Book Review:

The Evergreen: A New Season in the North edited by Sean Bradley and Elizabeth Elliott

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cover image for The Evergreen In the spring of 1895 Patrick Geddes and unnamed others, credited only as Colleagues, published the first of four issues of The Evergreen from Riddles Court in Edinburgh's Lawnmarket. Their inspiration and title came from Allan Ramsay's 1724 anthology, The Ever Green.

And in a Prefatory Note to the autumn edition of 1895, Geddes and the sociologist Victor Branford echoed Ramsay's wish 'to stimulate the return to local and national tradition and living nature. We […] are seeking to gather such traditions as still linger around us, to set down such thought or song as may be in ourselves — hopeful at least of suggesting better things to those who will follow us here.'

Geddes' Evergreen made 'no promise of perpetual life'. Nor does this successor. Ramsay planned four volumes and the project was never completed; but, like Geddes, four Evergreen anthologies will appear in two years and submissions have already closed for the second volume, due to be published in August.

The Evergreen is published by The Word Bank, the publishing arm of the Edinburgh Old Town Development Trust. In his Introduction, Sean Bradley says the Trust's primary inspiration is the flourish of community activism: 'As Scotland debates what kind of country it wants to be, The Evergreen prompts the shifting of the question to our neighbourhoods: what kind of places do we want to live in? And what are we prepared to do about it?'

Such political intentions are not always evident, though the splendidly named Jock Stein (please, let this not be a pseudonym) addresses similar optimism in 'Referendum':

If we have myths, let them be kind and true,
to make us song and symbol, right and wrong,
so we can live and die for something strong.

And David Herd (another interesting namesake) in a long and untitled sequence suggests action of a sort:

it is a matter of holding
social space
open like a language
sometimes setting up camp
in the streets

This is not a themed anthology, nor are the writers listed thematically, but thematic clusters emerge and the local ranges far from Edinburgh.

David Tomassini may well be suggesting similarities, if not a direct comparison: 'Over the last thirty years residents have been abandoning the historic centre of Venice at the rate of almost 1,000 a year […] For the price of a small two-room flat in Venice you can buy a house to do up in the country.'

Morelle Smith writes about a former monastery in the French Alps, part of which had been converted into a writers' residence: 'When the monks lived here, they used to give produce from the garden to the villagers. I did not imagine, in early April, that there would be any produce but every day Daniel left some leeks and broccoli for us.'

And Benjamin Morris recalls nighttime Los Angeles, where:

even color is an afterthought,
daubs of cobalt and rose
dotting the lyric black,
smears left behind as a reminder
of what the day vainly authored:
flecks of speckled buildings

The Celtic Revival arts were principal sources of inspiration for Geddes and his Colleagues. And alongside Kate Dowie's charcoal drawings of Edinburgh High Street, John Riach's urban photographs and a series of portraits by Robin Gillanders, two of Peter Kravitz's poems have visual art themes and Mario Relich's 'Art Critic' traces art and memory through separate Paul Klee exhibitions.

Dominic Cooper's essay on landscape, light and colour sits easily beside Richard Roger's account of how Geddes's initiatives to develop urban gardens coincided with the arrival of golf clubs and bowling greens as well as public parks created by boundary extensions.

While Todd McEwen recalls that broom on the Fife hills could occasionally be smelled in the Canongate, he mourns the ubiquity of coffee, where the National Library smells 'of cappuccino, which is to say of money […] The whole building, the entire national collection, and, by extension, the totality of our cultural heritage, in every venue, now reeks of arabica.'

Short fiction is not well represented. Which is no criticism of Leila Aboulela's tender, concentrated piece on a pregnant woman's cravings and anxieties nor the three pieces from James Robertson's interesting and quirky 365 project. But given that the most interesting development in Scottish literature in the last forty years has been in short fiction, where the quality, range and diversity, especially in women's writing, has been consistently interesting and challenging, and given the paucity of outlets, there should have been more. They are not hard to find.

This is an exciting and timely publication. Already it will be clear that, as Elizabeth Elliot suggests in an essay on Evergreen's predecessors, like previous incarnations, this is something of a mixed bag. The prodigality of Scottish creativity is easily harnessed, but not usually with such care. The look of The Evergreen is part of its charm, and its themes, although various, are somehow presented not in its texts and images, but in the artful manipulations of its designers.

'While securing a variety of colour not only harmony but brightness has been arrived at', Geddes's cat reveals from its perch above Ramsay Gardens, quoting the master's removal of the dreich from James Court. And the same can be said of this successor.


Carl MacDougall is a television presenter, radio broadcaster, editor, compiler, reviewer, but first and foremost, a writer.
carlmacdougall[@]mail.com

The Evergreen: A New Season in the North edited by Sean Bradley and Elizabeth Elliott is published by The Word Bank, 2014.