The Winds of War

Neil Gunn was an economical writer. Every word he wrote he tried to publish. The few fragments of diaries he left had acted as records of immediate thoughts and impressions that could be incorporated later into more polished writings.

Gunn's diary entries between July and September 1939 contain descriptions of the natural world that eventually appeared in the Scots Magazine, to which he was then a frequent contributor. During this period he wrote literary and political essays, many of which have been collected in Landscape and Light. But as war approached, the magazine's editor, J. B. Salmond, expressed a preference for the rural scene over the political polemic.

As Gunn wrote in the foreword to Highland Pack, Salmond felt that something of that kind "might interest his readers in those critical months when the personal life, the simple ways of living as we had known them in our part of the world, were in danger of being submerged".

The diary, however, contains not only scenes from nature but deeply-felt meditations about the forthcoming conflict and its consequences. They are Gunn's attempt to record his reactions in a spontaneous manner to the declaration of war. Yet they cannot be divorced from the descriptions of wildlife and landscape; the passages of rural life provide a poignant contrast to the world of international politics.

July 2: "The remarkable quietude of late evening, daylight quite clear but subdued. Something solid but sad and a little magical about this quietude and evening light. As I read, I am aware of a movement across the window. I look out and presently a white gull, noiseless as a spirit, and at some little distance, swims up the field without a wing beat; then another; and another; then one comes down. I stare out for some time then go to the front window to see if I can see whether gulls are coming from the low flat fields to the ground higher up to roost, but can see none. They have gone. This has happened before about this time. The soundlessness of these white birds in the soundless tides can be imagined — but perhaps no more than the tides of blood in the head. The light darkens slowly."

The problems of Europe permeate, however, the very landscape, making the day even more dreich.

July 3: "This dark shadow over the world is also a shadow on the spirit, which has not the energy to throw it off or to deny it. The spirit would rather give in than make an effort. There is something hard and sterile in the wind, too, that is now blowing fitfully. The distant hills faintly show there in a grey mist or thin rain."

On July 5, Gunn set off for the fishing village of MacDuff. His recognition there of the attributes of the fishermen — courage, skill and endurance — might seem to prefigure the virtues needed in the war. Indeed, it is the anticipation of war that dominates the diary.

September 1: "10.30 am. Have just listened to the wireless. At 5.30 this morning Hitler made his declaration to the German people that force would be met by force. 'A grave situation' has now arisen. The Poles and the Germans are fighting. At any moment general war may be declared. So it's coming at last. One feels sick a bit, with the mind unable to concentrate on anything.

As I sit looking out of the window, I see the swallows skimming over the field below. It is a dull morning and the slight wind rustles the leaves on the cherry tree and sends the blue smoke from the cottage chimneys hither and thither idly. In the two large fields to the right, on the valley bottom, beyond the cottages, the newly cut corn is in stooks. By the low outfield to the left, three men are standing, for there the ripe grain is still uncut. Three small dark figures, talking together. Their job is to cut and edge round the field, so that the reaper-binder may make an unimpeded start. It is a dull mellow autumn day, with promise of sun and all the scents of the earth …

… There are evening hours of ineffable peace, touched by the subtle disturbing scents of ripe things, of harvest; and at night moon-light in a stillness that is a shrine of beauty. This year the period has been particularly fine, with rowan berries a brilliant deep red and corn a pale of gold; but somehow it marked a suspense, not between seasons of the year, but between peace and war. The beauty has been poignant in a way that occasionally, for a swift moment, has been too much to bear."

The outbreak of war is itself an exercise in the mundane.

September 3: "Sunday. Turned on the wireless at 10 am this morning to learn that an ultimatum to Germany to withdraw her forces from Poland had to be accepted by 11 am or war would be declared by this country. The Prime Minister will speak at 11.15 am. From 10 am time went on slowly — to a series of gramophone records on wireless. No word from Germany. A woman broadcasts on cookery dishes. 'Slice one hard boiled egg.' The minutes go on. The clock strikes eleven. So it's war."

The war presented a personal dilemma to Gunn. He was then 47. A few years before he had taken the great financial risk of leaving a secure job and committing himself to writing. A period of quiet contemplation of nature seemed his future. The war made this escape untenable, unacceptable to a caring man.

September 3: "Although I saw the beauty of the grass and the trees, and the golden glory of the harvest, I could not feel them. We were surfaces to each other. In the place where communication should be was emptiness and around it, like a cloud, a heavy malaise. And yet — for truth is very difficult to get at — there was a knowledge of the beauty of the world, a half-poignant memory (as distinct from emotion) of loveliness seen and appreciated before, and through I could not be affected by them now, I knew they were there (though I half doubted that, too, as if formerly I had merely been to sanguine or given to illusion) and had the feeling that if I looked out of the corners of my eyes and let the world go hang, I could smile at the pale-green feet of the wind and take a hand in the primordial fun. The deep tribal taboo inhibited any such action."

The need to assist in the war effort led Gunn to attempt to retract his resignation from the Customs and Excise.

