Book review: Mister Timeless Blyth, by Alan Spence

Inspired by the author’s immersion in Japanese culture, this is a rich and wonderful novel, writes Allan Massie

A long time ago, in 1978 or ’79, the young Alan Spence published Its Colours They Are Fine, a series of linked short stories about a Glasgow childhood and youth, which I reviewed for The London Magazine, and thought then – and still think – one of the finest pieces of Scottish fiction of the second half of the 20th century. Sometime later there was a fine Glasgow novel, The Magic Flute. By this time the Presbyterian, Boys’ Brigade Spence had become interested, then more than interested, in Buddhism, especially Zen, and despite later being professor of creative writing at Aberdeen University, director of the Word book festival and later Edinburgh’s Makar, seemed out of the mainstream of Scottish literature today. Well, he is, I suppose, the only Scottish writer to have been awarded the Order of the Rising Sun by the government of Japan.

His career has been a long and interesting journey and it is now splendidly capped by this rich and wonderful novel, the ripe fruit of his immersion in Japanese culture. It is a biographical novel, the life-story of Reginal Horace Blyth, told in his own words as supplied by Spence. These words are utterly convincing. So much so that, in my ignorance, I had never heard of Blyth and had to consult the Encyclopaedia to see if he really existed.

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Well, he did indeed. Born and brought up in a London suburb, his father was a railway worker, and his love of English literature was stimulated by a teacher. Then, a conscientious objector in World War I and imprisoned for this, he survived to have a university education and qualify as a teacher. Well-versed in English literature, his interest in Buddhism took him East with Annie, his first wife. He found a teaching job in Korea, then occupied and governed by Japan. Though remaining stoutly English in some respects, always dressed in tweed suits, he accommodated himself more than happily to this new culture; he would write a book on Zen in English Literature which, I guess, might still be worth reading. Annie was less happily settled – he irritated her by his invariable response to her complaints and criticism by saying in Zen fashion “there is a story” or quoting a haiku.

Alan Spence PIC: Lisa FergusonAlan Spence PIC: Lisa Ferguson
Alan Spence PIC: Lisa Ferguson

She returned to England with a Korean boy they had adopted, and divorce followed. He removed to Japan where influential friends found him a university post. He married a Japanese girl; they had two daughters. When war with the USA and Britain broke out after Pearl Harbour, he was interned as an enemy alien. He survived, not treated too badly. After the war influential friends, chief among them an anti-militarist Admiral, saw his value. He had meetings, admirably presented, with the American proconsul General MacArthur and with the Emperor Hirohito, and was invited to tutor the Crown Prince. Then he was one of those who skilfully drafted the speech in which the Emperor renounced his divinity, this enabling Japan to move towards democracy. All this is excellently done.

As the story reached the war years I wondered how Spence would handle the horrifying contrast between the beautiful life and Zen philosophy of the Japan Blyth loved (and he himself loves), and the abominable cruelty with which the Japanese treated Allied prisoners-of-war – among them my father and uncle – not to mention the conquered people of China, Malaya and elsewhere. He does so honestly, shrinking from nothing while at the same time reminding us of the horror of the American bombing of Tokyo and other cities, culminating in the dropping of the atom bomb on Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

This is a remarkable novel and Blyth’s part in the reconstruction of Japan is fascinating. Spence has made Blyth live, even if his realization of him and identification with him are such that I found myself seeing the author’s own face coming between me and his subject. Perhaps the last section, a long meditation by Blyth, rich in memories of Shakespeare and other English poets as he dies slowly of a brain tumour, might advantageously have been cut somewhat. This is a minor criticism of an extraordinary novel, however. It is the ripe fruit of his life and if I impertinently say it is the complete justification of the road he has travelled, this is because looking back with wonder and affection on Its Colours They Are Fine, I have sometimes regretted the path he has followed and the road he did not take. Writers do what they must and what he has done is magnificent.

Mister Timeless Blyth, by Alan Spence, Tuttle, 383pp, £12.99

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