“To escape from the darkness of the ghetto-mind, especially if you had been imprisoned in it for over forty years, you had to be ruthless as well as reckless. Whether you were to be condemned or congratulated would depend on what use you made of your freedom.”
Mungo Jenkins, a married man in his 40s decides to run off to Barcelona with Myra. They’ve been involved in an affair now for some time, and independently wealthy Myra pushes Mungo to leave his wife and three children; it’s now or never.
Mungo was born in the slums of Glasgow’s Culdean Street, “still today one of the scruffiest in the east end, and had been brought up by a half-mad old aunt said to be a rag-dealer.” Mungo is now an insurance superintendent for a small company. He married Bess, a factory worker, 24 years earlier, and they have three children together: Andrew, Peggy and Billy. Mungo has long stopped loving his wife. In fact he can’t stand her:
God knew he looked for nothing fancy in a woman of forty-six who had borne three children. He did not expect her to tint or dye her hair, but was there any need for it to be always so drab and untidy? She said she couldn’t afford hairdressers, slimming biscuits, expensive girdles, and flattering clothes, as well as a son at University and a daughter in the sixth form. That was all true enough, but surely she should have learned, in her twenty-four years of marriage to him, that the truth ought never to be used as a skulking-place? Then in her almost revengeful deterioration she had taken to leaving out her false teeth at night, because, so she claimed, keeping them in gave her inflamed gums,. Those shrunken kisses in the dark, demanded so coyly, had revolted him more and more. They were made worse too by her recounting, with inane laughter, some trivial gossip of house, street, shop, or whist-table.
Mungo thinks he could have gone so much farther in life without his wife and children, but now “he might be held captive until death by the innumerable coils of sheer commonplace habit.” Determined to announce his departure, Mungo, unwittingly chooses the worse time to abandon his family. Bess has cancer. …
A Very Scotch Affair follows the fallout of Mungo’s departure: the repercussions on his children and also the reactions of the family’s friends and neighbours. While Mungo thinks rather highly of his abilities, this view is perhaps not as accurate as Mungo would like to believe, and unfortunately, Bess’s adoring love has helped sustain Mungo in his conceit. While Andrew, involved in a mess of his own, doesn’t seem to blame his dad for abandoning the family, Billy, the youngest at age 12 hates his father, and when Mungo announces his decision to desert his wife and children, Billy reveals close observations of his father’s intellectual “fraud.”
All those books in the bookcase through in the sitting-room, he couldn’t even read them and they’re in English. He would take one, look at it, and then put it back. He’d do that with half a dozen. Then he’d sit down with one and try to read it, but after a wee while he’d drop it and read a newspaper instead.
And then there’s Peggy, an unusual young woman, circled with an aura of sadness, who has made an art of accepting the limitations of human behaviour.
Set in a poor protestant Glasgow neighbourhood rife anti-catholic sentiments, the book contains some colourful secondary characters: Bess’s mean-spirited friend widowed Flo, a woman who “refused to make an iota of allowance for inevitable human shortcomings.” She is being courted by the widower Mr Peffermill, whose “prim, self-importance” and circumspect behaviour hide a vicious mind. When Mungo runs off to Barcelona, he doesn’t just desert his wife and children, he deserts his class. Most of the residents of the close knit neighbourhood, united in their poverty and common values, are appalled by Mungo’s behaviour. Bess is very popular in the neighbourhood:
Her laughter and smiles brought smiles and well-disposed remarks even from those whose luck was out. It was like having a fire to sit at, on a snowy night, just listening to Bess Niven laugh.
The book contains some (very small amount) Glaswegian dialect which may be difficult for non-English readers.
A Very Scotch Affair is marvellous. When the book opens, Mungo justifies his actions to himself, but the plot gradually reveals the unreliability of Mungo’s argument plus the fallout of his selfishness. When we meet Bess, yes fat, yes, dowdy, we meet a woman whose warmth, generosity of spirit, and love radiant to everyone.
In the small hallway, as he took off his hat and coat, he looked about him at the pathetic evidences of Bess’s unimaginative home-making; the red candles in their tin holders on the wall, the picture of red and white roses bought at the Barrows, the patched carpet, and the brass jug useless for anything but keeping Billy’s marbles in.
“That you, Mungo?” she cried from the living-room.
“Aye.” He smelled egg and sausage, baked in the oven, one of his favourite dishes. She would have spent time and care seeing it was just as he liked it. Aye but she never read a book from one year’s end to the other, and did her best to keep him from reading any.
Mungo isn’t really running away from his wife; he’s running away from himself. And of course, there are some tough lessons ahead, and while Mungo pays a price, others pay even more for his immense selfishness. And Mungo’s selfishness is incredible. He justifies his actions repeatedly, and everything is about Mungo. Even in the face of his wife’s illness and his decision to desert her in the time of her (and his children’s) greatest need, he’s the one who feels that he needs support and comfort. For this reader, Mungo is added to the list of literary villains.
A Very Scotch Affair will make my best-of-year list.
Here’s Kim’s review: