8 Apr 2015

Last Train to Waverley by Malcom Archibald

last train to waverley malcom archibald
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Elgin-based writer Malcolm Archibald had his first short story at the age of 17, and published his first book Scottish Battles in 1990.  

Since then he has written a further 20 books, an impressive roster by any standards.  

In recent years he has focused on 19th century crime, both fiction and fact, and on the Scottish whaling industry, but his most recent novel is another departure and is is set in France in World War I, during one week in March 1918.

Last Train to Waverley feels like it must have been a challenge to write.  Set in both France and in Edinburgh, it offers outline sketches of the places and times, concentrating on character, working hard to include not just the lingo of the day, but the manners and moeurs of 100 years ago. 

I had the opportunity to ask Malcolm how he approached a subject as huge as World War One.  I assumed that with matters as diverse, political and emotional as what was then called The Great War, must require special attention.   
"Like every large subject, it can be broken into smaller segments," Malcolm told me.  "I chose one of the lesser known battles, the March 1918 retreat, which ultimately showed the flexibility of the British Army.  I have some family connections to both the war and that battle, which helped, and I portrayed it through the eyes of one officer leading a small section of men, so that individual personalities could be examined and evaluated. It may have been a huge war, but it was very individual to the people involved."

It's one of the oddities of the critical circuit, but we hear little about what you might call Scotland's working authors, those who are publishing books regularly, and have built up a following, but this is often due to the fact that because these writers are published in Scotland, reviewers and editors simply never hear about them.  In some senses Last Train to Waverley could be a turning point.  It's not just the work of a thoroughly matured writer, but it is an engaging story on many levels.  One of the hardest things to conceptualise about World War I is the personal experiences of the people involved.  Mostly we know their names from war memorials, and often just hear about them as statistics, lsiting for example how many tens of thousands may have died in a certain battle.

Last Train to Waverley addresses this head on, and it will be up to readers to judge how succesful it is.  But in terms of aim and ambition, it seems clear that Malcolm Archibald wants to impress us with a sense that every life is rich with detail, and that although the weight of an experience such as World War I may be unbearable, it is a burden that fiction can tolerate insofar as a writer can create characters that we care about, allowing us to perceive the pain of war, and the importance of each life affected.

Malcolm Archibald has cited Robert Louis Stevenson, whom he calls "a man of genius" as an author he still enjoys reading.  Then there are some other favourites, such as James Hogg ("not mentioned much now which is a shame" and George MacDonald Fraser, ("much lamented") and Neil Munro, whom he describes as another genius.

Neil Munro is another we don't hear much about these days.  In his day, Munro was famous worldwide fame, and in his prime, when he was editor the Glasgow Evening News he was generally regarded as being one of the most senior figures in contemporary Scottish criticism and was a dominating presence in Scottish letters.

So having published so many books, what has malcom Archibald learned, in terms of key lessons in the writing game?

"Never give up," says Malcolm.  "Keep flexible. Always have another idea in mind. Don't despair when rejection letters arrive; accept positive criticism and reject negatives! Never listen to people who say 'you can't' - what they mean is: they lack the vision themselves to do it. If you want to write - then persevere."

Malcolm Archibald's Website