Thursday, March 4, 2021

Tang - J. J. Haldane Burgess

It's a happy coincidence that I've finished this in time for World Book Day as I can't think of a more appropriate title to be discussing for it.

Tang, a dialect word for sea weed that grows above the low water mark according to the Shetland Words Dictionary) is the first book to come from Northus Shetland Classics project. It's aim is to bring back into print keystones of Shetland's literature in the form of stories, poems, memoires, and non fiction. I have a lot of love for this as a concept, not just in relation to Shetland, although that does have a particular resonance for me, but more generally for the change in focus to something it would be easy to dismiss as parochial. 

I didn't actually know much about J. J. Haldane Burgess before I read this, which is kind of surprising. He was apparently instrumental in the development of Up Helly Aa (which we were taught about at school in Shetland, as well as experiencing) a well known poet in his day, and generally seems to have been the kind of man that we should have been learning about as a local hero. As it is I've gleaned a little bit of information from Brydon Leslie's introduction, a wikipedia page, and Mark Ryan Smith's 'The Literature of Shetland'.

Burgess had a promising start in life as an academic over achiever. He studied divinity in Edinburgh where he apparently disagreed with certain doctrines, and then lost his sight. After this he returned to Shetland where he carried on writing poetry, history, and novels, became a Marxist, and a noted linguist amongst other things. 

Even having freshly discovered all these details, along with my general enthusiasm for the Northus series, I was at best expecting a book which would be more interesting than entertaining - which is as good an example of the general prejudices around works written in dialect as any I suppose. 'Tang' gave me a lot more than I deserved. It's not just entertaining, it's funny, and wise, and full of ideas and arguments. It's also really accessible for a book that uses so much dialect thanks to Burgess being the sort of author who thought to give the English meaning of a word in brackets next to the dialect when you couldn't reasonably work it out from context.

I initially assumed this was something that the publisher must have done, but he assures me not. I've read a reasonable amount of work that uses dialect and without fail they've all relied on a glossary, or notes, which break the flow of the narrative if you stop to refer to them, and leave you floundering if you don't. This solution is so much more reader friendly, and makes it a lot easier to recommend this book to people who are not familiar with Shetland dialect. 

Tang takes place in the fictional village of Norwik, around 1898 (when it was written). There's a new minister and his mother in the village, the laird's daughter is coming back from the school she's been at in Edinburgh, and Inga Bolt, the shopkeepers daughter, has returned from a lengthy stay with Family on another island. 

Inga is easily the prettiest girl in the village and (my assessment of her is kinder than Mark Ryan Smith's) seems to have a good nature that mirrors her looks. Most of the local boys are in love with her, which she's aware of and enjoys, but has been careful not to encourage. These include her cousin, Hakki Perk who is the local teacher, Bob Ertirson an intense young fisherman, and his best friend, Magni. It's the new minister, Peter Mann, who catches her eye though - and she his, although he also finds himself attracted to the Laird's daughter.

The plot, such as it is, revolves around the triangle of Inga, Bob, and Peter, although the hero's are Hakki, and to some extent, Magni, but the plot isn't really the heart of this book - which is more to do with the overall community and it's dynamics. Class is a simmering issue, as is jealousy; Inga has had some education, her father has more money than the laird, although he's careful not to show it. Peter is a good enough man, but also weak and troubled. Mr Black, the laird is a surprisingly benign sort of figure, who features mostly as a friend to Hakki who he considers his intellectual and I think social equal. It's Mary Black, the newly returned daughter who seems set on imposing her will on the community - in opposition to Hakki whom she dislikes, but it's Hakki's personality and ideas that really jump off the page, along with the Gair family who act as villain's and trouble makers.

Judging by the conversations on in the Tang Subscribers group on facebook (joining recommended if you think you might read this book) there's a lot of room for interpretation of what Burgess is primarily doing here. For the most part I'm ready to disagree with people on almost everything apart from the quality of the book. The way I see it, it's mostly a discussion about class and organized religion, and in both cases the discussion is nuanced.

It's notable that the figures who represent authority - the minister, the laird, the shop keeper, the schoolmaster, are all treated with a degree of sympathy that I might not have expected. Their are allusions to Hansi Bolt's commercial acumen, and that he benefits from the truck system, and other things that make his position as a kirk elder more than hypocritical, but we also see him as a kind man, and there's no outright attack on his profiteering. Hakki Perk, who's agnostic and radical opinions might well be Burgess' own is sharp and sarcastic where it does more harm than good. But it's Peter Mann, the minister, who's really interesting.

Young and inexperienced, torn between duty and a barely understood desire, along with his occasional doubts in his calling, Burgess keeps playing with what we understand him to be. On balance I think the evidence is for a flawed, but not bad man, even if he sometimes behaves badly. Temptation, duty, fairness, and what true religion and belief look like, is a thread that runs through the book. 

The final thing to go back to about 'Tang' tonight is how funny it often is. Auld Ertie Gair with his pretentious use of English and constant miss speaking's balanced by a real and vindictive spite, is a perfect comic creation; a fool straight out of Shakespeare.


  1. Really great to hear your thoughts about this, Hayley. And I also like the variation in the impressions of this that are already being voiced in the discussions you mention - a potential rich seam. Bodes well for this book as a revivified classic - perhaps a work that school students might be asked to study?

  2. It would be a great book for school students, and book groups. There's a lot going on in it, the contrast between Mann's earnest established religion coupled with his tendency to find God in nature, Magnus Sharp's preference to stay at home with his own bible rather than going to church, Hakki's cynical agnosticism, and then Howell and Meek's (perfect Dickensian names) varying styles of evangelicalism is a lengthy discussion all on it's own. The subtle distinctions of class and tribe are fascinating, especially when you look at who has the money and influence in the community, and then it's interesting to see questions about emigration from a late 19th century point of view where it's arguably representing freedom of choice rather than forced departure. That it's a frequently funny book just makes it so much better.