The Long Shadow
In 1938, after Neil Gunn had left the Customs and Excise Service and completed his voyage round the Inner Hebrides, so artistically and philosophically described in Off in a Boat, he rented a farm manager's house in the hill country near Dingwall. It was a solidly built stone house that stood on the hillside facing south with a garden round it, and behind it a gradual ascent through a wood to the open moors and distant hills. A writer's paradise for him, and a garden for his wife Daisy to cultivate and embellish. Brae farm was the place that saw his most creative period of writing.
With no pension from the Civil Service and with only a modest income from the royalties of the books he had written he had to settle down quickly to his writing.
Fortunately for him, he had to hand a play called Second Sight, but on the advice of the dramatist James Bridie he converted the play into a novel of the same name. Against a background of hill, moor and gully the story is set in a shooting lodge in the Highlands and concerns the interaction between the English visitors themselves and their relationship with the local people, who serve as ghillies and stalkers. The phenomenon of second sight did reflect much of the thinking in certain circles in the unsettled years immediately preceding it. Social and genetic engineering and State control were fashionable topics for speculative conversation. Aldous Huxley's Brave New World occupied an important space in the general discourse of cultured society and found a more than interested reader in Neil Gunn . He was acutely aware of a continuous battle taking place between spiritual and materialistic views on the future of mankind. It was in the shadow of this that Gunn had written. Second Sight is introduced early in the novel and is a touchstone for many conversations about its validity. These widen to include debates on the respective values of the exclusively rational and the more intuitive approaches to life. One of the visitors, an unpleasant and arrogant middle aged man, does not budge from his view that everything can be explained scientifically and that all thinking should be conditioned rationally. He dismisses second sight as a superstition Although his view is challenged by several of his peers he maintains a strong presence in the story. It is obvious that Gunn dislikes this type of individual and his attitudes. He was to comment that although the book predated the 2nd World War it did reflect much of the thinking in certain circles in the unsettled years immediately preceding it. Social and genetic engineering and State control were fashionable topics for speculative conversation. Aldous Huxley's Brave New World occupied an important space in the general discourse of cultured society and found a more than interested reader in Neil Gunn . He was acutely aware of a continuous battle taking place between spiritual and materialistic views on the future of mankind. It was in the shadow of this that Gunn had written Second Sight.
Gunn's forebodings about the direction in which civilisation was heading were deepened by the appearance in 1940 of Arthur Koestler's novel Darkness at Noon. The writer had lived in Nazi Germany and was keenly aware of the techniques of mental torture and brain-washing used in Stalin's show trials in the Soviet Union in the 1930s. These revelations of state oppression affected Gunn profoundly, but his total immersion in writing one of his greatest books, The Silver Darlings, delayed his response to the conflict in Europe. He was fully aware of the world being clearly divided between totalitarianism and liberal democracy and that there was a certain irony on the West's dependence militarily on the Soviet Union, itself a totalitarian state. Gunn was totally behind the war effort and even joined the local section of the Home Guard. His written response to the factors related to the conflict came a few years later. In 1942 Gunn seemed to be moving away from war and its horrors by writing a short book based on a fascinating dialogue in a rural setting between an old man and a young boy, Young Art and Old Hector. It is a delightful exchange of ideas and questions that touches on Alexander Carmichael's Carmina Gadelica, Chided in a mischievous way by his friend and fellow author, Naomi Mitchison, for being an escapist, Gunn responded in 1944 by writing an anti Utopian novel, The Green Isle of the Great Deep', in which he uses Art and Hector as his principal characters. After an introduction in which a group of crofters talk about the horrors of brain washing as a form of torture, Art and Hector leave to go on a poaching expedition, during which they fall into a deep pool in the local river. On emerging they find themselves in a lush landscape with an abundance of fruit trees bearing luscious fruit. They thought they had arrived in Tir na nÓg, the Celtic paradise only to find out that instead they were in a totalitarian state. Any harshness for the reader arising from the experiences of the pair is softened by the use of legends from Celtic mythology and the imagery of the Bible. In their understandable fear and wonder at being in such a strange environment Art and Hector are heartened and comforted by the friendship and help offered by a woman called Mary. It seems possible that Gunn was influenced by the Bible in his choice of Mary as a name for the woman, a possibility refuted by one of Gunn's biographers, John Pick. But she remains an important member of the trio who strive to avoid the demands and strictures of the all-powerful state. Hector's wisdom , Art's exuberance and vitality and her kindness and love are the essential ingredients for their survival. The book reads like a fairytale without losing its serious nature. For Gunn, it helped to clarify his thinking on totalitarianism and its antidote, and to keep the shadows of wartime Britain at bay - at least for a time.
