Kirsty Gunn: Unsettling warmth and the world in flux has left me with a chilly feeling

George Saunders, winner of the Booker Prize.  Photo: Chris Jackson/Getty
George Saunders, winner of the Booker Prize. Photo: Chris Jackson/Getty
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The roadside daisies were still blooming in ­Sutherland, and harebells and buttercups even, when I was up on the hills. This past weekend, when we’re well into October by now, makes me think – as we’re all thinking more and more these days – about what’s happening to the weather.

Those hurricane winds that were predicted, the strange yellow light over the Cairngorms. No wonder the papers and tv were so excited. For a few hours it seemed as though the country might go into some sort of climate change meltdown.

Remember the Great Storm of 87! the headlines ran, just to help get us into the whole disaster movie mood – what’s the new one that’s just out, Geostorm? You could almost feel the collapse, disappointment even, that apart from some pretty awful looking damage in Dumfries, the wind gusts couldn’t have been just a bit more of a drama.

Still, it’s been an odd time, with the weather being generally so mild everywhere – down in London it’s been positively soupy – and it makes us feel strange when the days are getting shorter and we’re ­hurtling into the dark. As though everything’s in flux – that, along with the Brexit train wreck that adds to our sense of uncertainty about the future. Nothing seems safe. It’s as though politics altogether has come to be increasingly about politicians thinking more about their own ­profile than their party’s or the country’s.

Sometimes it looks to me like a beauty contest – do we ­really want Ruth Davidson entering the Great British Bake Off? ­Nicola ­Sturgeon spinning fairy stories about state owned energy? – as in back in the dark ages when all the bikini wearing contestants were asked what they’d most like to do with their lives, apart from ­helping children, of course, oh, and ­saving the world. Except that they’re not in bikinis, politicians. They’re ­supposed to be looking after the country, not parading around ­saying look at me.

Really, the world seems past ­saving, sometimes. I was thinking that, up in the lovely north, going off into the hills but seeing nothing but wind turbines everywhere. So we’ve been voted The Most Beautiful Country in the World by some Rough Guide poll? Well, you can bet your bottom tourist dollar none of the pictures running in the travel campaigns will have great ­monstrous white spinning turbines in them.

Beautiful to those Rough Guide voters means unspoilt. Wild. Unchanged by human interference. The great environmentalist and nature writer Barry Lopez has said that the North American Indians believe that anything we do to the landscape should be done thinking about how it will affect the ­seven generations who will follow us.

What might it be like for them – not only your children, but their children’s children and theirs – to have whole swathes of beautiful country turned over into one giant industrial precinct? It’s quite a thought. Surely no one in the ­Scottish Government awarding subsidies to build even more of the things – and stick them all over parts of the country thinking the voters can’t see them – are thinking about the generations to come. They’re only thinking about themselves again, and how “renewable” sounds like something that will get you elected.

A publisher friend from London was up in Sutherland recently on his bike – part of a project to cycle around the whole of the British isles – and cornered my husband at the Frankfurt Book Fair.

“I had no idea it was like THAT, where you are up there!” he said. “Oh my GOODNESS!” He thought he knew Britain, he said, but he’d never been ­anywhere as remote and extraordinary as Sutherland and Caithness – the two counties ­designated for more Red Zone wind turbine development than any ­other.

The whole world should know about that, he continued, the effect of that kind of development. The shame of it. Shame indeed.

The Book Fair always precedes the Booker Prize announcement and this year’s winner didn’t ­surprise anyone, I think. George Saunders is a terrific writer and while I haven’t read this novel, I can vouch for his imaginative reach and the supple, surprising qualities of his sentences based on having always read his short stories. They veer in and out of a mimetic show of reality to a crazed, speculative display of a ­fantasy world.

It’s for novels, though, the Booker, not stories – and apparently all the publishers at Frankfurt were ­talking about how hard it is to ­publish ­fiction generally these days.

People are just not interested in the imagination, apparently. If you want to write fiction that sells you have to fit it in with reality – those politics again, the state of the nation, people who’ve been in the news.

Maybe that’s why so many of the recent Booker winners have been novels with what I call the ‘about’ factor – based on something real. Just as Saunders captured a readership and a big award with a ­novel ‘about’ Abraham Lincoln. Past ­winners have written books ‘about’ Bob Marley (Marlon James’ A Brief History of Seven Killings) or the ­Second World War against the ­Japanese (Richard Flanagan’s The Narrow Road to the Deep North )and the double bill Mantel win with her novels based around Cromwell and the late Medieval age.

Nothing wrong with that, ­necessarily, but what a shame that publishers are relying on fact to sell fiction. Saunders’ strange unsettling short stories are about worlds ­conjured from his mind, while in Lincoln in the Bardo, the conjuring act starts with a person everyone has heard of. It helps.

So, the times they are a changin’. When I drove up north, they were still working on the new road just out of Aviemore and when I came back down again, suddenly there it was, all done.

I’d never seen so many dead ­creatures all along the A9 – tiny deer folded up like origami on the verge, and larger animals that had been knocked sideways by cars and ­lorries, countless pheasants, their broken wings flapping in the wind like they were still half alive...

Then I was up on the ‘Pass with the most eerie light ever trapping a whole line of cars to a standstill in a sort post-apocalyptic trance. Like the most intense pre-snow light, only it was so warm it could have been summer.

My little dog, ­sitting in the back seat, took one look through the ­window, put back her head and gave out the strangest moan.