Craig Smith The Mile (Pilrig Press, 2013)
by Karyn Dougan
A nationalist, a unionist and a couldnae-care-lesser walk into a pub.
Ian, Euan and Stuart are on a lad’s night out, eager to catch up and get started on a pub-crawl down the Royal Mile. As the drink continues to pour, their evening starts to take an unexpected turn. They encounter some interesting strangers who compel them to reflect on their country’s history and culture, not to mention how they will be voting in the Scottish referendum in a week’s time. Most of this is music to Ian’s ears, as he is eager to convince his pals that the only way is Yes. He has his work cut out for him, but thanks to an old man in tartan trousers, it’s going to be a long night.
Smith’s novel breathes some life into the independence debate, managing to lift its seriousness with some of that famous Scottish banter. The Mile is a fast-paced boozer around Edinburgh, taking in the highlights of Scotland’s history and figuring out how it will influence potential voters (or, in this case, our lads). It is a bold, quirky piece, but arguably one that works. Smith could even be accused of making politics fun.
The characters have a life of their own, mostly achieved by how familiar they feel. Smith seems to have effortlessly captured Edinburgh and its inhabitants, to the point where everything, from the pubs to the lads, are instantly recognisable. In particular, the characters of Jock and Ian have been written extremely well. Though flawed, Ian is undoubtedly relatable. Like most, he can be pushy in his need to debate and win people over to his own opinions, but this is ultimately fuelled by an admirable passion and understandable frustration with outside forces making life difficult for his family. The other characters could perhaps have done with a little more fleshing out, in particular that of Stuart. Still, they are all fairly accurate portrayals of a group of friends you would stumble across in your local, if not necessarily exact representations of the three political viewpoints.
Politically speaking, the novel is perhaps unbalanced. While this is hardly surprising given the fact it is being hailed “the first indy ref novel”, it should not be considered a flaw. It is, in part, an unapologetic reflection of an opinion held by many and may offer those of opposing or little interest a light-hearted insight into a Yes voter. However, while it deals with the impending referendum vote, The Mile is not necessarily driven by politics.
Whenever the political tension in the novel begins to take over, Smith’s excellent understanding of timing punctures the mood with humour and always manages to bring it back to just three mates having a good night, knowing that the current political culture is to be bantered with as much as debated. These characters can argue and disagree, but their friendship won’t allow it to come between them. In the end, this novel is about the relationships we have in our lives (our friends and our lovers, even our bosses and our countries) and explores which are worth fighting for and which we should learn to let go of. It is vital to understand that The Mile does not carry a simple “vote Yes” message. It is one man’s reflection on the opportunity facing his country and how he believes it could potentially change for the better.
A witty comedy with a big heart and surprise waiting at every pub stop, The Mile is a whirlwind of laughs, loss and love. If that isn’t enough to get you reading, then you may never find out how Scotland is like a millionaire’s shortcake …