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Urquhart, Fred (erick Burrows)

URQUHART, Fred (erick Burrows)

Nationality: British. Born: Edinburgh, 12 July 1912. Education: Village schools in Scotland; Stranraer High School, Wigtownshire; Broughton Secondary School, Edinburgh. Career: Worked in an Edinburgh bookshop, 1927-34; reader for a London literary agency, 1947-51, and for MGM, 1951-54; London scout for Walt Disney Productions, 1959-60; reader for Cassell and Company, publishers, London, 1951-74, and for J. M. Dent and Sons, publishers, London, 1967-71. Awards: Tom-Gallon Trust award, 1951; Arts Council of Great Britain grant, 1966, bursary, 1978, 1985; Scottish Arts Council grant, 1975. Died: 1995.

Publications

Short Stories

I Fell for a Sailor and Other Stories. 1940.

The Clouds Are Big with Mercy. 1946.

Selected Stories. 1946.

The Last GI Bride Wore Tartan: A Novella and Some Short Stories. 1948.

The Year of the Short Corn and Other Stories. 1949.

The Last Sister and Other Stories. 1950.

The Laundry Girl and the Pole: Selected Stories. 1955.

Collected Stories:

The Dying Stallion and Other Stories. 1967.

The Ploughing Match and Other Stories. 1968.

Proud Lady in a Cage: Six Historical Stories. 1980.

A Diver in China Seas. 1980.

Seven Ghosts in Search. 1983.

Full Score: Short Stories. 1989.

Novels

Time Will Knit. 1938.

The Ferret Was Abraham's Daughter. 1949.

Jezebel's Dust. 1951.

Palace of Green Days. 1979.

Other

Scotland In Colour. 1961.

Editor, with Maurice Lindsay, No Scottish Twilight: New Scottish Stories. 1947.

Editor, W.S.C.: A Cartoon Biography (on Winston Churchill). 1955.

Editor, Great True War Adventures. 1956.

Editor, Scottish Short Stories. 1957.

Editor, Men at War: The Best War Stories of All Time. 1957.

Editor, Great True Escape Stories. 1958.

Editor, The Cassell Miscellany 1848-1958. 1958.

Editor, Everyman's Dictionary of Fictional Characters, by William Freeman, revised edition. 1973.

Editor, with Giles Gordon, Modern Scottish Short Stories. 1978; revised edition, 1982.

Editor, The Book of Horses: The Horse Through the Ages in Art and Literature. 1981.

*

Critical Studies:

review by Janet Adam Smith, in New York Times Book Review, 31 July 1938; Alexander Reid, in Scotland's Magazine, February 1958; Iain Crichton Smith in The Spectator, 24 May 1968; History of Scottish Literature by Maurice Lindsay, 1977; "Praise the Lord for Short Stories" by Douglas Gifford, in Books in Scotland 8, Autumn-Winter 1980; A Companion to Scottish Culture edited by David Daiches, 1981; "Urquhart: Lad for Lassies" by Graeme Roberts, in Scottish Review, May 1982; Modern Scottish Literature by Alan Bold, 1983; The Macmillan Companion to Scottish Literature by Trevor Royle, 1983, as Companion to Scottish Literature, 1983; Guide to Modern World Literature by Martin Seymour-Smith, 1985; "A Man Who Can Write about Women" by Isobel Murray, in The Scotsman, 9 September 1989.

* * *

Fred Urquhart published his first short story in 1936. During the next two decades he produced no fewer then seven volumes of stories, as well as three novels, earning from Alexander Reid the accolade of "Scotland's leading short story writer of the century." The publication of his Collected Stories in 1967 and 1968 won for his work the admiration of a new generation of readers and critics; the appearance of three more volumes of stories, many dealing with supernatural or historical themes, has consolidated Urquhart's reputation as a master of the genre.

It was Urquhart's portrayal of female characters that caught the attention of early admirers, such as Compton Mackenzie, who praised his "remarkable talent for depicting women young and old." Longing for escape from the monotonous drudgery of working-class life is a characteristic theme of many of these stories. Sometimes that longing ends in bitter disillusionment, as in "The Bike," where a girl saves for three years to buy a gleaming red racing cycle. Her joy of ownership of this symbol of freedom is short-lived, however, when the bike is damaged beyond repair by the carelessness of her drunken boyfriend: "She knew that something more than her bike had been broken. Nothing would ever be the same again."

