The Lucky Charm of Major Bessop is a strange novel of misadventure and mystery, set in a hinterland of the imagination that many won’t recognise. That hinterland is not just rural Fife, but is represented in the form of a formidably unpleasant boarding school called Mauletoun House, where everyone takes a mauling of some sort.
Tom Hubbard, for those not yet in the know, was the first librarian at the Scottish Poetry Library, and he has been a professor of Scottish literature in Budapest, Connecticut and Grenoble.
Tom’s CV declares him to be an unashamedly intellectual advocate of all that is good in Scottish letters, both past in present, and demonstrates that he has for decades carried out the undervalued task of presenting this to the world out with our borders.
Scotland is omnipresent in The Lucky Charm of Major Bessop, although it is a land of sudden sinkholes and values that haven’t been questioned since the days of John Knox.
Britain’s 1960s debate on capital punishment looms large in later portions of the novel, which alos amply echo the sentiments of Irvine Welsh’s Trainspotting, declaring that we have since the 1980s being living in a familiarly titled Age o Shite:
So have we always lived in an Age of Shite? As the folk wisdom has it, ‘Toalies aye float ti the top’? Ay, but what will change are the ingredients o the shite. And the big difference, the-day, is that all, ivory tower and all, have been utterly engulfed. Flaubert went on aboot the Age o muflisme. Me, I go on aboot the final triumph o oor Age o Shite.
Therein is the rub, a novel which aspires to a wider range of references to make its point, and brings history, war, and intellectual antiquity to bear upon the coldness of our times. Dumbed down to the point of near mental extinction, it may be tough for some readers to live with references to Greek, the European letters and the art of the Rijksmuseum.
And still there is a hilarious crudeness that will be enjoyed by all, in the form of such institutions wickedly devised by Tom Hubbard, as the Palace o Posh Pishin Perverts, and the ‘phlegm-grey nowhere’ that we are comfortable residing within.
Aside from history, location is everything in Tom Hubbard’s novel, and it seems that the hinterland of Mauletoun is a place just beyond reality, a psychological terrain that is at once both the physical and psychological abuse endemic to the private schooling of the era, and a hidden place, that is always just out of view.
For if the abuse that we now know went on at places like Fort Augustus Catholic School is the tip of the iceberg, we can well imagine what life must have been like for boys in the past, removed from their family and left in the care of such sadists, as are represented here by the headmaster Doctor Baxendale.
More atypical of such Scottish grotesquerie is a strong international feel to The Lucky Charm of Major Bessop, which may be ascribed to the author’s own well-traveled outlook and insistence that Scotland must be imagined both from within and without.
Aside from interludes in the Netherlands and the musings of the novel’s Polish character, the most interesting character is the well-imagined assistant nurse Gayle, who comes from the Southern States of the USA.
Gayle, in fact sees wirsels as ithers see us, and although she finds a beauty in the Scottish countryside that she may in part be imagining she never quite becomes demoralised by the doomful feelings that swamp the microcosm in which she works. And it is the character of Gayle, through him we not only see a few of the events of the era, such as the assassination of President Kennedy which is brilliantly portrayed, but who reveals Major Bessop’s traumatic war experiences to the reader.
The novel (dedicated to Tessa Ransford: “She has changed the direction of many lives and arts”) is a portmanteau of pain. There doesn’t seem to be one central character, and neither does there appear to be the sort of linear narrative now favoured by a populace trained to read novels as if they were somehow adjuncts to film or television productions.
This applies to other examples of Tom Hubbard’s writing, which is not of the current school of novelisation which lays everything out fairly simply, and tends towards the sensational if it requires an effect. Although there is a mystery in The Lucky Charm of Major Bessop, it isn’t the be all and end all, and readers should be forewarned that the solution to the mystery of what happened to Andy Burt, a pupil at the school, isn’t automatically solved and stated in the manner to which they may be conditioned to expect.
That aside, The Lucky Charm of Major Bessop is a story of love, loyalty, obsession, rejection, and an accurate depiction of the manner in which people needing help are let down by the system.
The Lucky Charm of Major Bessop by Tom Hubbard may be found at Grace Note Publications