Saturday, October 20, 2018

Lillian Beckwith - The Sea for Breakfast

During three wonderful childhood holidays in Scotland in the 1980s I was introduced to the enormously popular Lillian Beckwith books by my father who was a great enthusiast for them. I don't really remember much about reading them then, but retained a memory of warmth for the semi-autobiographical works. Beckwith moved to the Scottish islands as a rest cure and lived there for many years wirting a series of books about her life there. It is difficult to know exactly what is true and what isn't.

During more recent trips to Scotland I've tried to find them again, but they didn't seem to be in print, so I was pleased to find a couple recently second hand.

Unfortunately, my warm memories of them are somewhat dampened. What in the 1980s surely felt like humorous insights into isolated communities felt today, all too like the prim and snooty commentary on people whom Beckwith liked to play for laughs. While the stories are amusing, and no doubt fictionalised to a great extent, Beckwith enjoys to highlight the stupidity, daftness and simplistic logic of her characters - playing them for laughs rather than insight.

A quick glance at online reviews shows that many people read these for what they believe are insights into traditional ways of life in the Scottish Hebridean islands. Yet nothing really bad ever happens in this book. Sure there are hints at adultery, rows and peoples "simple life" is emphasised (a code for poverty in my experience), but really this is a fantasy about life in those places.

I am not surprised by reports that the community that had welcomed Lillian Beckwith into its arms was upset an angered by the books. I also doubt that she intended to cause offense, but this very much feels like middle class anthropologist going to the working class and having a very patronising smirk at their funny ways.

That's not to say there isn't stuff of interest. But this tends to be from what is said as background rather than the individual tales the author writes. I was fascinated to hear that people regularly ate Cormorant, for instance, and I was struck that the Hebridean population did not celebrate Christmas particularly and the children seemed to have invented a form of "trick or treating" long before American culture swamped western Europe.

All in all a disappointing return to a childhood classic. There's a lesson there!

Related Reviews
Cameron - The Ballad and the Plough
Hutchinson - The Soapman

Richards - The Highland Clearences

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