Scottish publisher invites us to rediscover the brilliance of John Herdman

John HerdmanJohn Herdman
John Herdman
Scottish author’s inspirational and important works are being republished for the e-book generation, writes Angus Howarth

Despite a five-decade publishing history, literary awards and abundance of critical praise stretching back over that same period, it’s easy to be a forgotten writer in the digital age. John Herdman’s first book was published in 1968, by The Fiery Star Press, and between then and 2013 Herdman published over 15 titles, all to acclaim. Handwritten or delivered as a typed manuscript however, and set using the customary methods of the day, Herdman is one of a generation of writers whose work does not exist in any digital format. It makes republishing these books a considerable challenge.

Perhaps we have been conditioned in the internet age to feel that what is important is what is happening now, this very hour. Publishers are always looking for the next big thing, but drop their writers after two or three books, making the idea of a career as a novelist more precarious than ever. In the decades to come we’ll begin to see how unusual a 50-year career in writing is, and how valuable too. No writer and no literature is an island, and these bodies of work even if they are not in print, are essential to anyone interested in their culture.

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Peter Burnett of Edinburgh’s Leamington Books, is the originator of the new Gothic World Literature Editions imprint, and one of the imprint’s first jobs is republishing some of the key works by John Herdman.

“It isn’t about reviving the past,” says Burnett. “It’s about never losing sight of inspirational and important works that have shaped our national literature. To quote Gustav Mahler: ‘Tradition is not the worship of ashes, but the preservation of fire.’”

John Herdman belongs to a generation of writers that are loosely associated with the world left by Hugh MacDiarmid. MacDiarmid not only encouraged pride and interest in our national languages, but in our nation as an independent political entity, and Herdman began to write in the 1960s, an era when MacDiarmid’s ideas were beginning to form more popular roots. The idea of Scottish independence at that time was still strange, and deeply unfashionable – the opposite of what it is today. Despite this, Herdman was a prominent figure in the nascent independence movement of the 1960s and 70s, an era well documented in his 2013 memoir Another Country, from Thirsty Books.

Herdman’s own roots as a writer dig further back than the so-called Scottish Renaissance, however, and are planted within a wider European tradition, which has its grounds in the psychological dramas of James Hogg, Dostoyevsky, Sheridan LeFanu as well as the exuberant narratives of Robert Louis Stevenson.

Herdman is not just the final living scion of this tradition, but its summation. His finest books, A Truth Lover (1973), Clapperton (1974), Pagan’s Pilgrimage (1978), Imelda (1993), Ghostwriting (1995) and The Sinister Cabaret (2001) are dark charnel houses of lost personalities, morbid stories of self-discovery populated by curses, faded hopes and roll replete with dream imagery. As suggested by Herdman’s own elegant and masterful study The Double in Nineteenth Century Fiction (1990), this is not a specifically Scottish world, but influenced by an entirety of far wider traditions. Tellingly, this is what first drew publisher and author Peter Burnett to the work.

“As most of John Herdman’s writing was published between the 70s and the early 2000s, and remained largely out of print, I realised there were no digital versions of his books,” he says. “I can think of many writers to whom this applies. Emma Tennant may be one such, and another may be the former BBC Controller, Stuart Hood. I think it would be a great use of time and resources to digitise these works. I took a huge interest in Imelda when it was published in 1993. Everyone else was reading Trainspotting, but for me personally, I found my calling as a writer and publisher in John Herdman’s Imelda, which was for my money, funnier, darker and weirder by far than anything published in Scotland in that decade.”

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Without doubt, Scottish writing took on a new direction in 1993 when Trainspotting was published. Fuelled by the possibilities of a new-look Scotland, best characterised by a combination of national shame summed up by Renton’s famous “It’s shite being Scottish! We’re the lowest of the low!” speech, and sudden access to word processing quickly democratising the creative process, Scottish writing took a new and at times chaotic direction.

