This week we spoke to the author and literary scholar Guy Cuthbertson, a regular visitor to – and keen supporter of – Stromness Books & Prints. He sings the praises of Orcadian writers Ann Scott-Moncrieff and Edwin Muir, and talks us through the contents of his tottering to-be-read pile.
How often do you visit the Stromness Bookshop – and what brings you to the area?
My wife Caroline [Crampton] and I live on the Wirral, but we visit Stromness once or twice a year. We even managed to visit Stromness during this year’s strange summer. During lockdown we also bought books from Stromness Books & Prints remotely, phoning in our orders and they were posted to us.
We love northern Scotland. Morris the Clumber Spaniel comes too – he likes the long car journey and then the journey on deck on the ferry. He doesn’t like hot weather but he likes hills and wildlife and water, so Scotland suits him – he’s obsessed with water and watches the lochs and rivers intently and excitedly as we drive north through Scotland, and then pokes his nose through the railings on deck on the ferry so that he can watch the sea as closely as possible.
Then you get off the ferry and there you are in the centre of your wonderful, solid, sailorly town. George Scott-Moncrieff (see below) said ‘The main street is not unlike Kirkwall, rather later built, more sib with the sea’. Sib with the sea. Although in a way it hides from the sea too.
Could you tell us about your latest book, and what you’re working on right now?
My last book was a book about 11 November 1918, the last day of the First World War and the first day of peace: Peace at Last: A Portrait of Armistice Day, 11 November 1918 (Yale University Press, 2018). It was a remarkable day of wild celebrations and strangeness and sadness. On 11 November 1918, Orkney actually heard the news of the 11am armistice before it happened – with local pride, The Orcadian noted that the people of Orkney got the news more than an hour before Londoners did. The news reached the Royal Navy at Scapa Flow by 9.30am that morning and, when sirens went off on naval vessels, Orkney immediately set about rejoicing, and the cathedral bells rang out at Kirkwall. Unlike London, Scotland also had some lovely weather that day.
Among other things, I am currently producing a volume of Edward Thomas’s prose for Oxford University Press. It’s a big project, and a slow one, but we’ll get there in the end. The project to publish Thomas’s prose for OUP has already been going on for about fifteen years, and I’m a general editor of the series as well as editing some of the volumes.
Do you read one-book-at-a-time… or are you a promiscuous reader, leaping from text to text according to whim?
A promiscuous reader, I’m afraid. I rarely start at the front and go all the way to the end. Bookmarks sit in books for ages and the pile of half-read books by the bed gets higher until they are eventually moved to shelves, often unfinished.
Do you have strong preferences for fiction or non-fiction? Any particular genres that you favour above all else?
It’s mostly non-fiction for me these days. I teach literature at a university so I do read novels and short stories of course, but non-fiction is my territory when it comes to reading for pleasure. Even when studying and teaching fiction I’m teaching it in relation to biography, history, politics, geography.
What are the new books out this year that you are particularly excited about?
Well, the new books I have bought recently include The Rupert Annual 2021, Dogger’s Christmas by Shirley Hughes, The Worlds of J.R.R. Tolkien: The Places that Inspired Middle-Earth by John Garth, Jonathan Bate’s Radical Wordsworth: The Poet Who Changed the World and Oxford: The Last Hurrah by Dafydd Jones. An odd collection.
There are many forthcoming books that I am looking forward to, including Monica Jones, Philip Larkin and Me: Her Life and Long Loves by John Sutherland, The Craft of Poetry by Lucy Newlyn, and The Sins of GK Chesterton by Richard Ingrams.
Are there authors you think deserve more attention and acclaim than they have received? Who are they?
Well, I’ve been working on Edward Thomas for twenty years and although he’s much better known now than he was in 2000, he’s still not as well known as he should be.
But I think the world is full of neglected books that ought to be read and republished. I’m not really thinking of neglected geniuses or books that have been neglected because they are too complex or anything like that, I mean unassuming books like guidebooks, travel books, biographies, memoirs. One book I found myself reading again during lockdown was ‘just’ a guidebook but it’s a delight and somehow the perfect book when you’re indoors all day, something to remind us of the glamour and bustle: David Piper’s The Companion Guide to London (1964). It’s great at capturing the excitement of city scenes – scenes that are especially enjoyable when you don’t have to actually be in the crowds and traffic: in Cheapside, there’s ‘the chatter of the typewriters singing each to each over the ground swell of the traffic, the clack of a typist’s high heels as she crosses the yard with a pot of coffee’; in Belgravia, ‘if you scull through the wide streets in an open car, on a warm summer dusk under the still and heavy trees, you may catch a whiff still of some slower time, a whiff opulent as cigar smoke in the thinner familiar reek of cigarettes; and the bland and glossy stucco facades shimmer like ghosts of their staid solid daytime selves’.
