Book Review: Para Handy

Para Handy, by Neil Munro (Birlinn, 1992, ₤9.99)

The Para Handy stories appeared in the Glasgow Evening News from 1905–1927, and were anthologized in three collections, The Vital Spark, In Highland Harbours with Para Handy and Hurricane Jack of the Vital Spark. This complete edition also contains nineteen uncollected stories.

Writing as Hugh Foulis, Neil Munro tells the story of the Vital Spark, a Clyde puffer. They were all-purpose cargo carriers, the workhorses of trade between Glasgow and the West of Scotland. In the words of her proud captain, Para Handy, she is “aal hold, with a boiler behind, four men and a derrick, and a watter-butt and a pan-loaf in the fo’c’sle. Oh man! She wass the beauty! She wass chust sublime!”

Dougie is the mate, loyal and phlegmatic, to whom Para Handy usually refers when he needs to give his tall tales or “divagations” an air of authority, as in variations of “If Dougie wass here he would tell you.”

Macphail is the engineer, combining misanthropy with a passion for “penny novelles,” pre-Barbara Cartland tales of aristocratic romance.

The Tar does the cooking, when he isn’t asleep, which usually happens when there’s work to be done. He’s replaced by the eponymous Sunny Jim in later stories, whose nickname is taken from an advertisment for a popular breakfast cereal.

Finally, there’s Para Handy’s old shipmate from his younger days, the mythical Hurricane Jack, “so free with his money he would fling it at the birds, so generally accomplished that it would be a treat to be left a month on a desert island alone with him.” In later stories, he descends from Olympus and crews on the Vital Spark.

The presiding virtues in Para Handy’s world are “naitural agility and the kindly word,” meaning the ability to turn any situation to their advantage. This includes subverting the Vital Spark’s schedule so that no festival, fair day, pub or celebration is left unvisited. They also poach salmon, “lift” the odd bit of food or livestock from unsuspecting islanders when stocks are low, and supplement the Vital Spark’s needs from her cargo. Such “high jeenks” occasionally get them sacked, or in trouble with the polis, but like all trickster characters they somehow come out on top.

These vivid and wickedly satirical stories are immensely seductive in this sad, diminished Age of Call Centres, combining freedom of the sea with an almost piratical outlook on life.

The original stories were written with many topical references, which readers of the Glasgow Evening News had no trouble spotting. In this edition, as well as a Foreword and pictures, the text is annotated so that you can look up the meanings of obscure Scots words and contemporary events reflected in the stories. Such things as diverse as cross-channel swimming, the introduction of the Old Age Pension, elections, and the Great War, with its attendant pettifogging rules like the ban on buying rounds.

But you don’t need that to enjoy the stories. They’re “chust sublime!”

The photo shows a Clyde Puffer at Inveraray, named in honour of the Vital Spark.

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