Rating: 3 stars
Read for The Reader’s Room European Backpacking Challenge
Colin MacIntyre records and performs as Mull Historical Society. He’s one of my favourite musicians. He’s also an author. The Letters of Ivor Punch is his first novel and it won the Edinburgh International Book Festival First Book Award in 2015.
Set on an unnamed island that is easily identified as Mull, the story begins with Jake Punch visiting the sports ground where his late father broke the island’s long jump record. He’s there because his uncle Ivor Punch has died and Jake, who has been distributing letters written by his uncle, has one last letter to deliver. Except he can’t deliver it because it’s a letter to his dad and his dad was killed by Pan Am flight 103, the aeroplane brought down over Lockerbie by a Libyan terrorist.
Instead Jake reads the letter and discovers that his curmudgeonly old uncle missed his brother, Jake’s dad, in ways similar to Jake. The letter triggers memories for Jake, centred on his uncle and the letters he wrote to the great and the good.
I started to read while on holiday on the west coast of Scotland, not as far north as Mull but not too many miles west of Lockerbie. We have stayed there before. On our journey there and back we pass the road to Lockerbie. In one of Ivor Punch’s letters he describes Lockerbie as a town that will never reclaim its name. It is an odd feeling to recognise a place name for the wrong sort of reason, to want to visit out of respect but to want to keep driving out of an even deeper sense of respect.
Where we stay has a view of the Atlantic, punctuated by the button of Ailsa Craig, but the views from the mainland seem to me to be less robust than those looking out from the island in the novel.
The Letters of Ivor Punch is a rambling novel that hops around in time, building a picture of an island community. The first man to be known as Punch, the postman Duncan, gained the nickname through a legendary blow to the head of a horse that left a tooth embedded in his knuckle that was said to make his hand seem to be smiling. He begins the family line that goes down to Ivor, his brother, and his nephew. Ivor, as a police officer, bears witness to the trials and tribulations of the island’s fishing community. There’s a melancholy running through the events he observes. As befits an author who is also a songwriter, MacIntyre’s words are spun with magic, his turns of phrase a delight.
There are recurring characters that appear as both protagonists in history and legends in the present. There’s a Headless Horseman, believed to be Duncan Punch’s ghost. There are the Bird sisters, Isabella the explorer and friend of Darwin, and her stay at home sister Henrietta. There’s Alexander McMillan whose grandfather Fingal paints the words GOD IS LOVE on a cliff face looking out to the Atlantic. There are those painted words that refer to the tragic death of Alexander’s mother Eliza. There is Eliza herself, lost to the sea except for one night. And of course there is the sea, the most central character of all, gazed across, sailed upon, the hider of secret islands, the revealer of truths.
I’m not great on boats. Throughout my childhood and into adulthood I’ve had more than my fair share of ear infections that have left my balance slightly off. Put me on a boat and I feel like I’m falling. Add to that the pull of the sea, its rise and fall and endless expanse, and out on a boat, away from the feel of solid land, I feel like I might never return. That’s why I try to stay in the centre of boats, on the rare occasions that I go on them. This holiday, though, we took the ferry to Arran and, inspired by the novel, I stood on deck to see the sea and the approaching island. I enjoyed it. The sea was calm, the boat steady, and I enjoyed seeing the trawlers surrounded by gulls and the approaching harbour at Brodick.
On Arran itself we visited a ruined 13th century castle at Lochranza. It stands on a promontory looking out over a cove. It isn’t imposing or battle hardened like the castles in Wales, because Scotland’s wars were mainly between clans at the time it was built. The battlefield against English invasion came later.
We also visited a set of standing stones, burial mounds, stone circles and the remains of round houses on Machrie Moor. It was easy to imagine Bronze Age people living there, farming the land and worshipping the things in nature that kept them alive. The standing stones were my favourite, red and weathered and covered in lichens. One had a spot that could have been weathered by coincidence but felt as though it was weathered by the touch of hands the same size as mine.
Arran is a bright island, sitting at the mouth of the Clyde, sheltered from the Atlantic by Bute and by Mull. It didn’t feel like the island in MacIntyre’s book, which is darker, stormier, haunted by the past. I’d been hoping to get a feel for island life that matched the book. I guess I’ll have to go to Mull one day.
As The Letters of Ivor Punch progressed, the various legends and lifelines knitted together, like one of the shawls knitted by Duncan Punch’s mother. Everything is connected, MacIntyre reveals, and not always in the happiest of ways. Secrets kept hidden lead to unhappiness and the past returns to haunt the present. The book contains truths about grief that, when I was in the midst of denying mine for my mum, I couldn’t acknowledge. In the moment of loss there is an overwhelming absence, it is everywhere, colouring everything, narrowing the view to what is immediately in front of you, so that you can’t look to the wider world and realise that the one you have lost is now everywhere. Reflecting on the news of Ivor’s death, Jake Punch has this realisation, perhaps because he has been far removed from the living reality of Ivor for so long that he can still look at the wider world.
A small grey creature poked up from behind a tree stump. Jake watched the squirrel extend its paw and pull on a bud as though it were the last piece of food on earth. Jake looked to the city and thought again of Ivor, and of that night in the woods … He remembered Ivor’s rough, lumpy hand in his own. Jake now took that hand in his other. He was readjusting to this new version of Ivor in death … He realised [Ivor] had finally pulled it off, he had achieved definition, a kind of oneness in death. Ivor was everywhere: he was in the emerging city and the receeding coastline, all at once.
The only misstep MacIntyre makes is writing himself into the story. When he first began recording as Mull Historical Society, the organisation of the same name added Archaeological to its title, as does the Island Historical and Archaeological Society in the book. In a weird interlude involving a power play between the Chairman and former sole member of the society and the Treasurer and local undertaker, discussion is had about MacIntyre and his intention to begin recording again. Even as someone who likes MacIntyre/Mull Historical Society’s music, I found this a bit cringeworthy.
Something that made me laugh, towards the end, was the reference to phone messages erupting on Jake’s mobile phone as he walked across an invisible line of connectivity. In the week we’ve been away, the signal has been patchy. I found the disconnect peaceful at times and frustrating at others.
Over all this is a charming, thoughtful and moving book. The connections, both known and unknown to the characters, are skilfully woven together. I enjoyed reading it while in Scotland. MacIntyre has another book out now, but given that I bought four books while accidentally visiting Wigtown and have only knocked one book off my TBR this week, another purchase is out of the question.