Maggie Craig is more than just a Scottish author.
Novelist, historian and feature writer, Maggie’s groundbreaking and highly acclaimed Damn’ Rebel Bitches: The Women of the ’45 is the recognised authority on female involvement in the Jacobite Rising of 1745. The companion volume, Bare-Arsed Banditti: The Men of the ’45, has also been well received. Maggie Craig is also a contributor to the Biographical Dictionary of Scottish Women and the author of numerous newspaper and magazine articles. Her romantic fictional works include The Stationmaster’s Daughter, The Bird Flies High, A Star to Steer By, The Dancing Days, One Sweet Moment and Gathering Storm. She is one of those authors who just seems to be able to turn paper into gold and is considered a prize by the country’s literature events organisers who clamber over each other to fill her diary with visits to their venue.
Above all, Maggie is a storyteller and has the ability to faultlessly deliver her tales to mesmerised audiences at her popular author events. A playful sense of humour helps to put audiences immediately at ease but it is her natural skill for telling it like it is – communicating fact and fiction in perfect balance – that commands resounding applause.
It is with great pleasure to introduce such a high calibre author to this humble blog.
As usual, Maggie speaks her mind on a difficult subject for authors: no offence, of course.
Over Christmas I read Greenmantle by John Buchan, and loved it. It’s a rip-roaring yarn and I couldn’t put it down. Our hero is Richard Hannay, fresh from his adventures in The 39 Steps and an injury sustained at the 1915 Battle of Loos. He and his perfectly-named friend, Sandy Arbuthnot, are seconded by the British Government for a secret mission behind enemy lines. The dastardly Germans are planning to divert British resources from the Western Front by encouraging holy war in the Arab world. Buchan spells it Jehad.
Hannay’s mission takes him across Germany and on to Istanbul, still called Constantinople back then. He and Sandy Arbuthnot keep their adversaries in the dark by shouting across the Bosphorus to each other in broad Scots. Yet, like the real life Lawrence of Arabia, Sandy is a man very much at home in this part of the world. He can easily pass as a local and often chooses to do so.
Buchan tells us that “you will hear of him at little forgotten fishing ports where the Albanian mountains dip to the Adriatic. In the caravanserais of Bokhara and Samarkand he is known, and there are Shikaris in the Pamirs who still speak of him round their fires. Sandy was the wandering Scot carried to the pitch of genius.”
It’s beautiful, isn’t it? The romance of far-flung and mysterious places. So it’s all the more shocking when Buchan hits you from time to time throughout Greenmantle with derogatory names for and attitudes towards people of races other than his much-admired “white man”. The anti-semitism is almost casual, as it is in The 39 Steps. At one point Hannay muses that, after his years in South Africa, he has no trouble getting other people to work hard. “I wasn’t a n*****-driver for nothing.”
I gasped audibly at that one, which is written out in full in the book, a modern edition. My immediate reaction was that they should have edited it out. Then I thought about it. That would have been to rewrite history. Buchan was a product of his class, education, experience and time. He wrote his book a hundred years ago, when attitudes were very different. This doesn’t excuse those attitudes but it might help us to view them in their historical context.
Writing this in 2015, I don’t feel that I can write what we now call the n-word out in full. A generation or two ago, it could be used to describe the colour of sewing thread in the drapery department of the Co-op. What offends us changes according to place, time, upbringing, beliefs and society’s attitudes. A generation or two ago, the word bastard was one of the most terrible names you could call somebody. Nowadays, “you wee bastard” can be an expression of affection.
My children are mightily amused by the handful of reviews I’ve had which damn a whole book because some of my characters occasionally swear. To which my riposte is, if one of those characters is a 19th century grave-robber or an 18th century Redcoat, the chances are that neither of them are going to say, “Oh, bother,” when they’re in the grip of furious anger or have just dropped a hammer on their foot.
You can show characters swearing without putting the words on the page. He let out a string of oaths, each coarser than the last. That can work but sometimes you need to use the actual words. They have impact, if not over-used. They can shock another character, demonstrate the mood he or she who curses is in, add colour, give the reader a jolt.
When I give library talks I occasionally meet older readers who are genuinely offended by a character in a book, as they invariably phrase it, “taking the Lord’s name in vain.” Sometimes I want to gently tell them that society has moved on, that very few people in the country we both live in see it that way anymore. I never do. The offence they have taken is sincere and they’re entitled to feel it.
Back in the dim and distant, when all right-thinking people knew that a ship should always be referred to as she, and to have a feminine version of occupational nouns was not necessarily an insult, we had a fearsome conductress on our school bus. She was determined that we should travel to and from our day’s learning like civilised human beings. There was to be no jumping up and down on the seats or bad language. I cherish still the way she put that: “There’ll be no bloody swearing on this bus.”
For more information on Maggie, visit her blog: http://www.maggiecraig.co.uk