Monday, 27 January 2020

Book Review - Around the Peat-Fire (2002)

Calum Smith, Around the Peat-Fire (Birlinn, 2001)
Written By: Liz Willis
Date: April 2002
Published In LSHG Newsletter Issue 15: Summer 2002 

Reviewed by the West Highland Free Press (28 December 2001) under the heading “Perceptive Autobiography of an Early Twentieth-Century Socialist”, this unpretentious book provides a window on a world quite distant from that of the urban proletariat, but one which still has relevance and interest for socialist historians.

Any apparent cosiness in the title is quickly countered by the first mention of the eponymous peat-fire as a centre of tales told to frighten children and inculcate superstition, i.e. a locus of social control; but, the author adds, this scenario was frequently redeemed by the presence of the occasional non-conformist ready to have a say - among whom he himself would clearly be included. Life in the Hebrides was no rural idyll, among the drawbacks being hard physical labour and primitive living conditions.

Readers should not, however, expect a self-congratulatory account of rising from humble origins to see the light and develop political consciousness - although he more or less did so - nor a detailed exposition of revolutionary theory as applied to the society and economy of the Western Isles, although there are numerous pointed comments and criticisms.

Some lessons, rather than being spelt out, will be a matter of inference, drawn from a kind of oral history on the page, the immediacy of an authentic voice without the mediation of an interviewer or academic commentary. From the first chapter on “Survival” via the deep collective trauma of the loss of the troop-carrier Iolaire in 1919 to the heart-sinking declaration of another war with which the book ends, many aspects of living through imperialism, war, depression and other manifestations of international capitalism are touched upon, often through and interspersed with entertaining anecdote.
A good read and a useful contribution to the project of recovering “ordinary” people’s experience.

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