WHEN Annalena McAfee began school, in London, her convent teachers were appalled at her accent. “I was asked to recite a nursery rhyme,” she recalls, wincing at the memory of her rendition of Wee Chookie Birdie.

Following that performance, “I was sent for immediate emergency elocution lessons”. Soon her Glaswegian parents found themselves living with a daughter who sounded nothing like them.

In McAfee's new novel, Hame, her narrator Mhairi is likewise "reprogrammed" at school, leading her father to mock her favourite new word: “At news of some minor inconvenience or disappointment, our father would draw himself up, flutter his eyelashes and utter, in the manner of, say, Billy Connolly playing Lady Bracknell: ‘How ghaaarstly!’ He would drag out my extended ‘a’ for a full four seconds as if retching.”

Loading article content

There might be echoes of her own father, McAfee admits, in the peppery, anti-English poet Grigor McWatt, around whom her story is told. There are even stronger shades of Hugh MacDiarmid, Scotland's thistliest literary champion who, she says, “was a household god, growing up. My dad knew the verse and admired the ‘Caledonian antisyzygy’ – ie being a contradictory bastard.” Mr McAfee, whose career included a spell as a policeman, enjoyed teasing her about her posh vowels. You might say that finally she is answering back, in a distinctly Scottish brogue.

Born in London in 1952, the youthful-looking McAfee has a gentle, cultured English accent and, to quote a description from her husband Ian McEwan’s novel Saturday, a face that is “a perfect oval, with eyes of pale green”. On a frosty bright morning, we meet in the scaffolded, polythene-shrouded Roxburghe Hotel near Edinburgh’s Charlotte Square. Breakfast, she says, was a banana and the offer of a bus to a nearby hotel. As we talk, though, it is not a full English she wants but coffee which, after a struggle with cardboard cups and half-empty dispensers, eventually materialises.

Self-deprecating, with a quick sense of humour, McAfee was an influential journalist and editor before turning full time to writing fiction. In her 32-year career, she worked for the Financial Times – where she interviewed McEwan, whom she married in 1997 – the Evening Standard and The Guardian.

Replete with map, glossaries, bibliography and recipes, Hame is as big as Ailsa Craig. Pile three together and you are on your way to building a wall. As its title suggests, its subject is the country that has infused her imagination from childhood. Those who bristle at a southerner presuming to write a book about Scotland should remember not only the author’s parentage, but that, if being able to write and speak Lallans, learning Gaelic and tuning in regularly to Scottish Language Radio is a benchmark, she is more Scottish than many on this side of the Border.

In her quiet, almost hushed voice, McAfee reflects on the fact that her father and mother – a Glasgow clippie – were proudly Scottish: “Because they were transplanted – they were both Scottish Nationalists, we used to wear the old SNP blue and silver badge on our blazers going to school – they had a sense of being embattled, and they kept the faith.”

But Scotland is the country of her childhood as well as theirs. Although McAfee has extended family in Northern Ireland, “the family that I knew – 19 first cousins, aunts and uncles on both sides – lived in Glasgow. There were five of us kids. I was the eldest. My brother and I would be put every holiday on a coach up to Glasgow to be met at the bus station by my aunt, and we would spend our holidays with her in a housing scheme on the edge of Glasgow, Gartcosh. We loved it. It was a place for us of great freedom. We were left to our own devices. I guess we were home alone a lot, my aunt worked, and we just liked the informal culture and the great sense of fun. So it was home.”

By the time McAfee married McEwan and became step-mother to his two sons, she had already published eight children’s novels. The first was written when she was recovering from cancer in her twenties, which recurred again in her thirties. “I am very fortunate,” she says, not wishing to dwell on it. It was not until she left journalism in 2006, however, that she embarked on her first adult novel, The Spoiler (2011). There was no hint in that satire of the newspaper world of the direction her writing would take next. What prompted such an ambitious and personal work?

