‘Already, Too Late’, by Carl MacDougall

Carl MacDougall’s last book, a memoir with the prophetic title Already, Too Late, was launched at an ‘In Memoriam’ event on 15 August 2023, less than five months after his death. His passing was so sudden and unexpected that many people who had known him felt he was still present at the event. Tributes were read and film clips were shown of Carl with his family and presenting his television programmes, while the voice which speakers read aloud from the pages of his newly launched book was so familiar that it seemed to come from a shared past and a hopeful future, which is the point where all Carl’s books end. Readings by Alan Riach and the actor John Murtagh, and a short talk given by Carl’s grown-up children, Kirsty and Euan, emphasised how deeply his work affected Scottish writing over fifty years, and how widely his energy and his influence, which took so many different forms, will be missed.

Carl’s novels with Secker and Warburg in the 1980s and 90s were experimental and conceptually bold. His publishing history in and beyond Scotland was such that he could hold up his head among the other leading writers of his time, including Alasdair Gray, Tom Leonard, Archie Hind, Alan Spence and Jim Kelman. He knew them well and, especially in the cases of Hind and Gray, visited their homes, knew their families and was a familiar figure to their children. The story of how this creative and personal interplay between these writers and artists energised Scottish writing and art has yet to be told. Parts of it can be seen in Gray’s A Life In Pictures (2010) in his portraits of Carl and his family, and his portraits of Archie, Eleanor and their daughters Sheila and Nellimeg; in Gray’s book cover and illustrations for Carl’s A Scent of Water (1975); and in the pages of Words magazine, edited by Carl in the 1970s from Markinch in Fife, in which appeared some of the earliest published work by Gray, Kelman, Spence and Joan Ure.

All this rich history of Carl’s contribution to the early days of the west of Scotland’s twentieth-century art and literature, one of its greatest periods, could now be lost with Carl’s death. But Already, Too Late has the sting of renewal in its tale, something Carl must have known and worked on to put there. He emailed me an early copy when he was putting the book together and asked for feedback. I got back to him at once: ‘Carl, people need to know this about you.’ I still feel that is true. Carl was never precisely what people thought he was, but his reputation nevertheless came under attack in the Scottish writing community. He fought back with his customary courage, battling the criticism through his chairmanship of Scottish PEN and experiencing a near-fatal heart attack while leading it through one of its most difficult periods. Meanwhile he published his last and best short story collection, Someone Always Robs the Poor, in 2017. 

But this does not prepare the reader for Already, Too Late, a memoir in which Carl shares those things he took pains to hide during his life. That aged nine he was taken into care. That as a child he experienced the deaths of almost all the males of his family, including his father’s. That as an infant he probably taught himself to lip-read and to treasure, above everything, the sound of the human voice. The sensitive, isolated, watchful child records the world around him as if he is an outsider while being in it. He notices the patterns of his grandad’s, granny’s and mother’s shoes under the table. He watches the smoke patterns in the sky over the Kingskettle train-lines. He hears his family’s speech – a warm, intimate, domestic chatter of sayings, shushings and jokes that is truly Scots – mingled with Gaelic from Oban and the harder sounds of Fife. ‘You are how?’ his Highland grandad asks, lifting him up to look at him. Accents moulded by place are present in all Carl’s writing, and the landscape they chart is Scotland. 

Like his friends, Carl wanted to bring working-class Scottish life into art, and like Gray and other artists such as Joan Eardley and playwrights like Hind, Ure and Gray again, he spent his life proving that it could be done. His novels deal with the downtrodden, like the ex-prisoner Andy in The Lights Below (1993) who sets out to discover his crime, and the lost, like Angus McPhail in Stone Over Water (1989) whose quest is to find out who he isBut what Already, Too Late does more than this is make clear the connections between Carl’s fiction and his life. He was no poverty tourist: he had lived there, like all post-war west of Scotland survivors. Nerston Residential School, where he was sent at the age of nine and which is the setting for the last third of the book, is not an imaginary place or a compound of other institutions. It was a real children’s prison which was the subject of a study in 1959. Set up on rigidly socialist lines, it managed every aspect of its young charges’ lives while exposing them to neglect and abuse. Conditions for compulsory entry included a child’s ‘failure to adjust to life’, ‘failure to learn’, ‘failure to behave’ or ‘failure to be happy’. (Evidence of these deficiencies included ‘constant naughtiness … compulsive wandering [and] masturbation’).1 The victims and perpetrators of abuse spring from the same place, Carl shows us, and his own childhood seems a series of these dislocations in a post-war society crushed by fear, austerity and grief. This gives his fiction its sense of isolation and detachment following a breakage – of birth right, innocence, the right to speak freely or whatever else separates someone from what they may rightfully claim. With it came his determination to follow a vision and to offer hope, at least in the imagination. With this encouragement, he believed, there was always the possibility of something better. 

Allan Massie, reviewing the book in The Scotsman, seems accurate when he argues that Carl’s memoir is as much fiction as fact because of the ways its dialogue reveals imagination playing on memory. Similarly, all the obituaries which appeared in the days following Carl’s death (in The TimesThe GuardianThe NationalThe Herald, and The Independent among others) recognised how much of an impact Carl made on Scottish writing. Already, Too Late is one of the best books of his career. It is an appropriate end to a lifetime in literature that helped change the world Carl knew.

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End Notes

  1. J. G. Crew, ‘An Experiment in Living: A Residential Child Guidance Clinic’, The Australian Quarterly, 31.2 (June 1959), pp. 61-71.
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David Manderson

David Manderson is a novelist, short story and non-fiction writer. His first novel Lost Bodies was published in 2011. He followed it with two Scotnote study texts about Scottish films with the ASLS before bringing out his fourth work, The Anti-hero’s Journey: the Work and Life of Alan Sharp with Peter Lang in 2023. He has also published widely in magazines, journals and online. He edited Nerve Magazine, ran a spoken word event at the Tchai Ovna cafe for a decade, curated the Real to Reel short film festival at the GFT, and a season of Alan Sharp films at the same venue in 2023.

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