More than 20 years ago Alistair Moffat returned to his calf-country from a successful career in television. Since then, from his farmhouse and a few fields just out of Selkirk he has written more than 20 books. Most have been works of history, and, though the subject matter has been varied, all have a common theme: the past, no matter how distant, still lives; it can be recovered by investigation, imagination and sympathy. To be ignorant of that past, which is both man-made and natural, or to be indifferent to it, is self-limiting; to be open to it enriching. Moffat retrieves what is gone, speculates on what he finds; he is a great teacher.
His Secret History is the diary of a year, not happily the year of plague we have endured, but, I think, the year before Covid had us locked down. It’s a daily record of life in the country as he walks his fields and woods, notebook and pencil ready in his pocket, young West Highland terrier at his heels. Whatever he sees invites thought. With the help of two friends he seeks treasure – not for wealth but for knowledge of what was. Writing once about two of his Borders forerunners, I suggested that for Scott, as a boy by Smailholm Tower, the past was a narrative, for Hogg in the upper reaches of Ettrick, past and present were co-existing. Moffat partakes of both these understandings. Alert though he is to change and to the world we have lived into, he is forever in search of time that is lost and can be recovered. It is also enthralling.
Family memories, especially of his beloved grandmother Bina, of whom he has written in other books, jostle with memories of the Middle Ages, the Reiving days, English invasions and Roman legionaries, Celtic saints, distant people who lived on this ground and have left few memorials, often indeed none, while on other days he concerns himself with the world his beloved grandchildren will inherit.
This is as it should be. If, as LP Hartley put it in that often cited line, the past is another country where they do things differently, so, even more foreign is the future. Yet the view of history as a different land where nothing need be wholly lost surely offers some hope for what is to come. Moffat is aware that he will himself come in time to belong to the past. This book, like his earlier ones, should ensure that in a sense he survives. Death as seen by him is not, or never necessarily, extinction. This being a diary, many may choose simply to dip in here and there. That’s usually how we treat diaries. All the same, this one will yield still more if read from first day to the end of the year.
Covid came upon is, and, locked-down, Moffat diverted himself by starting a novel, originally on the internet. He might modestly call it “a shocker,” John Buchan’s term for his adventure novels. Well, it’s a very good shocker. It presumes a Nazi victory and a British surrender in the Second World War. Others, Len Deighton and C J Sansom, have played this game before. Moffat’s originality is to place the German victory and occupation of Britain in 1944/5, not 1940, and the device that makes this possible, even after a vivid account of the D-Day landings, is ingeniously plausible.
There follows a Resistance movement, and if his hero and heroine are a trifle wooden, this doesn’t matter. It’s what they do, not what they are, that makes for a fine galloping story.
Like Buchan he knows that action must be interrupted by quiet passages and he offers these by dwelling lovingly on the scenery and atmosphere of the Borders and St Andrews. There are brutal, chilling, and all too credible moments, but these are offset by a fine railway adventure (which would surely have been seized on by Hitchcock) and a sort of Home Guard defiance of the villains which recalls Rat’s preparations for the expulsion of the stoats and weasels from Toad Hall.
Altogether, it’s a fine act of homage to Buchan. Comfort reading, whether we are subjected to another lockdown or lucky enough to escape that.
The Secret History of Here, by Alistair Moffat, Canongate, 377pp, £20.00
The Night Before Morning, by Alistair Moffat, Birlinn, 256pp, £8.99
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