The Singing Sands - Josephine Tey

Hell was concentrated essence of a winter morning after a sleepless night of self-distaste.

I’ve been meaning to write a review of The Singing Sands since I first read it but, as is the case with books I really like, I’ve just never really found a way to start.

The things about The Singing Sands is that the idea of the book is rather sad: Tey wrote the book while terminally ill. She did get to correct the typescripts for the book, but the book itself was published posthumously a few months after her death in 1952.

I find it impossible to disconnect the circumstances of the writing process from the book.

And yet, the story told in The Singing Sands is not a sad story at all. Quite the contrary.

The book begins with Alan Grant suffering from burn-out and increased anxiety attacks. So much so that he is signed off work and takes off on a holiday to visit his sister in Perthshire to go for an extended fishing holiday.

‘Have you any hobbies?’ the doctor had asked, his admiring glance going on to his shoes.
‘No,’ Grant had said shortly.
What do you do when you go on holiday?’
I fish.’ ‘
You fish?’ said the psychologist, seduced from his Narcissian gazing. ‘And you don’t consider that a hobby?’
‘Certainly not.’
‘What is it, then, would you say?’
‘Something between a sport and a religion.’

This is not the first time in the series that we see Grant suffering from mental health issues. Tey introduced the reader to this in previous books, and for me it is one of the reasons that I really like her main character. He’s human, and like so many of his generation – suffering from PTSD after the horrors of WWI – he is trying to cope as best as he can. Grant is not edgy or dark, and he doesn’t require the help of drink or other addiction to cope like so many of his noir counterparts. He’s just trying to get on, even if the spells of anxiety make things difficult for him.

Tey portrays this in a quite realistic way. There are two great scenes in the book that show the irrationality of Grant’s situation and how much of a fight he has to put up.

The first scene happens at the start of the book when Grant embarks on his travels up north, and is confined to a train compartment.

Alan Grant, watching the lights of the yard float past beyond the steamed-up window and listening to that gentle sound of the wheels clicking over the points, was glad because the end of the journey was the end of a night’s suffering. Grant had spent the night trying not to open the door into the corridor. Wide awake, he had lain on his expensive pallet and sweated by the hour. He had sweated not because the compartment was too hot—the air-conditioning worked to a marvel—but because (O Misery! O Shame! O Mortification!) the compartment represented A Small Enclosed Space. To the normal eye the compartment was just a neat little room with a bunk, a wash-basin, a mirror, luggage racks in assorted sizes, shelves that appeared or disappeared as bidden, a fine little drawer for one’s hypothetical valuables, and a hook for one’s presumably unhocked watch. But to the initiate, the sad and haunted initiate, it was A Small Enclosed Space. Overwork, the doctor called it.

On arrival, Grant is alerted by the train attendant to an unresponsive passenger. This takes Grant’s mind off his own problems but he absentmindedly picks up a paper that the dead man has left behind. When Grant later looks at the paper he is faced with a riddle.

The beasts that talk,
The streams that stand,
The stones that walk,
The singing sand,
That guard the way To Paradise.

It is the riddle that sets of the mystery plot of the story and sees Grant travel to the fictional island of Cladda in the Hebrides, where Grant looks to find “the singing sands”. (Btw, they do exist…just in a different location.)

In all honesty, the mystery plot of The Singing Sands is not great. In fact, the mystery part is really far-fetched and ridiculous, but I did find it highly entertaining because it is such a stark contrast to the sobriety and realism of the rest of the story.

But then, I love Tey’s books (all of them) and that for reasons that have nothing to do with the mysteries. In fact, I believe that her very first book, The Man in the Queue, in the Grant series was a deliberate mockery of the mystery genre altogether.

So, no, I don’t come to Tey for mystery.

It’s always been the background and observations of the author about her surroundings and the times she lived in that have made Tey’s books special for me. And she was a very astute observer, which is also shown in her plays (written under her other – earlier – pen name of Gordon Daviot).

One of Tey’s bones of contention that she picks up on and that provides some light relief in The Singing Sands is the rise of Scottish nationalism in Tey’s time. For various reasons of her own, she was not a fan, and I find reading about her take on the issue hilarious because it is on point:

‘There’s nothing wrong with Archie Brown’s head,’ Laura said tartly. ‘If he hadn’t had the wit to think up this rôle for himself he would be teaching school in some god-forsaken backwater and even the school inspector wouldn’t have known his name.’ ‘He’s very conspicuous on a moor, anyhow,’ Grant said. ‘He’s even worse on a platform. Like one of those awful souvenir dolls that tourists take home; and just about as Scottish.’ ‘Isn’t he Scots?’ ‘No. He hasn’t a drop of Scottish blood in him. His father came from Liverpool and his mother was an O’Hanrahan.’ ‘Odd how all the most bigoted patriots are Auslanders,’ Grant said. ‘I don’t think he’ll get very far with those xenophobes, the Gaels.’ ‘He has a much worse handicap than that,’ Laura said. ‘What is that?’ ‘His Glasgow accent.’ ‘Yes. It is pretty repellent.’ ‘I didn’t mean that. I mean, every time he opens his mouth his audience is reminded of the possibility of being ruled from Glasgow: a fate worse than death.’

I often wonder if Tey would have changed her mind had she lived in our times.

It’s a thought that occupied me especially a couple of weeks ago when I had a chance to see two original corrected typescripts of The Singing Sands at the National Library of Scotland.

I know, it’s geekdom gone mad, but the typescript was available and I was very close to Edinburgh for a work trip anyway…so I asked the library to reserve the material for my visit:  I was presented with two corrected typescripts – one with editor’s notes – and two more corrected typescripts of two of her plays, and some music/songs.

Unfortunately, I was not allowed to take pictures.

One of the plays, Dickon, was about Richard III, and had her notes to the actors on the historical background in the back. I do have an electronic copy of the play and the notes are in there too, but I had not read it when I went to library, and since I didn’t know what exactly was in the archive box, it was a great surprise. The notes in the back btw. seemed to me like her blueprint or outline for The Daughter of Time, which, if you have not read it, I recommend. It is and it isn’t a “Golden Age mystery”.

It was something very special to handle the same copies that Tey would have handled, and see her handwriting up close. There was a distinct difference between the notes to the editor and the notes to herself, and I don’t just mean legibility.

It was also very eerie to know that she would have been very ill when she did handle the papers.

I may have giggled a few times, too, but obviously had to control my giddiness or risk being shushed. (Not necessarily by library staff. The NLS is known for patrons shushing other library users.) However, there were some hilarious typos and corrections.

One was a deletion she made when describing the character of Wee Archie in The Singing Sands. The character was a type of Scottish nationalist that annoyed her very much, and in the passage that was ultimately deleted, Tey let rip.

So with all that background, imagine how much I had to laugh when I stepped out of the library and landed right in the middle of an Independence march! The route of the march led down the street that the library is on. They say there were about 200,000 people.

Had Tey lived on, or had she lived in our time, I wonder if she would have changed her mind about, not “Wee Archie”, but the independence movement as a whole. I don’t like to speculate about what people might have done or thought, but I would have liked to hear her take on our times.

Well, I would have liked to hear take on a whole range of other topics, too. Tey’s life was cut short when it was evident that she had a lot more to say. And I would have loved to have heard, or rather read, it.

Anyway, back to The Singing Sands.

If you read it for the mystery, have some wine nearby. If you’re not reading it for the mystery, enjoy your trip to the singing sands and to the place that helps Grant find the resolve to battle his demons.

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