The shadows return with the publication in 1948 of his book The Shadow. The setting is no other than the peaceful surroundings of his own home. A different and threatening world is brought to this haven of rural peace by a young Scottish woman Nan who has left a blitzed London to seek sanctuary in an aunt's farm to recover from a nervous breakdown. The aunt, Aunt Phemie, is a widow who has taken over her late husband's farm after his untimely death in a farm accident. Nan is ecstatic about her new surroundings and expresses her delight in a series of letters to her lover, Ranald, in London. Indeed, in the first sentence of an early letter to him, she reveals her joy and delight at being back in familiar surroundings. 'I have discovered the world! Today, this very day in the hours that are past – just past, for still I hear them blowing on the wind, the softest loveliest wind, with clouds coming up over the sky and even as I write this, in the tail of my eye, just outside the small gable window. A long new branch of a climber – a white rose – not tied up blows up and down...' The letters are both a paean to the wonders and restorative effects of nature and a searching analysis of herself with the occasional mention of the hallucinations she is experiencing. They are complex, a mix of the sophisticated with literary allusions and the simple delight of living in a farm. The writing is a form of release, a way of explaining her views and values without fear of contradiction, the inevitable contradiction that had blighted her thoughts and inner feelings in certain conversations within the London clique of quasi Marxist intellectuals she had left behind. Her thoughts are also clearly affected by her recollections of living in an amoral circle of people divorced from the traditional norms of social behaviour; their obsession was the attainment of a new world order regardless of the suffering and cruelty the process would necessitate. Nan needed to write these letters tor both her own benefit and Ranald's.
But there are other dark clouds on the horizon. Nan's progress to recovery is interrupted by the news of the brutal murder of a local crofter; a shadow is cast over a landscape that had seemed a rural paradise. Nan is affected not only by the deed itself but also by the suspected murderer being a man suffering from a mental disorder caused by his military experiences in war. Her condition is not helped by her chance acquaintance with a local artist, a predatory man, Adam, whose ideas about nature differ radically from her own. There is a ruthless streak in him that revels in the cruelties of animal life and places man outside nature as a dominant force. It is left to Aunt Phemie later in the story to discuss nature with him to express what would be Nan's view. In response to Adam's almost quizzical assertion that to feel free, man must dominate? Aunt Phemie responds, 'No; you can become part of this and still be yourself, only more full of intimacy and love of it . You don't want to dominate it. That's the very mood that does not arise'
Aunt Phemie continues her role as Nan's protector by inviting Ranald to visit her niece. His visit is not successful and turns out to be more of a continual disagreement with Aunt Phemie over attitudes to life and the future of mankind. Aunt Phemie's gentle pragmatism and innate kindness contrast markedly with Ranald's cold and dispassionate attitude to the near and the far. It is a case of two monologues. Aunt Phemie is to reflect, ' a man like Ranald could talk to the farm workers, and find out about everything, and have a scheme for putting things right, but he does not somehow care for the men themselves. His merciless precision excludes the very qualities that make human life emotionally meaningful.'
After a physical confrontation with Adam over his association with Nan, Ranald returns to London and leaves the scene to Aunt Phemie and her niece. Progress is rapid; Nan delights in the work at the farm and absorbs its rhythm and the friendship of the farm workers. The shadow has disappeared, and she decides to leave her all- caring and wise aunt and return to London and Ranald. A Chekhovian exit.
The Shadow, although extolling the restorative effects of country life, underlines the importance of human friendship in any situation. Aunt Phemie is the anchor person of the story that subtly revolves round her; Nan needs her as much as nature in finding her way back to health and describes her perfectly in a letter to Ranald. 'She is comfortably slim, and though she is well over forty the gold in her hair hasn't faded. I suppose gold doesn't. She is a tirelessly energetic worker and yet can stand quite still.'
The description is certainly that of Neil Gunn's wife Daisy, my favourite aunt, to whom I have always referred as the spirit of the house, and the garden. In all the houses in which Neil and Dairy lived she created an atmosphere that was redolent of kindness and hospitality and an almost indefinable sense of peace. It is little wonder that Neil Gunn's inscription to her in her copy of The Shadow reads ' For one who chases all the shadows away.’