But I would also recommend an Orkney writer, Ann Scott-Moncrieff. The Scotland Street Press have been republishing her work.
What are your favourite books about Orkney?
I don’t go to book signings very often but many years ago I went to a talk on George Mackay Brown by Maggie Ferguson and bought her biography of him afterwards. That signed copy then came with me to Orkney when I visited there the first time. It’s a wonderful book although it’s the sense of place that I remember more than the poetry. The great Orkney poet for me is George Mackay Brown’s friend Edwin Muir – his work might not be so rooted in Orkney but surely Muir’s ‘For Ann Scott-Moncrieff’, one of the greatest Scottish poems, is an Orkney poem, being a tribute to one Orcadian writer by another (Muir was born in Deerness, and Scott-Moncrieff in Kirkwall). Yes, it’s set in Edinburgh, but if anyone doesn’t know it they must read it. ‘The world is a pleasant place’ she says, with the sun shining on her face in Princes Street. I used a quotation from that poem as an epigraph to a chapter in my biography of Wilfred Owen in 2014.
And Ann Scott-Moncrieff was an extraordinary character and fine writer. I recommend her book Auntie Robbo, which is a joyous, energetic celebration of Scotland and shows a great love of islands and the sea – there are details like the sun ‘sucking up the sea so that a haze hung like a curtain off the island’. Her own short life was not without sadness – her mother died when she was only ten years old, and the heartbreaking short story ‘The Longest Day’ seems to be about that panic, loss and trauma – the story ends with the girl’s vision of her mother ‘coming to comfort me, running through the rain’.
There’s a good chapter on Orkney in The Scottish Islands (1952) by Ann Scott-Moncrieff’s husband, George Scott-Moncrieff. He loves Kirkwall and writes about it with passion:
“In the long undarkening summer nights the streets have a great mystery of pattern and form. A fine background this for young people to grow up in, displaying the past of their people gracefully about them, living history, with the curious, sometimes almost sinister beauty of a true town. I almost feel as though it were my own background, for it was my wife’s and I know it intimately through her youth.“
Do you keep your books pristine, or do you write on them, fold down pages and otherwise deface them?
Well it depends on the book – if it’s an old book I wouldn’t mistreat it but new books are fair game. I seem to remember that as a young child I used a pair of underpants as a bookmark in a big picture-book that my mum then returned to the public library with the pants still in it, and then was called back to the library to collect them – I wouldn’t go so far now, my underpants are far too big, but anything small enough can be used as bookmark, or the books just pile up open and face down looking like a flock of seagulls.
What books are on your bedside table right now – and are you enjoying them?
I’ve just looked at the bedside pile and it’s a collection of eleven books:
Imagination of the Heart: The Life of Walter de la Mare by Theresa Whistler
Michael Foot: A Life by Kenneth Morgan
All the Best, Neill: Letters from Summerhill by A.S. Neill
The First Fabians by Norman and Jeanne MacKenzie
On Poetry by Glyn Maxwell
The Caravaners by Elizabeth von Arnim
Black and British by David Olusoga
Folk Horror by Adam Scovell
Nairn’s Towns by Ian Nairn
The Illustrated Guide to Britain’s Coast
Under the Sun: The Letters of Bruce Chatwin
What book or books do you press into other people’s hands at any opportunity?
It used to be A Month in the Country by JL Carr. But everyone has read that by now haven’t they? I’m currently working on Edward Thomas’s The Icknield Way (1913) – let that be the book I recommend now. It’s a book about the old road that runs from East Anglia to Wiltshire, although where it really begins and ends is a mystery:
“I could not find a beginning or an end of the Icknield Way. It is thus a symbol of mortal things with their beginnings and ends always in immortal darkness.“
Interview by Cal Flyn
Guy Cuthbertson is the author Wilfred Owen (2014) and Peace at Last: A Portrait of Armistice Day, 11 November 1918 (2018), both published by Yale University Press. His books have been widely reviewed and he has made a number of television appearances discussing the First World War. In 2018, he gave the British Academy’s Chatterton Lecture on Poetry, choosing Edward Thomas as his topic. With Lucy Newlyn, he edited Branch-Lines: Edward Thomas and Contemporary Poetry (2007), and he is a General Editor of Edward Thomas’s prose for Oxford University Press. He is Head of the School of Humanities at Liverpool Hope University.