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Raising a glass to Eric Linklater

For the Science Festival One o’clock Toast this year, I was kindly invited to give a toast to the writer Eric Linklater. I was of course delighted to do so, as an Eric Linklater fan who has worked closely with some of his work over the past couple of years.

Even though I never met Eric Linklater (as he died before I was born), I became a fan when I was nine. There are so many things that fascinate me about him, as a writer and as a person: His rebelliousness – but yet still gentlemanlike character. His quirky sense of humour: sometimes really black humour, sometimes nonsensical, and often completely absurd – as when in one scene two men who have both lost their left arm in the war happen to sit down opposite one another on a train and are both profoundly embarrassed by the mirroring of their dismemberment; or when a Selkie is introduced as the first seal-man to have obtained a Master’s degree from Edinburgh University. His sharp observations on society around him, in many parts of the world -- which he captures satirically, mostly, and with political bite – are still valid and capable of making readers reflect.

Eric Linklater’s greatest commercial success was “Juan in America”: A satire over America in the prohibition years. “Juan in America” is a fresh take on Byron’s “Don Juan”, Linklater having been a pupil of the same school as Byron, Aberdeen Grammar School. After such a great success relatively early on in his writing career, Eric Linklater pursued a life as a professional writer with over forty books to his name, broadcaster, gentleman and well-known personality – he was even Rector of Aberdeen University for three years.

One of the things that fascinate me about Eric Linklater is his insistence on being Orcadian.

Even his publishers didn’t know that he had grown up in Cardiff, attended primary school there and secondary school in Aberdeen. He was quite happy to let them put in the “about the author” blurb that he was from Dounby. Even when he was invited to the radio show “Return Journeys” where celebrities reminisced about the area where they grew up, Eric reminisced about Orkney. And that’s where he belonged, spiritually. His sea-captain father had come from a farm not far from Dounby, and his half Swedish mother took him to Orkney on summer holidays. As an adult, he made a home at Merkister – he invented that name – but also travelled widely and lived in other places, too. Only in his mind, he was permanently Orcadian.

Having been born in 1899, Eric Linklater was a teenager during World War 1, and he and his sister lost their father, Captain Linklater, in 1916. This made the school pupil Eric keen to join the fight, but his mother told him to stay where he was, in Aberdeen, and finish school. At 17, he was, after all, too young. But Eric had a solution to that (as I was excited to read in Michael Parnell’s biography): He found an opportunity to fake his documents to appear a year older, and to forge his eye test as well, something which brought the bespectacled teenager to the trenches of France as a sniper!

His mother had all reason to worry, because after some initial successes Eric was very nearly killed. Under orders to retreat, Eric was the last to turn back and a bullet caught up with him from behind and went through his helmet, skimming his brain. Through some kind of miracle he survived, and you can still see his helmet, with the hole through it, in the Orkney Museum.

His war experiences stayed with Eric and are visible in much of his writing, and he also wrote about World War Two. But being a man who believed that comedy was as powerful as any other genre, even his darkest tales of war have an element of humour in them -- black humour. In the novel The Dark of Summer, for example, he brilliantly sketches Shetland, Orkney and the Faroe Islands during World War 2, where his humour turns the account of the Faroese attitude to Quisling and Norwegian fascism into a razor sharp comment on political currents. The Faroese characters are taking a sly sideways look at it all, waiting for the warring nations to destroy each other so that the “old lands of the Norsemen” -- from the Faroes, to Orkney, Shetland and the Western Isles -- could come into power. One may be tempted to read this as an earnest political statement by Linklater, who, after all, wanted to evoke the Vikings in his bid for the SNP and Scotland’s independence. However, his omnipresent humour kicks in before the reader can get any such idea. The authorial voice comments: “It was an excellent speech he made – spoiled only by Sergeant Fergusson’s comment, from time to time, of ‘Bullshit! Plain bullshit!’”.

During the lunch at the One O’clock Toast event, I was lucky enough to get talking to Patricia Long, that never drying fount of knowledge and anecdotes on all things Orcadian. When our conversation turned to Eric Linklater’s view of the Vikings, Pat related a very amusing story about his involvement in the 1937 Pageant that was put on in Kirkwall to celebrate the octocentenary of the Cathedral. Eric felt they needed “Tall and stalwart men […] and women who, being stout of body, will look stout of heart as the Vikings were”. But it was not easy to find such volunteers, especially since the play required a cast of six hundred! So in the end, a call was sent out to all police stations to help find big enough expat Orcadians to take part. In the end, the Pageant was performed on 29th July and was a huge success, and watched by almost seven thousand.

But not all of Eric Linklater’s stories are political, satirical, or dark-humoured. When I was nine, my first meeting with Eric Linklater’s writing was the whimsical adventure “The Wind on the Moon” about two sisters called Dinah and Dorinda. This was a book he wrote to his daughters, Kristin and Sally, published in 1944. He began telling the story, making it up as he went along, on a rainy and cold day when he and the girls had been sent out of the house for a walk. The girls were in a bad mood, pleeping and girning. And this is how the storytelling began: “Listen, I exclaimed in desperation. Listen to me, I'm going to tell you a story about two little girls I know." "Who are they?" "That's what I'm going to tell you. They're extremely naughty little girls, but that's not their fault. They're naughty because of something that happened on the moon." "On the moon? " "That's what I said, and the very first thing they did..." I caught their attention, they stopped crying, and with invention spurred by sheer necessity I began my story.”

The story is full of the kind of absurd humour that I like. For example, one of the characters is a detective called Mr Parker, who was transformed into a giraffe one day when he was stretching his neck to see over a garden wall to catch a burglar. Yet, when Dinah and Dorinda tell him that they are girls who have been transformed into kangaroos by a magic potion, his reply is “I don’t believe in magic!”

The Wind on the Moon is very much ahead of its time in its attitude to children in general and to girls in particular. Dinah and Dorinda are independent children who are unafraid to take on challenges and go against grown-up establishment. Their frocks are constantly dirty and torn, and they complain that the grown-ups want them to “be nice” and “wear shoes” and “do our lessons” without using any imagination and without any freedom. Dinah and Dorinda crave freedom, and they do manage to free themselves and, moreover, to free unhappy animals from a zoo and a wrongly convicted friend from prison, through great ingenuity and imagination. Dinah and Dorinda like to think for themselves. And in the end, when their father is being held prisoner of war in a dangerous faraway country, it is the girls who travel there to rescue him. Quite contrary to the ideal for girls in 1944, Dinah and Dorinda’s motto in life is to “always look over the wall”: explore a bit further, disregard stupid rules without being wicked, but do what you believe is right.

So I was happy to propose a toast to this diverse writer, Eric Linklater, who surely was quite a character himself and who left us a whole pile of wonderful books to enjoy.

Ragnhild Ljosland

Originally published in The Orcadian, 29 September 2016. PDF here

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