A portrait of Scottish writer and poet James Andrew
By publisher, Erik Empson
I meet James in a cosy eatery in Nairn, and not surprisingly we quickly get talking about books. If you read, he says, and James has certainly read widely, you are never bored. There is always another world to discover. I want to probe the kind of worlds the author would want to inhabit if he could choose. I soon discover they are most probably in Scotland given James’s enthusiasm for his homeland, but something is still missing from the picture.
James got the idea for the first book in his historical mystery series, now published as a box set titled The Yorkshire Murders, after reading about two soldiers found guilty, and hanged, for killing a woman in Eastbourne. This set off a speculative reverie – what if the charges were unsound, and one or both of the men were innocent? He switched the details, setting his version of the story in Yorkshire – he conveys guilt for spurning his patria, but the legal systems were too different – in the years following the First World War.
We speak quite a bit about what makes a good detective in crime fiction. I liked his Inspector Blades, who is a quiet unassuming man, troubled deeply by not having fought in the war, and eager to demonstrate his worth to society. I liked him, but wanted more of the man, and James readily volunteers that he saw Blades more as a window onto a world than a protagonist who takes a central role.
But what a world this window allows us to see into. The First World War holds a unique place in our national psyche – at least this is something our devolved nations share, for what it is worth. We know much about life in the trenches and the terrible suffering of the men who fought there. We know of the stark class divisions within the army, and though people wear a poppy with pride, we might even be aware that the man whose name was associated with that fund, General Haig, is considered by some military historians to be the biggest over-privileged and under-achieving, incompetent buffoon one could imagine. But if we know much about the soldiers on the battlefield, lions led by donkeys, we know less of them in the aftermath of the war, and it is this that forms the dominant theme of James’s books.
The two soldiers who in The Body under the Sands are accused of murdering a girl in the dunes in a fictional seaside town, live much for the moment. They are hard on their luck, womanise and drink heavily. It is almost as if they did not really survive the war, just that the death knell was merely delayed. Not rung by enemy or misdirected friendly shells, nor by walking towards heavily fortified defensive lines, laden with their whole kit, or under some other ill-conceived order, or even shot for cowardice, but sounded by having no work, no direction, no social safety net into which they could fall.
The war made an impact on James growing up, even though society was still reeling from the second tragedy it laid the groundwork for. He recalls how his grandfather would awake yelling in the middle of the night, and how every family he knew was touched by its evil hand. But I sense that it is another tragedy in James’s life that has carried this sorrow onwards, and somewhat melded with it, that of losing his wife Jennifer to cancer ten years ago.
Jennifer was, he recounts, outgoing, the life and soul, and her absence at the table is almost palpable. James has a particularly unfazed look about him for much of the time. When I speak, he listens expressionless. When he does offer his thoughts, they are quiet and considered. Occasionally he will chortle with an infectious laughter which fills the room, and he assures me that he is content with his life. What choice is there but to get on with it, he says. I admire this resolve, quietly reflecting that I would lack the wherewithal. He is a prudent man but ready to embrace new challenges. If I detect a guardedness or circumspection, I surmise it is because his ideas about where to take his writing are very carefully considered and very much his own. If I detect an underlying melancholy, it might well be a projection.
We go on to talk much about politics, and I guess it supplies a vent for some of the pain that James might be burdened with. He rebuts my suggestion that it would be difficult for Scotland to ever rejoin the European Union – even though its population was prominently in favour of remaining – given how tied its economy and financial system, and dare I say it, class system, are to the UK. If England can live with poverty in exchange for autonomy, he retorts, referring to the increased privations the country is suffering, why can’t Scotland? It might not be easy but…
We agree, I think, on many issues. I proffer that the social inequalities of the whole of Britain will not be solved without addressing the fundamental problem of a small number of individuals owning such a large proportion of land, with one of the biggest landowners, illegitimately standing as head of state. It is an issue he recognises in Scotland, and I increasingly understand the extent that the nation is a point of reference to him. In his forties, with itchy feet he left to teach first in Egypt and then later for fourteen years in Istanbul. But it is the country of his birth – he grew up in Fife the quieter sibling of Edinburgh sited over the great swell of water that is the Firth – that is his spiritual home.
James’s conversation seems to lead back to Scotland, as an eddy remeets a burn. He spent time in places like Ullapool on the west coast, holidays every year in Aviemore, a small retreat nestled in the north of the Cairngorms, and resided for a long time with his wife in Durness. This tiny town nestled on the northern seaboard is possibly as far from England as you can get. He loves the land, but it seems he’s never strayed that far from the coast. When cancer caught Jennifer in its cruel grip, the couple would head down to the hospital in Inverness. And after her death, in order to begin the slow and forlorn process to move on with his life, he relocated to Nairn where he now lives.
James explains that the area is the sunniest and least rainy spot in Scotland and I am mildly distracted by the question of whether these two things are one and the same. I have viewed it from afar on my journey up, climbing a minor peak in the Cairngorms, the bare and barren bracken and heather covered hills immortalised in Nan Shepherd’s The Living Mountain. Here one of Scotland’s most iconic flora, juniper, is still present, though I am saddened to read that this symbol of protection now needs protecting itself. And when, after we have had lunch, we walk to the sea front and take in some of the restorative air the expansive firth is known for, I am again amply impressed by how sheltered and gentle the area is.
Enormous skies mirror the lapping water, breakwaters have covered much of the red rock in a thick, clean coating of sand, and where exposed, the sandstone beneath adds a ragged texture to the weather sculpted landscape. There is a natural effusion of the primary colours which radiate improbably like out of a child’s painting. The weather has been kind, the harsh wind I encounter on the morrow when visiting the battlefield of Culloden nearby, in temporary retreat, but I sense we’ve been a little lucky.
We reconvene in the evening for a pint, and James opens up a tiny bit more. I learn of the extent of his activity in writers’ groups and literary festivals which are surprisingly prevalent in the area. A teacher all of his life, James plays a pivotal role in this small but dynamic community, offering his sage advice and well-read wisdom. I am impressed by how much he researches his novels and how deep he will delve into archives and records, say of domestic service in the era, in order to make them as accurate as possible. It is a characteristic he seems to apply to all of the things on which he speaks. Knowledgeable about much that is seen, and a fair bit that is unobserved. And this, like the juniper, is regrettably becoming ever rarer.
In our conversation about the Great War, James reminds me of how little understood shell shock was at the time. He also makes an interesting observation about spiritualism. Where had all of these young men gone? It was as if they simply disappeared, and thus in the years following, there was a resurgence of seances and such like during which families would reconnect with their loved ones. Very occasionally, the slightly rheumy eyes of this otherwise alert and studious gentleman will become vacant and stare at an evanescent spot in space. Some wounds don’t ever really heal. Jennifer, juniper, qu’est-ce que tu fais, Jenny, mon amour?
James Andrew’s latest book Burning Suspicion is set in the Highlands and is a standalone mystery about a house fire, the aftermath of which tears a family apart. A full list of all of his books with links to purchase on Amazon is available here.