Alan Spence writes interestingly on aspects of Scottish Life that few others have explored. His 1998 novel, Way to Go is a hilarious comedy set in a funeral parlour in Glasgow in which the owner ha reluctantly inherited the business from his father and decides to make a go of it by being “alternative”. It’s a great read.
This 2006 novel is a far bigger book in its scope and theme.
It charts the industrialisation of Japan from the eyes of an Aberdonian entrepreneur, Thomas Glover, who inspired both Madame Butterfly and Miss Saigon; and whilst focusing on his rags to riches to rags to riches story brings in three further generations of the family briefly.
It is set principally in Nagasaki opening, as it does, in the aftermath of the second nuclear explosion in the home of a rich man that sits on a hillside shielded from the worst effects of the explosion but not of the after effects.
It then takes us back to 1850’s Aberdeen where a gallous and up for it freshman is dispatched by his engineering company to “The Pure Land” to help run its fledgling office.
Away from the prying eyes of his bosses and officialdom Glover gradually build an illicit business in trading first cotton and silk, then tea before moving gradually through munitions, ships, mining and heavy engineering.
Along the way he regularly enjoys the pleasures of the Japanese womenfolk, Whisky and Saki and inadvertently starts a revolution (which is wonderful for business.)
The man is a hustler, a rogue, a mercenary and all round troublemaker but Spence focuses on the human side of his character and at very few points in this grand novel do we ever lose our like of his fundamentally caring and genial humanity.
Whilst the novel feels a little heavy handed at the start we gradually find ourselves being drawn into the huge scale of its storytelling and ultimately it becomes an intriguing historical reference point and a great story of empire building and its implications on the people around the Trump’s, Murdoch’s and Hughes’ of this world.
According to his website Spence has long been passionate about the spiritual culture of Japan. He has recently been exploring the work of the Zen Master Hakuin, (1685 – 1786), who was one of the most influential figures in Japanese Zen Buddhism.
Overall, very likeable and another good shout from Spence. Nice man too. I met him a few years ago and enjoyed his take on things. For those of you that know it he runs the Sri Chimnoy Centre in Edinburgh.