“The past is never dead. It’s not even past.” William Faulkner
At the age of seventeen I developed an obsession.
It started, like most obsessions, with questions nobody could answer. One November morning I got on the train to Edinburgh, nervous about going to the city, unsure what secrets I would uncover.
New Register House was easy enough to find – hidden in plain sight just behind a burger joint on Princes Street, a proud Victorian building caged in by spiked railings. Once through the main door and past security, into that sanctum of quiet punctuated by the sound of rolling trolleys, the building had a feeling of mystery and magic that was instantly addictive. I still remember taking my allocated desk and looking up past the row upon row of stacked records towards the skylight dome high above. Knowing that on those shelves, where porters shuffled around retrieving records, the secrets of my family history were carefully stored – the scrawled signatures of my ancestors inked onto birth and marriage records, the only evidence that they had once lived.
On that first day I sketched out the bare branches of my family tree and uncovered enough sketchy information to say with some confidence – I know who I am. I know where I’m from. There were no aristocrats, no famous people, just a family story common to the vast majority of Scots – some lives lived in rural poverty scratching a living from the land; but many, many more lives lived in the suffocating grip of heavy industry, in the shadow of pit bings and smoking chimneys; immigration, migration and emigration; typhoid and tuberculosis. The Cockers came from Aberdeenshire, farm labourers who moved to Motherwell to work on the railways. My paternal grandmother’s side all went back to Northern Ireland. My mother’s side were entrenched in the industrial communities of the Falkirk area for two hundred years, the ironworks and mines, but also with an offshoot that reached back to an unknown part of Ireland.
Despite several further trips to that library of life and death, there were two mysteries I never solved.
The first: my great-grandfather Jimmy Burns. The black sheep of the family, a violent alcoholic who had served with the Royal Dublin Fusiliers in the First World War. There were family whispers of military prison – the suggestion that he had in fact spent most of the war in prison – to go along with the known tales of his drunken terror campaigns once he returned from France. The records yielded no information.
The second: my great-great-grandfather William McAldin, an Ulsterman who disappeared from all Scottish records after 1905. No further records of him appearing at subsequent family weddings (he had five daughters) and no record of his death. Where did he vanish to? The library racks remained silent.
I drew up the family tree and gave copies to relatives. It felt like I’d got as far as I could go, and those blind alleys would remain dark forever. I left school and went to university and soon enough developed another obsession: writing fiction.
Fiction writers, just like genealogists, are usually obsessed with the past. I started writing, like most fictioneers, with a slightly glorified diary of my own recent past. First up were scribbled fragments about my experience of working in an Aberdeen dairy factory in the summer of 1992. The factory still haunts my dreams to this day: a dark and cavernous Edwardian building with clanking machinery, blasts of refrigerated air, and swirling milky puddles underfoot.
Next was the summer of 1993, working on a summer camp in Maine. I wrote a sort of travelogue when I returned, which strived mainly to capture feeling and sensation – the oppressive darkness of the Maine forests, offset by the orchestra of crickets and the brilliant dark blue star-filled skies; a train journey through West Virginia in heavy fog, houses appearing suddenly through the mist; the ragged angles of the Rockies, the scorched panorama of the Nevada desert. I wrote a bad short story about my trip to F. Scott Fitzgerald’s house in Saint Paul, but again it was mostly fragments and fleeting impressions.
Next came Lithuania, which I blogged about previously, and then Amsterdam (multiple blogs). As I ponder what to write about next, I feel myself drawn again and again to these fleeting glimpses of place and atmosphere rather than sitting down with a concrete story in mind. One of my favourite pieces of writing of all time is a sequence in Donna Tartt’s The Secret History, in which the main character, living in a warehouse apartment in the depths of the New England winter, catches hypothermia. It’s a stunningly beautiful piece of writing that adds little to the story. But it makes for beautiful wallpaper.
