Broadly framed by a retrospective exhibition of the work of acclaimed photographer Angus Pendreich, And The Land Lay Still is a vivid and ambitious portrait of post-War Scotland.
The photographs chronicle Scottish life over 50 years, from post-war austerity and slow reconstruction, to small moments of history, including, apparently the return to Scotland of the Stone of Scone, brought alive by the magical Angus Angle. The angle is a way of capturing a scene obliquely, revealing truths through observations just a little removed from the centre of action, something at which James Robertson is a master.
This is a novel of remarkable sweep, and considerable self-confidence. On page 200, Robertson begins with a short sentence: "This was Scotland in 1950." What follows is a two-page paragraph listing details of a half-forgotten world...
...this was the land of few cars and no seat belts, no motorways but a railway station in every toen of any size, and marshalling yards full of wagons laden with coal and iron and timber and grain... the land of no swings on the Sabbath, no Polaris submarines in Holy Loch... no duvets, no drip-dry shirts, no tracksuits and trainers; the land of semmits and girdles and long, aching cold Januaries... of Pansy Potter, Wuzzy Wiz, Plum McDuff and Biffo the Bear... and the Edinburgh festival was a three year old bairn just learning to talk in a foreign language."
It is the world of miners and gangsters, activist and spies, housewives and matriarachs. Some live mundane lives, others shape the nation. Some veer close to being archetypes - you just know the Tory MP will end up the self-immolating victim of John Major's hapless Back to Basics war on sleaze - but all have a richness that reflects Robertson's compelling sympathy for 'ordinary' people.
For many reasons Mike Pendreich finds the challenge of writing an introductory essay on his father intimidating, not the least being that his own work lacks his father's magic. As Jean, one of Angus's women, and a focal point for Bohemian, radical Edinburgh explains: "Stories aren't static, Mike. That's what we were talking about earlier. They grow, they shrink, they change with the retelling."
One thread, of course, is the very future of Scotland. Back in the Fifties, honest but battered Don is talking with damaged Japanese POW Jack.
"Full blown independence, that's the thing."
"Canna see there's much appetite for that," Don said. "Why would ye go doon that road, after all we've been through together?"
Later, earnest fighters will argue over the detail, whether is it is to be dev-olution or dee-volution; others will take lives in the struggle.
And the Land Lay Still is a magnificent achievement. Robertson has put enormous effort into his research, but his empathy and insight carries through many gripping, entwined stories, interlacing real tragedy with a dry humour.
Billy gulped at his pint. He glanced at the bar and caught sight of their awkward grouping in the mirror. The grey, anxious-looking one was himself. Joy of Sex man without the beard, the joy, or the sex. All he wanted to do was drink up and go.
It is a complicated work, one that could easily have been delivered as three, even four separate novels, and it requires concentration to stay familiar with a sweep of characters that rivals, say Anthony Powell's Dance to the Music of Time.
And The Land Lay Still makes you think. And when you think, remember this advice:
In retrospect is better than with hindsight. In retrospect suggests sustained reflection, coherent analysis. With hindsight says you'd have done things differently if only you'd fucking known.