“The starting point for me was actually the poetry,” she says, with obvious pleasure. “I’d been reading a lot of the Scots language debate, and seeing the growing power of that lobby. I have a tremendous affection and admiration for language – language, dialect, call it what you will. And the history of translation as well.” She laughs suddenly. “Old colleagues asked, ‘What’s your new book about?’ I hated talking about it. I hit on the perfect conversation killer. I said, ‘It’s about poetry and identity.’ The room cleared.”

That line is put into the mouth of her prickly Scots-Canadian Mhairi McPhail, an academic whose relationship has foundered. She leaves New York to take up a post on the island of Fascaray, a place so convincingly described, one feels sure it must be on the map. There she is to establish a museum in memory of the country's most important modern poet, Grigor McWatt, while writing his biography. She brings with her a bruised heart and her nine-year-old daughter Agnes, who steals every scene.

As its size suggests, Hame is not a simple or even an easy book. It is, however, bristling with life and passion and wit, and its evocation of landscape is superb. Copiously foot-noted, it is told variously in the form of Mhairi’s diaries, extracts from her biography, and from Grigor McWatt’s history of the island, and his newspaper columns. Like George Mackay Brown, McWatt’s weekly column was a chance to let off steam about issues of the day, or simply to rhapsodise about midges. Interleaved are McWatt’s Lallans translations of poems by the likes of Byron, Keats, Blake and Yeats. And then there are letters between McWatt and his lovelorn muse Lilias Hogg, who was desperate to marry him.

Anyone with a passing knowledge of Scottish poetry in the second half of the 20th century will recognise the parallels between Lilias and Stella Cartwright, the muse of the Rose Street poets. Notable among this group, which McAfee describes “as a sort of Bloomsbury of the North”, were the leading lights of post-war poetry: Norman MacCaig, Robert Garioch, Sidney Goodsir Smith, Iain Crichton Smith, Sorley MacLean and Mackay Brown, to whom Cartwright was thought to have been briefly engaged before she descended into alcoholism and penury. It is no surprise to learn that Sandy Moffat’s portrait, Poet’s Pub, was a “talisman” for McAfee while she wrote. The only figure missing from that smoke-filled scene is her fictional McWatt.

Of the original group, McAfee only knew two. “I did meet George Mackay Brown and Iain Crichton Smith. I met them in Orkney and found them courtly and sweet. Both delightful and gentle. Very gentle.” Neither seems to have coloured her portrayal of the perpetually aggrieved, fierily Nationalist McWatt, although McAfee rolls several other of the poets into one, and adds an extra spoonful of broken glass. His unfolding story, and the causes he espouses – stealing the Stone of Destiny, wind farms, American billionaire developers – minutely illuminate the course of Scottish political and cultural history since the Second World War.

What, then, drew her to these writers? “Well, that they were politically engaged as well. The Spanish Civil War. MacDiarmid, typical, being expelled from the Communist Party for being a Nationalist, being expelled from the National Party of Scotland, as it was then called, for being a Communist, sort of engaged, but engaged with a sense of opposition to the southern neighbour. It would have been very attractive. You could see how for a young girl, avid for art, this is it. Forget your pop stars.

“When I was 15, I was a member of The Poetry Society in London. So after school on a Friday, I would put on my black plastic mac, which I thought was very sophisticated, and get the tube to Earl’s Court, and just sit at the feet of these poets. They weren’t at all like [the Rose Street poets] – Stevie Smith, John Stallworthy, Derek Mahon. I would just be very quiet and sit and marvel, and then get the tube home.”

As Hame gathers pace, the tragedy of Lilias Hogg, aka Cartwright, emerges, a woman desperate for love, whose own literary talent was snuffed. McAfee describes how Cartwright idolised the poets, and had affairs with one or two, though with whom is not known.

“Norman [MacCaig] wrote this little verse to Stella Cartwright: ‘You put me on a pedestal according to my lights, but what you couldn't know, my dear, I have no head for heights.’ She carried that in her bag.”