A few years ago I read The Black Swan by Nassim Nicholas Taleb, and in it he discusses what he calls the Narrative Fallacy. In simple terms, this is about how we tend to construct stories around unconnected facts – a good example being the causes of the First World War, where historians have tended to line up a chronological succession of events and have built a narrative around what Taleb argues was just a collection of things that happened. Similarly we do this in our own lives, the kind of “how I met your mother” stories which tend to be embellished and expanded as the years go by. Both of my novels had their roots in this kind of reflection – the first being “Young Scottish guy goes to Lithuania to teach English”, the second being “Thirty-something Scottish guy moves to Amsterdam to work in whisky business.” I started with those basic facts of my existence, the fleeting glimpses of experience, and then eroded anything factual through the process of writing and re-writing, like the slop and hush of the sea gradually erasing a coastline.
This attraction to the atmosphere and experiences of my own past is probably one of my flaws as a writer. It doesn’t exactly make sense to decide “I want to write a novel which somehow captures the feeling of walking down an Amsterdam canal-side in late October with lights reflected in the water” but in the end that was pretty much what I did, and the multiple drafts were a kind of punishment for my initial lack of focus. So the next time, will I do things differently?
Well, my worry is, probably not. Instead of thinking about stories with a beginning, middle and end, perhaps moored in a standard genre, the ideas creeping into my head are again those fragments of atmosphere and experience – a weekend I spent in subzero Berlin five years ago; my summer in Maine; Edinburgh immersed in sea-fog. And also, my family history keeps resurfacing when I think about the next project, and in particular two stories. Because, thanks to the internet, in the last couple of years I solved those two family mysteries.
The first? Jimmy Burns, the black sheep. I found 16 pages of his military records online, water-damaged scans and barely legible. Slowly I pieced together the story of his First World War. Signing up for the Royal Dublin Fusiliers on the 2nd of December 1915 at the age of nineteen. The block capitals ‘RC’ stencilled at the top of the form, revealing the recruiting officer’s – and Scotland’s – oldest prejudice (as a Roman Catholic, obviously the Dublin Fusiliers would be his regiment). The other blotted, torn pages tell the story of his next three years.
Wounded twice; hospitalised due to pneumonia, flu or diarrhoea three times; his regiment disbanded and reformed twice due to the scale of losses; deprived of pay twice for absence from parade. And then, one month after the war ended, court-martialled for “offering violence to his senior officer” and sentenced to 18 months in the military prison at Boulogne, of which he served six. All of this by the time he was twenty-two.
The second mystery – William McAldin, who vanished after 1905. I found him on a ship’s manifest in 1906, travelling from Glasgow to Montreal. The two words under destination already hinted at his fate: ‘Sydney Mines.’ A few minutes of Googling and I found his name listed in the Nova Scotia 1910 death records. It would cost me ten pounds to find out how William died. I keyed in my credit card number and the PDF downloaded onto my desktop.
The 1-page certificate showed three deaths stencilled into narrow columns, the first of which was William’s. His occupation was listed as “shot-firer” – the specialist who rigged up explosives to expand mine workings – and his cause of death: “Compression of brain caused by fall of stone in mine.”
So there it was. The vanished William McAldin, lost in a mining accident and buried at the Brookside cemetery in Sydney, a grave which has never been visited by any of his kin. And I wondered – why didn’t anyone in the family know this story, or pass it down? Had he run away? Or did people just keep this tragedy quiet? I imagine that Nova Scotia landscape, the boiling Atlantic ocean nearby, those thousands of immigrant lives that passed through the mine’s black mouth – the Scots formed the largest immigrant group, followed by English, Russians and Italians, but there were also French, Poles, Lithuanians, Caribbeans and others.
And when I think of that cemetery on the coast, and that faded, unvisited gravestone – or Jimmy in that recruiting office 99 years ago – I think to myself, there is the next novel; there, in that fleeting glimpse of a boy soldier, or in that tumble of stone in the Canadian underground blackness.