Putting the clocks back
The Year's Midnight by Alex Benzie Viking, pounds 16; Joe Farrell sounds a celebratory bagpipe for an astonishing new novelist
Saturday 26 August 1995
This novel is imbued with a Scottishness which would have been recognisable to Scott or Stevenson, but which has little in common with the outlook of more recent urban writers such as James Kelman or Irvine Welsh, whose idiom and characters are from the underclass of contemporary Glasgow or Edinburgh. Set in the north east of Scotland, it will present difficulties for any reader unaware of the identity of a "loon'' or a "cwean'', or who finds it hard to appreciate the character judgment expressed in the words "he's nae a loon to blaa aboot it, he'd aye lee yon tae ithers."
Such a reader will still find ample recompense in the richness of narrative, the lushness of style and the exercise of the historical imagination on display here. The village of Aberlevin is dominated by the grand steeple clock, destroyed by a mob after the hanging, in the 18th century, of one Andra Macpherson for sheep stealing. A pardon was on the way, but to forestall its arrival, the village magnates moved forward the bell-ringing mechanism and sent Macpherson to his death.
One century on, William Leckie gains for himself the nickname "Watchie'', after demonstrating an ability, acquired without training, to mend his father's broken watch. His skills are in mechanics and engineering, specifically in all branches of watchmaking or clockworking. It is to him that the provost, of the same name and lineage as the brigand Macpherson but the epitome of Victorian eminence, turns when he needs someone to repair the shattered clock.
In James Joyce's Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, his alter ego Stephen Dedalus, as he developed, might have been obsessed with beauty and the arts, but the mind of this quintessentially Scottish figure is taken up with applied, practical skills. The paradox is that in a Calvinist community, these gifts are not the object of universal admiration. The essentially theological culture of Aberlevin is recreated with an authentic blend of learning and inventiveness and, in this context, to manufacture is to compete with God the creator.
In Jamie Watts, Benzie has given life to a Presbyterian bigot who is cousin germane to Burns's Holy Wullie or James Hogg's Justified Sinner. Benzie is plainly playing games with the readers when he gives (almost) the name of the inventor of the steam engine to a theological luddite who sees traces of the Devil's handicap in the fabrication of instruments and contraptions not placed on earth by the Lord (or Laird) himself. This includes the steeple bell, to which Watchie dedicates more of his life than is sane.
It is no accident that Watchie's expertise lies in working with clocks rather than some other branch of engineering and several times reference is made to the classic representation of God as the great Watchmaker in the sky, or to the argument for the existence of God based on Design and the order supposedly existing in the universe. These are teasing, tantalising matters but then this is a novel which makes it appeal at various levels.
It could be seen as the story of an obsession with an inanimate thing, or could as one of the few peasant novels in English, or as a story of love as it is experienced by men with no emotional vocabulary and women not permitted to employ that vocabulary., Watchie falls in with Kirsty, the papist daughter of an Irish tinker, who also arouses, for different reasons, the interest of Watts. That may sound like a familiar triangle, but there is nothing predictable in the resolution of the affair.
At 572 pages, the novel merits the description "epic" and perhaps would have benefited from more editing, especially in the early sections. However, it never loses its grip and Benzie's capacity to embellish each character who has even a walk-on part, or to develop demonstrations of engineering skills into grand set-pieces is astonishing. On his debut, Alex Benzie reveals himself to be a master of the craft of fiction.
Books And it is whizzpopping!
MusicThey're running their own restaurants
Arts & Ents blogs
- 1 Norwich paedophile ring: Woman at centre of gang who made children 'sexual play things' guilty of 23 offences
- 2 Topshop pulls 'ridiculously skinny' mannequins after being shamed by customer on Facebook
- 3 Ralkina Jones: 37-year-old black woman found dead in police custody
- 4 Black and ethnic minority people twice as likely to be hit by Tory cuts than white people, report finds
- 5 Walter Palmer: American dentist revealed as killer of Cecil the lion in Zimbabwe
Inside Out: Pixar makes crucial change for Japanese audiences by editing out broccoli
Watch Tom Cruise lip sync to The Weeknd (seriously)
Game of Thrones season 6: New toy line suggests Jon Snow is not among the dead
X Factor 2015: Announcer Peter Dickson quits role as Voiceover Man after 11 years
I Am Cait reviews round-up: A fake, forced, boring reality TV show despite earnest intentions to help promote trans issues
Labour leadership contender Jeremy Corbyn says 'we can learn a great deal from Karl Marx'
The last thing Labour needs is a leader like Jeremy Corbyn who people want to vote for
I am the Jeremy Corbyn supporter that many will tell you doesn't exist
Public anger after French sunbather beaten up by gang for wearing a bikini in Reims park
Labour leadership: New poll shows party is now even 'less electable' than under Ed Miliband
Labour leadership contest: I would never quit the party, says Liz Kendall