This is a meandering tale that weaves together numerous strands of personal stories with the last fifty years of Scottish history, both political and social. The first character we meet, Mike, is a photographer and the son of a famous (and rather better) photographer, and his story I found interesting. He’s a fairly passive person, almost seeming to be an outsider in his own life sometimes, and surprisingly mature in his early years. When he discovers that he is gay, there is none of the angst or shock or even horror that might be expected in the early seventies. He simply accepts it, and expects everyone else to accept it too. The minor characters pop up at significant moments is his life, or to underscore the political events of the day, and therefore feel fairly contrived. Jean, in particular, seems almost unreal, a semi-mystical figure acting as a catalyst both for Mike’s personal life (such as introducing him to a boyfriend) and also in the political spectrum, the focus for debate. Everyone seemed to gather around Jean, and her legendary, almost mythical, stories.
The second character, Don, is a Mr Everyman, a survivor of the war living a quiet life with his wife, whose sole purpose seems to be to illuminate aspects of the life of Jack, an odd character who survived the Japanese prisoner of war camps physically intact but mentally scarred.
Then we get to Peter (also Jimmy) Bond, Jack's nephew, recruited into the intelligence service to (essentially) spy on the nationalists. Peter is more interesting, perhaps, because we see him at a point in his life where neglectful alcoholism is catching up with him, and he's only barely connected with reality. But there's a macabre humour to it - when he starts having hallucinations, he's relieved to realise that one of them must be a ghost, and therefore there's no need to politely offer a drink.
Then it’s on to Ellen, growing up in a mining village in the fifties. Every time we switch character, I lose heart. This book is long, it’s largely about politics which to be fair has some interest, but not at this length, and frankly it’s unfocused and rambling. Any one part of the book, telling the story of one character in depth, would have made a good book and illuminated a shadowy part of recent history, but trying to do too much makes it feel as though it ought to be a textbook, not a work of fiction. I struggled on, as the story threads became more and more intertwined, or perhaps tangled is a better word for it. All these many characters are somehow mixed up together, in a way that only grandiose fiction can get away with.
This is not a bad book. Rather, it’s over-ambitious, and it commits the cardinal sin of an author who’s done a great deal of meticulous research - he wants to get every last bit of it into the book, every major political event, every well-loved TV program or film, every disaster, every social change. It almost felt as if he had a checklist and was ticking off events. There are at least half a dozen terrific stories in here if the author could have brought his eyes down from the stars and focused instead on just a few of these characters at a time. That way, they would have become memorable, fully-rounded people instead of mere ciphers, stand-ins for this or that aspect of the changing face of Scotland. This is non-fiction with a thin veneer of rambling storytelling. And yes, I get the point about the story never ending, trust the story and all that. Still it would have been nice to feel there actually was a proper, novel-sized story in here, something with a beginning, a middle and an end, rather than a series of vignettes. On the plus side, it’s well written and there’s some interesting detail about the Scottish political scene which I enjoyed learning about. So three stars for effort.