Monday, 20 April 2015

Penguin no. 362: Time Will Knit
by Fred Urquhart

He was terribly ambitious when you got married. But his ideas were greater than his deeds. He didn't try to put any of his plans into action. By the time he had finished dreaming and planning he had got tired of the plan and another idea had crowded it out of his head. He never did anything. He was nearly fifty before he really started to try to do things and then it was too late. He was too old and tired. Rearing a family and working for them had sapped all his strength and courage. Wattie should never have got married at all, really. Men like him, who want to help their fellow-men, shouldn't get married and have obligations. They should keep themselves free so that they'll be able to give all their attention to what they feel is their life's work.

Time Will Knit is about many things, but the idea expressed in the paragraph above - that it is the responsibilities which come with marriage and family life which undermine an individual's ability to achieve anything substantial - could be considered its main theme.  'Having bairns' would seem to be the explanation for virtually every ambition forsaken, and the reason why the working-class never make their way. I know little about Fred Urquhart, but I suspect I could surmise much - I have never read a novel published this early which was so sympathetic towards homosexuals, nor one that was so scathing about women distributing white feathers during the First World War.

Time Will Knit begins in 1929 with Grace's young son Spike leaving Kansas and setting out for Edinburgh to meet his mother's family for the first time. Grace had left Edinburgh when she herself was young and she has no expectation of seeing her parents again, but she wants them to meet Spike before they die. And Spike is keen to go, as he has dreams of being a sailor - like his mother's grandfather - and Edinburgh is where he intends to find a vessel to join. It is through his young American eyes that we see the familiar landmarks of Waverley Station and Princes Street, and that we learn of the idiosyncrasies of his Scottish relations.

Spike is very much like all the young people described in Time Will Knit: they are restless, and fired by plans and ambitions which have them determined to make their mark and intent on getting away from their home-towns. Their behaviour is contrasted with that of the elderly: they remember being the same way, but in time they found that few of those ambitions would ever be realised, and now they are content to stay where they are and live amongst their memories. Nothing interests the aged more than visits from those they have known over the years, and time spent reminiscing, so that their conversation tends to be mostly the same tales told over and over again.

There are many stories told in Time Will Knit, but the principal one is of Mirren and Wattie Gillespie's life together in the tiny cottage near Edinburgh's harbour which has been their home for nearly fifty years, a cottage that lacks running water and which is so small that it barely makes up a single room of a normal house. Now that they are elderly, the small cottage has become Mirren and Wattie's entire world; he can barely leave the living room on account of his rheumatics, and she hobbles about the best she can on feet which always ache. But even if leaving were possible, it's something they wouldn't choose to do: this small space has become the repository of a lifetime's memories, and memories are the only interest Mirren and Wattie now have.

And this is despite the fact that not all of their memories are pleasant ones. Of the six children they raised together, two are now dead, one has gone away, one is missing and presumed dead, and only two remain living locally. It is a tale about investing in offspring who grow up and leave, of the heartache that involves, and about what must be forsaken in order to bring those children up. Wattie wanted to change the world, but he achieved few of his ambitions and now he cannot leave his bed; many of his memories are about the things that he failed to achieve.

The inadequate sanitation of the cottages of harbour-side Harrisfield has been of concern to no one in authority for more than fifty years, but now the cottages have been condemned, and the residents required to move. Mirren and Wattie watch as one by one their neighbour 'flit' to the nearby tenements of Craigburn, holding out for as long as they can. They cling to what they have known, and the prospect of more space and an inside bathroom doesn't tempt them. They also have their doubts about the quality of their new neighbours.

Time Will Knit is narrated in the first person, but from a perspective which alters, so that some chapters have Spike giving his impressions, and others have Mirren or Wattie, or one of their children, recounting episodes in their lives. Gradually through this patchwork of impressions the family story across three generations is told: it is the story of Mirren and Wattie's life together, of the sons and daughters that went away and didn't return, of sons lost due to the First World War, and of a daughter left unmarried because so many young men her age had been killed on the battlefield.

Fred Urquhart doesn't romanticise the working-classes. Their coarse ways, their wildness, their drinking and gambling, and their wife-beating are all described, along with their snobberies. But he also describes the disadvantages they face, and their complicity in keeping themselves down.

It is a wonderful book - perhaps longer than it needs to be - but remarkable and interesting in many ways.

First published 1938. Published in Penguin Books 1943.

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