Tang: A Shetland Story by J.J. Haldane Burgess

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Reviewed by Hayley Anderton

Northus is a new project from Michael Walmer (who’s own reprint series will be familiar to many readers here) and the Shetland born, currently Edinburgh based, writer Robert Alan Jamieson. It aims to bring back into print cornerstone works in Shetland’s literary history. Tang is the first title to be released.

This is a project I’ve been following with interest. There’s a lot to be said for shifting focus to the local, seeing what you find there, and challenging views of what parochial might mean in this context. There’s also a lot I could say about my own prejudices here, because although I was interested in this book, my expectations of enjoying it on its own terms were not particularly high. I was anticipating a curiosity, but Burgess confounded me at every turn both with his humour and by the way he makes a book that deals entirely with one small parish into something universal.

Burgess’s own life story also confounded me a little. Born in 1862, the son of a Lerwick tailor, he showed considerable academic promise, worked as a teacher to raise money to sit his degree, and had already published poetry before he went to study divinity in Edinburgh in his early twenties. He seems to have struggled with some aspects of doctrine, and then went blind in his final year there. He returned to Lerwick, continued to write poetry, history, and literature, championed the Shetland dialect, played the violin, became a noted linguist, a Marxist, and was instrumental in creating the fire festival of Up Helly Aa as we know it now.

Brydon Leslie, who writes the introduction for this edition, has done quite a lot of work on Burgess, and although Brogar Jarl, his book about him, looks like it’s out of print, an energetic internet search will turn up some academic and New Shetlander articles for the interested. It’s also well worth having a look at the Tang subscribers group on facebook for more conversation about this book and it’s themes.

According to A & A Christie-Johnston’s Shetland Words dictionary, tang is the seaweed that grows above the low water mark. It’s the weed that makes scrambling on and off boats, or along the shoreline, at low tide a treacherous affair – which is appropriate for what unfolds, and for the book itself which is a slippery thing to define.

Much of Tang is written in dialect, which is one reason I approached it with a certain amount of caution. I understand enough of the Shetland dialect to follow it, but it can be hard work. I underestimated Burgess. If a word is unlikely to be guessable from its context, he gives its English equivalent in brackets next to it. There’s no breaking off to consult notes or a glossary, and so the first surprise was how accessible this book is. His style is also admirably concise for a late Victorian writer, possibly influenced by Norwegian writers such as Ibsen, Bjørnson, or Knut Hamsun. So Robert Alan Jamieson speculates at least; it’s a persuasive argument given Burgess’ interests and the importance he lays on the islands Norse heritage and connections, within the text of Tang.

The book is centered wholly on the fictional village of Norwik, who’s relative quiet is shaken up by returns and new arrivals. There is Peter Mann, the new minister and his mother, Inga Bolt, the prosperous shopkeepers daughter who has returned from staying with an uncle, Mary Black, the lairds daughter returning home from finishing school in Edinburgh, Bob Ertirson back and forth from the herring fishing, young Ertie Gair, back from America and working on the same boat as Bob.

The moral compass of the book is Hakki Perk, Inga’s cousin and the local schoolteacher, who is slowly bending the parish to his will – a far more active and successful reformer than the minister or the laird.

Inga is the prettiest girl in the village and seems to have a nature to match her good looks, she’s also had a bit of education, and her father is the wealthiest man in the district. Her mother has ambitions for her, and all the young men are in love with her, something she’s enjoyed but not encouraged, until she meets Peter Mann who she is attracted by. The plot, such as it is, revolves around the hope and jealousy that Inga inspires, but the main business of the book seems to me to be about examining the relative influence of church, education, and money on a small society.

This is a relatively prosperous village, which was another surprise. Nobody is rich, but economic power has slipped from the laird, it’s the shopkeeper who owns the herring drifter, and although there’s a reference to him swapping knitwear for goods, there’s no condemnation of the truck system. The young men are still going to sea to make money, but it’s herring, or maybe whaling, not the haaf* fishing of only slightly earlier years when fair wages were hard to come by. When young Ertie Gair has made Norwik too hot to hold him he contemplates going back to America to make his fortune, and heads to off mainland Scotland without a backwards glance.

The laird and minister are treated with outward respect, but it’s nothing more than lip service, which Mr Black is sanguine about, but his daughter and Mr Mann are not. Hakki the schoolteacher can cheerfully attack both the Scottish landowning class, and the role the church has played in the subjugation of the people, knowing that the education he is providing really is making a difference, and Black defends him because Hakki is both making a difference to the material welfare of his pupils and saving the ratepayer money in the process.

At least it wasn’t a surprise that the ex-divinity student would take a long look at organised religion: it makes Peter Mann one of the best drawn characters, and for all his failings one of the most likeable. He’s young and earnest, full of doubts, inexperienced, has no idea what to do about the rising desire he feels for two young women, occasionally behaves badly, is easily manipulated, weak, and altogether human. The contrast between Mann’s earnest established religion coupled with his tendency to find God in nature, an elderly parishoner’s preference to stay at home with his own bible rather than going to church, Hakki’s cynical agnosticism, and then the varying styles of the wandering evangelicals Howell and Meek (perfect Dickensian names) are fascinating.

But the final surprise was by far the best. This is a funny book. It is tinged with tragedy (that comes in a form that would risk being a cliché if it wasn’t for Burgess’ restraint, and that such incidents still happen), but Ertie Gair senior is a fool in the Shakespearean tradition and a nice line in malapropisms that repeatedly made me smile. His very real malice and mischief making add a tartness to the humour. Tang is a wise, thoughtful, funny, and blessedly accessible book. It has its flaws, but it really deserves this chance to reach a wider audience. Read it because you’re interested in Shetland, in Scottish literature, in Victorian fiction, in nicely judged comedy. I don’t think you’ll be disappointed.

*Deep sea fishing, 30 or 40 miles off coast, undertaken in open boats which would typically belong to a merchant or laird, who would also own the fishing tackle, the stations were the fish was dried, the whole outfit. It was a deeply exploitative system. Merchants took knitwear in a similar fashion, not paying money for it, but swapping for good they stocked in their shops, which led to an elaborate barter system as women tried to exchange items like tea or sugar for the goods they really needed. Young children could swap their knitting for sweets.

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Hayley blogs at Desperate Reader.

J. J. Haldane Burgess, Tang (Northus Classics 2021). 978-0648920427, 382pp., paperback.

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  1. Planning to cover this myself – glad it’s such a good one!

  2. I’ll be really interested to see what you think about it, it’s also worth joining the subscribers group if you’re on facebook for more discussion – although there could be spoilers, so better read it first. The consensus is that it’s flawed but we’ve all liked it so far.

  3. I’m also really liking the variety of opinion that’s coming up in discussion of this, Hayley. Thanks (and to SNB) for covering it. Perhaps Brogar Jarl itself should become a Northus Shetland Classic in time?

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