature known as ‘pastoral’.

If Cockburn is one of his heroes, a modernising lawyer in the age of parliamentary reform, who yet looked back nostalgically on the 18th century as ‘the last purely Scotch Age’, another is James Hogg, author of that disturbing masterpiece, The Private Memoirs and Confessions of a Justified Sinner, and also the subject of a ruminative biography by Miller, Electric Shepherd. Self-educated, Hogg was a writer of rare originality, and an accomplished parodist too; yet one who drew deeply on the ballads and oral traditions of the Ettrick Valley where he was born and reared. Moreover, Hogg was not only an author himself but, in his own lifetime, a semi-fictional character, featuring as ‘The Ettrick Shepherd’ in the ‘Noctes Ambrosianae’, wandering conversations on every topic under the sun published in Blackwood’s Magazine. They made him a celebrity, much better known as the garrulous and bibulous ‘Shepherd’ than as the author of remarkable novels. He both delighted in this celebrity as a public character, and resented it. His friend Sir Walter Scott loved the Borders Hogg and deplored the Edinburgh one whom the clever young men of Blackwood’s presented as an idiot-savant and learned buffoon. Hogg is part-subject of a fascinating essay here, ‘Carnival Scotland’, in which he is compared to Irvine Welsh, not always to his advantage, for Miller has a characteristically generous admiration for Trainspotting, being an eclectic reader and critic himself.

The tone of the book is given by the first essay, ‘Country Writers’, the only previously unpublished piece. It is hard, actually for me impossible, to summarise, for it wanders as charmingly as a walk through a countryside, part familiar, part unknown, with no destination in mind. Writers, landscapes, moments are dwelled on, tenderly and inquiringly, then left behind. Francis Kilvert rubs shoulders with D.H. Lawrence, Raymond Williams, Henry Vaughan, Seamus Heaney, Kazuo Ishiguru and a fox adopted by George Melly’s wife, Diana. Most paragraphs have sentences worth pondering. Only Matthew Arnold’s ‘Scholar Gipsy’ is missing. His absence is strange, for Miller, like Arnold, sets up the ideal of the pastoral in contrast to ‘this strange disease of modern life’.

Most of the other essays started life as reviews. There is a good one on Boswell, another afflicted by awareness of the duality of his nature, whose Journals tell ‘of good resolutions wrecked by drunken outbreaks and “aphrodisiac spasms”’. ‘Few men so unappealing have ever been so appealing,’ Miller observes.

Miller’s own writing is characterised by generosity, evident in his review of Hugh Trevor-Roper’s posthumously published book, The Invention of Scotland, which irritated many Scots who — characteristically again? — read it without giving it the close attention it deserved. Miller was a friend of his: ‘I felt for him what I felt for Scotland: my fondness for him, that’s to say, had a touch of the adversarial.’ Trevor-Roper had a Scotch (his preferred spelling) wife, (also a Scotch nanny and governess), a house near Melrose, adored Walter Scott, was obsessed, it sometimes seemed, by Scotland, and had, as a Northumbrian, ‘perhaps the exacerbated sense of identity which has been spotted in borderers’. He puzzles Miller, as he may, beneath that carapace of self-assurance, have puzzled himself.

Other essays range far, dealing with authors of the Scots diaspora, with Ted Hughes’s Birthday Letters, with John McGahern and Joyce Cary, Candia McWilliam and Alasdair Gray. The tone is level and inquiring, the observations acute and often surprising. Miller is one of the few writers whose review essays merit republication. It is not always clear what he is getting at. So much the better: the reader is required to think.

O’Hagan’s introduction tells of literary excursions made by him in the company of Miller and Heaney, and complements the essays very nicely. Miller’s mischievous side is revealed: ‘Let’s see which of us can make Seamus say something bad about somebody.’ Neither succeeds, but the conversation of the proprietor of what was James Hogg’s favourite inn, Tibbie Shiel’s in the Yarrow Valley, so exasperated him that ‘he drank his whisky, rolled his eyes, and went to bed’.