Another story that displays what Alan Bold describes as Urquhart's emphasis "on the way dreams are defeated by hostile circumstances" is "Washed in the Blood." Its young heroine longs to be saved by an exotic black revivalist, only to have her childish faith rudely shattered when she discovers that "Jesus was a carpenter" like the local atheist drunk. The effectiveness of this story depends on the way Urquhart maintains an ironic distance between the naive childish self whose experiences are recorded and the knowing adult self who narrates them.

Perhaps Urquhart's finest story about working-class girls is "We Never Died in Winter." This moving account by a tuberculate patient of her nine months in hospital is a remarkable study of courage and resilience in the face of physical discomfort and disappointed hopes. Its tragic power is primarily due to the flat, matter-of-fact tone of the narrative, which by playing down the pathos inherent in the heroine's situation sets off the cheerfulness and wry humor—epitomized by the story's title—with which she adjusts to her illness and faces the loss of love, hope, and ultimately life itself. Urquhart's achievement in such stories is to transfigure the commonplace by realizing the tragic potential of shop girls and factory hands.

Sympathetic insight is the hallmark of Urquhart's best stories, the product not only of observation and imagination but also of careful attention to details of language and tone. It is this that enables him to avoid what he calls the "sentimental clutch of the Kail Yard," particularly in his Auchencairn stories, which are set in the Mearns countryside south of Aberdeen where Urquhart spent part of the war. Nowhere is this insight better exemplified than in "The Ploughing Match," which won the Tom-Gallon award for 1952-53.

In the story Annie Dey has dreamed for 50 years of holding a ploughing match on the family farm. Now at last her girlhood ambition is about to be realized, but she is paralyzed and bedridden, restricted to watching the contest through a "square of window" with the aid of a pair of spying glasses and forced to relinquish to her son's "ill-gettit quaen of a wife" the glory of playing hostess and presenting the prizes. Moreover, instead of the "horses with beribboned manes and tails" that Annie remembers, this match has only tractors—"a lot of new-fangled dirt." And although she waits all day to receive visitors, arrayed in her best pink nightdress, none of her late husband's friends or the local gentry takes the trouble to pay their respects to her. The story summarized thus, the irony inherent in Annie's situation seems likely to be drowned in a welter of pathos. That this does not happen is due not only to Urquhart's unsentimental conception of Annie's character but also to his control of language and tone. Notice how the physical helplessness and frustration of Annie, deprived by a stroke of the use of her tongue and compelled to communicate her needs to an impudent servant girl by means of paper and pencil, is brought into sharp focus by a single image:

The old woman sucked in her lower lip, clamping down her hard gum on it. She looked at her set of false teeth in the tumbler beside the bed, and she closed her eyes in pain. To be beholden to other folk to get them put into her mouth….

It is the blow to her pride that Annie finds hardest to bear, a feeling that Urquhart articulates with economy and precision in a couple of brisk vernacular phrases:

She that had aye a tongue on her that would clip cloots to be lying here speechless!… And the old woman writhed as she thought of what the grieve and the ploughman childes must say out there in the tractor-shed: "Only an act o' God would make the auld bitch hold her tongue!"

The peasant humor, vigor, and candor of these comments establishes the unsentimental narrative tone at the very start of the story, enabling Urquhart to introduce a series of potentially pathetic situations without producing a maudlin effect.

Many of Urquhart's characters are the natural underdogs beloved of the traditional short story writer from Gogol to Malamud: comic figures from the lowest rungs of society, like the walleyed Lizzie in "Beautiful Music," the malicious Rosie in "Win Was Wild," the Hogarthian landlady in "Dirty Minnie," or the chorus of Rabelaisian washerwomen in "Dirty Linen," fighting over a pair of cami-knickers in their local steamie. These stories exemplify that "gusto, passion, rumbustiousness, and vigour" that Urquhart has identified as the distinguishing characteristic of the Scottish short story.

—Graeme Roberts

See the essay on "Alicky's Watch."

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