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Neil Gunn and the Silver screen test

EVEN as a young boy growing up in fin de siecle Caithness Neil Gunn could sense that a way of life was fading fast.

The land on which so much depended could no longer sustain the people who slaved on it and increasingly they turned to fishing, which was no less hard and infinitely more dangerous.

Gunn's father was the captain of a herring boat and the boy who would become one of our finest novelists grew up in a close-knit society which, while in many respects edenic, was all too aware that what the Lord was pleased to give he was always prepared to take away. Then as now the sea was a fickle field to harvest.

This sense of precariousness, of temporality, of injustice, runs river-like through Gunn's work. This is nowhere more apparent than in his great novel, The Silver Darlings, whose title is a homage to the glittering fish which his and countless other families relied on for their survival. That it may now be made into a film is welcome news, not only because it is overdue but also because Gunn's reputation is in sore need of an adrenalin rush.

My own copy of The Silver Darlings, a blue-jacketed Faber paperback, shows all the signs of having been read until it's about to disintegrate. I first read it in the 1970s, perhaps even in 1973, the year Gunn died aged 81, and I was, as they say, blown away. As Flower Power began to run out of steam, Gunn seemed to me to combine the best of the Hermans Hesse and Melville. It was obvious that he knew intimately the milieu in which the novel was situated. Yet he brought more to the table than stark realism and inside knowledge. There was a spiritual air to his prose which is not easy to put one's finger on.

Suffice it to say, that when Norman MacCaig used to describe himself – not entirely seriously but not always jokingly either – as a "zen Calvinist" I always thought of Neil Gunn.

By then, though, Gunn was no longer on the literary scene and, as is often the case, his books soon disappeared from bookshop shelves. In 1981, however, he enjoyed something of a revival when Francis Hart and John Pick published their biography of him. From it one learned a lot.

That he had, for example, worked as a customs and excise officer, like Burns, and that from 1923 to 1937, when he turned full-time to writing, he had managed a Highland distillery, all of which was grist to his mill.

The first of his 20 or so novels was The Grey Coast, which appeared in 1926. Eventually the company which published it was taken over by Faber, among whose directors was TS Eliot. Gunn was an admirer of The Waste Land and, it's clear, the respect was mutual. In 1935, Eliot, accompanied by other Faber representatives, visited Gunn at his home in Inverness in the hope of pointing him towards more marketable material.

"I have never tasted mutton like this," Eliot or one of his companions is reported as saying, which can be taken as a compliment or its opposite.

The appearance in 1941 of The Silver Darlings cemented Gunn's relationship with Faber. Has it ever been allowed to fall out of print?

I believe not. Nor should it. Like all masterpieces it has an evergreen quality which defies fashion and contains eternal truths. Why it has never been filmed before I do not know, though ignorance may have played its part. There is, too, an awful predictability about what reaches screens large and small.

Here, therefore, are 10 terrific novels which I dare our filmmakers to embrace: Docherty by William McIlvanney, The Girls of Slender Means by Muriel Spark, A Question of Loyalty by Allan Massie, Sir Walter Scott's Redgauntlet, Eric Linklater's Magnus Merriman, Clara by Janice Galloway, John Buchan's Sick Heart River, A Disaffection by James Kelman, Candia McWilliam's A Case of Knives and James Robertson's And the Land Lay Still. Lack of space precludes me from adding many, many more. There is no fee for this service.

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