Andrew Crumey and Sarah Dry

Andrew Crumey and Sarah Dry

Tis Two Hundred Years Since: The Historical Novel

Loading article content

William McIlvanney

Glasgow's Opium Wars

James Robertson: Writing the Bruce

"PEOPLE want to know what makes a genius, a genius," said Sarah Dry in discussing her new biography of Isaac Newton, and the answer was to see the great man as the sum of many parts: Cambridge graduate, Master of the Mint, anti-transcendentalist, pursuer of alchemy. In other words, to see him as a novelist might see him.

However, Andrew Crumey, whose latest novel The Secret Knowledge features a certain Walter Benjamin, warned us: "Inferences made from one aspect of a person's life can be misleading and contradictory." Just what a novelist likes, then - but a historian? Not so much.

Robyn Young, as part of Saturday's panel on the historical novel, which seemed to be suffering from technical difficulties with what might have been a historical sound system, also explained that of the 132 characters in her Robert the Bruce series, 92 of them are real people. That made for a specific set of difficulties in sorting out a character's motivation, she said.

This sense of character-led fiction, or non-fictional "history", continued later into the evening when William McIlvanney, in a gently led interview before an audience whose enthusiasm seemed to reflect the author's late-emerging status as national literary treasure, said Laidlaw feels to him "like a historical novel", so great have been the changes to Glasgow since its initial publication. But it was people who came first for McIlvanney when he started to write; he wanted to write about the kind of people in the Bayeux Tapestry or Domesday project, he said; the kind who don't make it into traditional history books.

People were also put first in the session on Glasgow's Opium Wars. In spite of the absence of historian Julia Lovell, which meant less on the old connection between Glasgow and China, we were treated to a history lesson by China expert Brian Houlton. A packed Main Hall was also asked to consider whether the UK should apologise for its role in the 19th-century Opium Wars. Trading in opium turned a country on to the drug and altered the nation; and what about the morality of Scots involved?

That Scottish history is ready to explore both our suffering as well as the suffering we inflicted on others is laudable. But, as James Robertson pointed out when discussing his new work, a graphic novel about Robert the Bruce: "History is not a stable thing. We tend to think the past is one and fixed but the present influences the past and affects it as we learn more about it and discover it from a different perspective."

That all these panels had a historical aspect to them perhaps signifies not just how much we are looking back at the past but also demonstrated the ways we are doing so - with new breadth and depth.

The Herald and Sunday Herald are media partners of Aye Write!