Neil Gunn, one of Scotland's most distinguished novelists of the 20th century, was a prolific writer. His first novel, The Grey Coast, appeared in 1926 and his last, The Other Landscape, in 1954. This long period of creative writing spanned the Recession, the political crises of the 1930s and the Second World War and its aftermath. Although nearly all his novels are set and enacted in the Highlands of Scotland, he can never be described as a regional writer in the narrowest sense of that description. His novels, reflecting his constant philosophical quests, invariably depict two worlds - the world of here and now and the world in which the meaning of life and the essence of living are explored. In 1943 he wrote his famous anti-utopian novel, The Green Isle of the Great Deep, a rural equivalent of George Orwell's Nineteen Eighty-Four, which appeared six years later. Some of the themes explored in that profound and optimistic work had been anticipated in this novel, Wild Geese Overhead, a book he wrote on the eve of the Second World War. It was topical and well received, and became a 'Book Society Choice.'
Unlike most of Gunn's novels, Wild Geese Overhead is set in a city - the city of Glasgow. The title seems strange and inappropriate for a great commercial city bracing itself for the onset of another war. It suggests, however, another world, above and beyond the hustle and bustle of industrial Glasgow. The sight of a skein of geese flying northwards on a spring day presents itself as a sort of epiphany for the principal character, Will, a journalist, who chooses to live in the country and work in the city. He is given a momentary experience of transcendence, a moment of delight, that he will measure against urban violence and despair and the international threat of war. This clash between a vision and its inherent richness and the grim reality and pessimism of a city experiencing a dark moment in its history provides the essential theme of the book.
As a journalist and a reasonably well connected young man, Will has a wide circle of acquaintances and friends. His interest in socialism brings him into contact with a sincere and active socialist, Joe; his need for pleasant and undemanding company keeps him in touch with a prosperous and likeable young partner in a shipping firm, Philip, and his pleasure-seeking friends. His colleagues at the office provide the good humour and banter that are the prerogative of the young. In addition to all these characters, and always in the background, there is the young woman, jenny, whose natural beauty and elusiveness captivate Will and help him in the end to find for himself a philosophy of being and doing.
Only one character, an older colleague on the staff of the newspaper, Mac, is constantly in disagreement with the ideas and views expressed by Will. His gloomy outlook is destructive and negative, but strangely stimulating and necessary for the evolution of Will's thought. Because of it, Will has to ponder and refute the accusation of escapism.
In a gentler way, the political activist Joe is also disturbed by Will's attachment to individualism, an individualism that could be construed as escapism in disguise. In Joe's mind, individualism can be a form of avoidance of one's duty to the community. It is through this honest and dedicated man that Will sees the darker and sadder side of life in the city. His visit to the tenement flat of a woman who has just died in child birth and an encounter with a prostitute are experiences that enrich him in a strange way by revealing the innate goodness of people and their ability to adapt. They are of the Dostoyevsky mould in their simplicity and sensitivity. His visits to scenes of deprivation and exploitation, however, are brutally interrupted by his enforced involvement in a brawl, which leaves him seriously injured and with a temporary loss of memory.
His period of treatment in hospital and recuperation at the farmhouse where he has been lodging provides Will with the opportunity to piece together all the aspects of his life in the city and to establish from them a meaning for his exist-ence. His so-called escapism is beginning to be understood by him as a way of self-development that will enable him to be a more useful member of a real community. His recuperation also helps him to see all the people with whom he has mixed in a new way, and particularly, jenny, whose aunt is Will's landlady (and friend) at the farm. Her aloofness turns out to be a form of shyness and her inner strength is clearly derived from her love of flowers and, in particular, the rock garden at the farm, which she tends so caringly. In his eyes, she can look at a flower as though she is seeing it for the first time. Her fascination with the kingdom of plants strikes a chord within his own understanding of life. "To look at a bunch of grass, a tree, the sky, to feel the wind, the rain, the light, not only outside, in the air, on the body, but inside, behind the mind... to see, to feel, in the final core of oneself, and so to be whole - and therefore, all the more game to break the fell clutch of circumstance, individual or social."
The book has a strange relevance to the events of today. The battle against terrorism, the fear of recession and the decline in adherence to established religious beliefs, are symptoms, albeit in different guise, of an uneasiness with regard to world stability and the erosion of traditional values and beliefs. Freedom is always being sought, but not necessarily in the way Will sees it in Wild Geese Overhead. Will's vision is also the earliest statement of the author's ultimate theme in his creative work... "For there was a tremendous difference between the abandon of the old drunken revel and this strange exquisite abandon of his 'vision'. True, there was kinship; up to a point, there was bodily warmth, fusion; but ah how profound, how unbridgeable, the essential dif- ference! For in the Dionysian revel, the self, the ego, whirled unrestricted in its desires into a state of frenzy; but in the 'vision' the ego was lost in the calm uprising of the second self, the deeper self, into conscious freedom".