Researching Cartwright, she stumbled on a revelation. The only picture she had of her was in Maggie Fergusson’s biography of Mackay Brown. Then she discovered a “crazy art film, called Palindrome”, by Maggie Tait, which was made in 1967. “Stella Cartwright is in it. It is so affecting to see it. She is in her mid twenties, before her real decline, which started when she was 27. You see this vital young woman, and maybe the sense that to be a woman poet was to be a tougher thing. She had ambitions. Her letters to George Mackay Brown are beautiful.”

Does she know why she did not pursue her writing? McAfee shrugs. “I don’t think she was encouraged. I think her value to the company would have been for her charms. Maybe not taken seriously ... Maybe she wouldn’t have made it, but I can’t help thinking she was cherished for her charm, maybe patronised.”

As the novel develops, the notion of identity grows more urgent and subtle, as her narrator Mhairi discovers. Does McAfee think you need to have been born somewhere, or live there, for your identity to be firmly allied to that place?

“It’s an interesting question. I saw a phrase the other day, somebody describing themselves as an affinity Scot. So in these days of identity politics – that remarkable woman in America who identified as a black person for many years – it’s not such a stretch for anyone on this tiny island to identify. But it’s such an attractive culture. And what’s been interesting over the years is its increasing confidence, and that’s been wonderful to watch. One would love to be a part of it.”

Shortly before the independence referendum on September 18, 2014, McAfee flew back to Glasgow from the United States, where she had been with her husband. “Obviously I don’t have a vote, because I'm not a resident, but one of my cousins had a very important appointment in Germany – Celtic were playing away – and I was able to convey his postal vote to the box.”

She is therefore an honorary Yes voter?

“You guessed!”

She has also been a subscriber to The National newspaper from its first day. McEwan, meanwhile, is pro-Union. One would be tempted to imagine heated dinner-time conversations, except the picture of their married life suggests little in the way of schism. McAfee describes their relationship as “companionable”, and is baffled that some presume they must be jealous of each other, or feel literary rivalry.

“Ian has given me fantastic encouragement. He is a fantastic role model.” Without newspaper deadlines, she adds, “it would be very easy to drift. But the example of Ian – who is very disciplined – as he says, he reports at his desk for duty every day.”

The couple divide their time between a small place in London and a house in the Cotswolds, where they mainly write. “We have it all set up, all our books. Separate studies, get up, meet for coffee, have breakfast, and then we go to our separate wing. Meet for lunch. Back to separate wings. In between, walking the dog, doing it in shifts, because he's a very demanding dog.”

Almost every aspect of McAfee’s life, it seems, is tied to Scotland. It’s as if her heart is wrapped in a Saltire. But would she be different if she had been brought up here?

“I think maybe it wouldn’t be an issue. To me it’s interesting because of course when my father’s father arrived from Antrim, and moved to Gartcosh, graffiti was painted on their house. Somebody told me it was ‘F*** the Pope’, but my aunt, who is the only survivor of that generation, who is 97, said it said ‘Down with the Pope’.”

The cottage was divided in two, with her grandfather’s family on one side and a Protestant family on the other, who had defaced their walls.

“My grandfather refused to paint it out. It’s on a hill, the house, and you could see it. The local minister asked him to get rid of it, and he refused. And the minister came and painted it. Not so good was my grandmother’s action, which was going under cover of darkness and cutting off the heads of orange lilies in the neighbours’ garden. So I guess identity then was more contested.”

Talking of the changing face of Scotland, she reflects, “But my uncle was the first Catholic procurator fiscal in Scotland. And since then, I think we’re all right now.”

The morning after we meet, McAfee is heading to Glasgow for a few days, where she and her brother Conn, a history teacher, will visit relatives, and attend the Celtic-Hearts game at Parkhead. “We go to Celtic,” she says, “because there is a little memorial plaque to my father, my uncle, one of my brothers, at Parkhead. I hope to be there one day.”

In a word, the very definition of hamecoming.

Hame is published by Harvill Secker, priced £16.99. Annalena McAfee will be at the Glasgow book festival Aye Write!, on March 12 at 1.15pm. The Herald and Sunday Herald are the event's media partners.