“Trainspotting was new and genuinely exciting,” says Burnett, “but as time went on, the whole cult around it, including its many imitators, became such a drag. That book ended up through no fault of its own eclipsing a lot of what else was going on. Imelda, for example, was published by Polygon in the same year, 1993. Polygon’s list at that time was way more inspirational than that one book. It was at Polygon that I found the books that would continue to matter to me. Stewart Home’s Pure Mania, Robert Alan Jamieson’s A Day at the Office, and there was Frank Kuppner too, whom I continue to admire. That wasn’t the road that we as a literary culture took, however.”

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Trying to redress this and keep some of these books in print is a challenge. First, the paperback book needs to be scanned, then that scan is run through an optical character recognition (OCR) system. “OCR is exceptionally advanced,” says Burnett, “but only to about 99 percent efficient. This means checking the output character by character and then formatting the result several times for different platforms and functions. The result, however, is something for perpetuity – a definitive digital version of the work. We’ve found that anyone with an interest in Scottish literature is grateful to be able to access books like Imelda now, and there are many Kindle and eReader users who are delighted to discover extremely accomplished and entertaining writers like Herdman. You really begin to notice how the actual craft of writing as a skill has declined. John’s books are just that – immaculately crafted in a way you just don’t see any more. Not in this country, anyway.”

The question begged here concerns how much we value not just our current crop of writers, but how much we want to preserve and export our tradition. Digitally is of course the best way to export this, and early sales of the eBook of Imelda have been strong in North America, for example. “This is because John’s books are seen in North America as a part of a thing they identify as a strong Scottish heritage,” says Burnett. “When it comes to Scottish writing, North American readers are much more interested in a time-served writer like John Herdman, than they are in the ‘next-big-thing’ style of writer, who cannot make much of an impact there.”

Strangely enough, the same applies to continental Europe. “It might be pertinent to wonder why,” says Burnett, “when Imelda has been published in French and Italian, it is only now being re-published in English and in Scotland? Or why, after it received unanimous rave reviews on its first appearance, it was then quietly forgotten by anyone writing about contemporary Scottish literature? It may indeed be the ‘Trainspotting effect’, but I tend to view it as a kind of panic, an emphasis on getting the latest thing, regardless of its merit. Publishers in Scotland still market their books comparing them to Trainspotting – but that will soon be 30 years old itself. Sometimes it’s as if nothing has happened in all those years. Books are published and then disappear almost as quickly as the snow off the proverbial dyke.”

A full circle has been navigated, from the earliest years of the 20th Century, when MacDiarmid single-handedly forged his own idea of a “national literature” – to having that dissolved in the acid bath of post-modernity to take on a vaguely rootless aspect. Now, if there is even such a thing as “Scottish literature” it simply exists as another voice in a world based in (and marketed on the basis of) many different types of identity. “I don’t really hear people talking about ‘Scottish literature’ much anymore,” says Burnett. “Scotland doesn’t quite know what to do, not only with its heritage, but also the new books that are coming out as we head into the middle of the 21st Century.”

Herdman himself commented on this: “Book reviewing in the days when I started writing was unimaginably different from how things are now. In the first place, all the Scottish newspapers, including regional ones, reviewed as many Scottish publications as they could, and they did so because they saw it as part of their cultural function and duty to do so.

“The quality of the reviewing was also very often extremely serious and truly discerning. There was also a wealth of Scottish literary journals and small magazines (not a few of them also having modest book publishing arms) which felt similarly and often published lengthy and perceptive critiques of contemporary writing. That was the cultural context in which, to give one example, Pagan’s Pilgrimage received no less than nine reviews. Very few of such journals now exist, and newspapers have simply abrogated this responsibility.”

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Imelda by John Herdman is published by Gothic World Literature Editions on 14 July. It is the first of three John Herdman reprints being made by Gothic World Literature Editions. Each title will exist in eBook format, in audio-book format, as a print on-demand book, and in a special collector’s “Edinburgh Edition”. For more information, visit

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