Guest post by Erlend Clouston
On March 30, 1928, a letter from crime novelist Dorothy L. Sayers slid under the door of a stark stone mansion overhanging Scapa Flow. Sayers, then one the world’s best-known female writers, wished to apologise: she had omitted, in an earlier note, details of the fee due to her northern correspondent for including one of his stories in Sayers’ first anthology of detective mysteries. It was her secretary/husband’s fault, she explained: ‘He tells me that the excitement of sending a letter to Orkney distracted his mind as he is himself an Orcadian.’
The amazement of Dorothy L. Sayers (née Fleming) at finding a literate spirit north of the Pentland Firth is forgivable. Bar Walter Scott’s visit to Kirkwall which spawned The Pirate , Orkney had not hitherto unduly troubled the nation’s librarians. J. Storer Clouston single-handedly reversed this state of affairs. For almost half a century until his death in June, 1944, Joe (Storer was his mother’s maiden name) deluged the Scapa Flow postman with manuscripts and southern publishers turned them into products which southern readers lapped up. As prolific in theme as he was in output, Joe dashed off war yarns, science fiction, Viking sagas, historical romances, social satires, innumerable magazine articles, at least three plays, 62 archaeological papers and a rollicking History of Orkney. He once crafted ten who-dunnits in a fortnight (Sayers paid him five guineas for The Coincidence). Marcel Carné turned Joe’s slapstick thriller His First Offence (1934) into one of French cinema’s earliest classics, Drole de Drame. Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger picked up Joe’s The Spy in Black for their first, historic, collaboration. ‘Clouston was a nice, tweedy bookish man,’ Powell recorded in his memoirs. ‘We pelted him with questions and left him as flat as a gutted herring.’
Born in Cumberland in 1870, Joe had settled in his father’s homeland by the turn of the century, eventually running the council for the last 14 years of his life. The historical novel (Garmiscath, 1904), the time-travel fantasy (The Man in Steel, 1939) and the two spy tales (The Man From the Clouds, Beastmark the Spy, 1918, 1941) set locally have limited appeal to modern tastes but broke new ground in Orklit terms and deserve credit for that. His triumph was the free-spirited ‘Lunatic’ series, brilliantly comic accounts of the mischief wrought by an asylum escapee on staid Edwardians. They generated three films (all lost) and, probably, (the OED is double-checking) introduced the term ‘bonkers’ into the English language. The Lunatic at Large (1899) has just been reissued by the thoughtful San Francisco-based publishing house, McSweeney’s. Brooklyn author Jonathan Ames hails it as ‘a lost classic, no longer lost.’
The seven novels’ importance lies beyond their humour. The product principally of a youth embedded in the Edinburgh asylum run by his father, psychiatrist (Sir) Thomas Clouston, the books anticipate by several decades the sympathy for mental unorthodoxy articulated by Ken Kesey and Jean Rhys. ‘If you want to know how ample a thing life can be, become a certified lunatic,’ advises Joe’s anti-hero Francis Mandell-Essington. ‘In his time he was as popular as Jeeves,’ noted Joe’s friend Eric Linklater.
Was this all too close to the bone for Orcadians? Islanders made up such a proportion of the Edinburgh asylum’s population that the place was nicknamed ‘little Orkney’. Kirkwall library displays busts of Linklater, Edwin Muir, George Mackay Brown, but none of Joe. Simon Hall’s recent History of Orkney Literature fails to mention the Lunatic novels entirely. ‘Those who are chumps enough to miss it,’ P. G. Wodehouse wrote of The Lunatic At Large Again (1927), ‘deserve no consideration.’ But it is not all bad news. ‘I personally thank my stars,’ the perennially hard-living Joe scribbled to a friend in September, 1931, ‘that there are still people in these islands obliging enough to give me credit.’ When he died he left £4341 13s 8d, and an OBE awarded for…. political services.
Erlend Clouston worked for the Guardian for 19 years, latterly as Scottish correspondent. He was born in Shetland, and therefore has no direct genealogical connection to the subject of this article.