Magazine article The Spectator

Something Rich and Strange

Magazine article The Spectator

Something Rich and Strange

Article excerpt

HELLFIRE AND HERRING : A CHILDHOOD REMEMBERED by Christopher Rush Profile, £15.99, pp. 308, ISBN 101861979177 . £12.79 (plus £2.45 p&p) 0870 429 6655

It would be hard to exaggerate just how good -- or for those who have never read Christopher Rush -- what a surprise and relief this book is. In the usual course of events there are few things to lower the spirits like a Scottish memoir, but here in the generosity, invention, compassion and wit of a story of an east coast childhood is the perfect antidote to that melancholy, long, withdrawing roar of the crofting world that seems to form the dismal staple of contemporary Scottish memory.

Christopher Rush was born in St Monans on the east coast of Scotland in 1944, the son of a local girl and an English brute of a father just back from the war.

Through Rush's tale of a childhood Eden slithers this reptilic drunk of a father, but in the very nature of the 'insular and matriarchal' community that the old St Monans was, it is inevitably his mother's presence and his mother's family -- alive and dead -- who make up the vividly bizarre reality of his infant world.

And what a world it is! A world of crazies and fanatics, of seers, second-sighters and apparitions, a world suspended somewhere between the eternal and the actual, between the Calvinist certainties of the next world and the cold, boils, piles, hardships and beatings that are the only certainties of this. It would be forgivable in anyone to find such a childhood congealed into the stuff of real hatred, and yet the largeness of this book and the triumph of Rush's prose transmute it all -- Papists, Presbyterians, Congregationalists, Open Brethren, Closed Brethren, Fergusson's Brethren, father, lunatics, suicides, child-flogging teachers and the whole mad lot of them -- into something startlingly rich and strange.

'Someone once said, ' Rush notes with a possessive affection, 'that heaven lies all about us in our infancy, but from what I recall, it was more like growing up in a Bosch boneyard.' He was not exaggerating.

No town could have been safer for a child, perhaps, but no town either could have boasted a higher percentage of madmen and mad women. There was Honeybunch for a start, dirty, crazed, beautiful, and harmless as they come, lying naked on a tombstone while the 80-year-old sexton hosed her down to the strains of 'Rock of Ages' and a small boy watched. …

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