September 5: "Nothing much happens. One waits on news bulletins — and there is little news. I have been wondering over my own position. Should I offer my services to my old Dept.? Went down to Dingwall, and Smith, officer of C. and E., suggested I should. I'll think about it. Have no particular desire to do it and believe we could live well enough on what we have got and what money as I could earn. After all, I have already worked for 30 years, and feel that in the ordinary way I have made my social contribution. Any extra contributions I had hoped to make in writing at my economic risk."

The task of the writer in fact is an essential one: to remind his readers of the reasons for the war.

September 5: "Again I feel that if I went back to work, I should probably stop writing. to a man of my age, this war is going to be a critical period. it will be a period during which anything creative will have every chance of being quickly smothered. Not that I expect anything much from myself. But in these last two years or so I have been increasingly conscious of certain qualities like light and happiness, conscious of them in a triple aspect — personal, philosophic, and artistic.

I might, if left to myself to ponder on them, manage to produce or reproduce them in writing. i know that if I could do this, it would be a vastly greater service to some of my fellows than would be any routine clerical job in a service department. I am convinced, further, that writers will have to do something like this, in the first place to save the integrity of the individual threatened by the tyranny of the mass or collective-mass, and, in the second, to revitalise the core of life itself in each individual. These are vague words, but I know what I mean … "

The meaning emerges in a burst of creativity during the war years. Of Gunn's two masterpieces, The Silver Darlings appeared in 1941 and The Green Isle of the Great Deep in 1944. These novels contain a clarity of vision and a marriage of the universal with the particular that arise from Gunn's concern with international events and the local values now under threat. Perhaps the outstanding feature of his reflections at this time is an intuition of the sufferings of women.

September 1: "While writing these words out of a mind strangely numb, I had a quite involuntary vision of a woman, over 30, sitting down on a kitchen stool in a Highland cottage, with a slow movement of the body, a weary drawn-out movement, the tragic side-face and clear bone of the jaw, turning away from me, from the outside world, towards the awful despondency in her mind. And seeing her, I feel her mind. and her mind is quivering and tremulous from the numb sickness in her breast. Sickness, nausea, a melting weakness of the flesh. Her mind grows sick. Nothing more matters, nothing more can be borne. She could cry out. But nothing matters. he is gone; all is finished."

Gunn's sympathies are held not by abstractions but are engaged with living people on both sides. On the actual day when war is declared, Gunn's concern is for a particular woman, a crofter's wife whose son had enlisted.

September 3: "My wife came with the eggs from the farm house to where I was waiting for her. You can feel the gloom in that house whenever you enter. Their son is 18 and joined up some time ago. The father had his head between his hands. 'It is hard,' he said, 'that we should have to go through two wars.' Two wars in the lifetime of men not yet past middle age, men still in their prime."

From the other side, Gunn remembers his friend Fritz Wolcken.

September 3: "I still think again of my German friend and his wife and family. Not only wars with them but — 'You could never understand,' he had said, 'how a man's morale was destroyed that time our money crashed. You could not conceive what some of us had to live through in Germany — for the greater part of our lives — for all our lives — forever it seems.' I think often of these recent trips to Germany, of the nights that my wife and myself spend on the Rhine, the almost empty cafes, the small skilled orchestras refreshed by our acknowledgements in applause and in wine, the feeling amongst a friendly people of the tragedy of mistrust between nations — emptying their cafes, their hotels, stopping the flow of their wine, not of their music."

The war is not to be fought in a spirit of anti-German feeling: "No special hatred against the German people. In fact no hatred at all — rather the knowledge, the belief, that the Nazi governing body must be destroyed." This is an ideological not a nationalist war and Gunn's preoccupation with the fate of the individual caught up in the mass movement of war comes out clearly.

September 3: "The individual and his emotional life can be forgotten in a co-ordinated movement of the intellect working towards a calculated end. For those who believe that good comes first out of the individual and not out of the mass, the future may well appear forbidding."

September 17: "And here we are at the core of the matter. for the implication is clear. The individual no longer matters. The State or Creed is everything. And either is embodied in the autocratic will of a handful of men. That is what the new movements in world politics are heading for. The very conception of freedom, of the free mind, of free and independent inquiry and expression is being assailed."

Here is the source of The Green Isle of the Great Deep. If a nation becomes totalitarian in order to fight a war against totalitarianism itself, then it has lost. The great service that Gunn performs in his novels is to highlight the cause of individual freedom. Gunn chose commitment, through his writing, to this theme of the individual against the forces of totalitarianism rather than supporting any more narrow jingoism or seeking escape into the world of nature.

September 3: "Behind all the calculations of the intellect, behind the megalomania of a leader, behind the religion of an economic system, there is that individual, the individual who suffers, who dies, who loves. When we forget that individual, when we forget to pay tribute, above all things, to the living core and flame of the individual life, at that moment we are heading for the organisation of death."

Alistair McCleery

First published in The Weekend Scotsman, 29 August, 1987 p1

excerpts from Neil M. Gunn's diaries © Neil Gunn Literary Estate