Saturday, 12 July 2014

The Ripening Time by Alistair Mair, reviewed by Cally Phillips

Sitting somewhere after ‘The House with the Green Shutters’ and before the 1980’s explosion of hard/cool Scottish writers, ‘The Ripening Time’ is a forgotten gem. As it its author.  In his day Alastair Mair published more than ten novels with mainstream publishers but today you’re hard pressed to find any of his work outside of specialist second hand shops. And so it’s a brave and worthy task that his daughter Catherine Macleod has undertaken in epublishing a revised/adapted version.
I have to say that I enjoyed the novel as revised/adapted, but that I also felt I had to read the original.  Which I did. In a second hand hardback copy which had stamped on the inner ‘Kirkcaldy District Libraries’ DISCARD.  (Shame on you Fife County Libraries!) obtained online for twice the price of the ebook.
‘The Ripening Time’ strikes home most clearly as an honest, real, uncompromising account of the lives of working class Glaswegians in the early 1960’s. Gentle brutality and emotional numbness are key features of the work. The dominance of the post war working class mother is greatly in evidence in all her guises. Tom’s mother is a throwback to an earlier time – she raises a polite and inoffensive boy quite unable to distinguish desire from duty.  His mother in law represents the worst of the new aspirations of the working class as they seek middle class comforts. And his wife takes the dominance of the female to a whole new and awful (yet very real) level.  Men are very much seen as the victims in this world.  It places me in mind of ‘Men Should Weep,’ by Ena Lamont Stewart but gives a man’s view of the domestic hell that was endured by many.
The original novel has a level of dourness and despondency and a disillusion and despair which accurately invokes a working class male perspective.  It is characterised by a ‘lack’ of all kinds of things – and it may be these perceived ‘lacks’ that MacLeod sought to deal with.  In doing so however, and in recontextualising the novel for a new generation and adding a framing device which favours a more female perspective and an outside view of the life of the central character Tom, it takes away as much as it gives.  Most notably this is in the repression which seeps through the original and is replaced by more graphic sex (well written though this is) replacing the stifling passiveness of the original with a more aggressive interpretation of  repression.
Sexual repression is important to this novel.  Working together with the nature/nurture symbolism which runs throughout, Mair has something different and important to say about the relationship between domestic power as dominance and how such a pattern makes nurturing relationships impossible.  It’s D.H.Lawrence without the release.  MacLeod’s adaptation adds that Laurentian level (admirably) but I feel takes something fundamental away from the truth of the novel in the process.
In an age where sex is still largely repressed and denied, the discovery of the orgasm transforms lives, giving an understanding of love which inevitably has repercussions on relationships founded on more traditional or aspirational bases. A retrospective view of this inevitably tells us something different than the original.  It’s not better, it’s not worse, but it is quietly and significantly different.
Tom’s ‘ripening’ occurs on every level throughout the novel and the symbol of the greenhouse is extremely clever and rings very true.  A man may hide in his shed, but in his greenhouse he can create a whole new world away from the dominance of women.  And the creation is not just about power, it’s about nurture, something that is lacking in the post war urban working class environment Tom grows up in.
In this revised edition Catherine MacLeod recontextualises the novel for a contemporary audience.  As such she does a very good job. It’s highly readable and challenging at the same time. But it does make you want to read the original, and I’m glad I did.  It also makes you want to read more work by Alasdair Mair as well as more by Catherine Macleod.
As a writer the idea that someone might adapt/revise or recontextualise my work is somewhat shocking.  As a reader I don’t feel that the work needed an ‘overhaul’ of any kind. Simply republishing it as it was would have worked perfectly well for me, but then that’s the choice of a publisher. And if someone was to adapt this work, I feel at least that Alasdair’s daughter has more right than any to undertake this task.  If I owned the rights to Alasdair Mair’s work I would republish it all in ebook format, just as it is. It’s more than worth it.
If you’re looking for an easy read this isn’t it.  By that I mean it is compelling, awful in its dissection of human relationships and dramatic in the most domestic of ways. It is excellent. It is uniquely Scottish, one might even say uniquely Glaswegian but it holds a universality as well in that it reaches out to debate the human condition and the pain of life when love is subordinated to power and natural desire is turned into material aspiration.  Whichever (or both) way you choose to read this story, I really think it’s a story worth reading.  The original just tips it for me, precisely because it is original and therefore is placed firmly in and of its time.  But without the ebook I’d never have found the original. That’s food for thought.
Available on  Amazon in Kindle format

Find out more about Catherine MacLeod