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This is to be a post about a 30-year-old BBC Scotland series, β€œStrathblair.”

But first let’s talk about a theory of stories. Orson Scott Card is the only writer I’m aware of who has a well developed theory of stories. (In mentioning Card, I should say that I respect him as a writer, though he has greatly damaged his career with his right-wing, religious-fanatic politics.) Card’s theory is that the need for stories is a basic human need and that all human beings will seek and find and consume stories much the same way we seek and find and consume food. What follows, then, is a kind of academic question: Where do people get their stories, and what kind of stories do people want and need?

Though it seems strange to me, some people like and prefer here-and-now stories with characters and themes that resemble their own lives — or, at least, their aspirations for their own lives. But such stories bore the living daylights out of me. We get a steady diet of that kind of story just by reading the news, or even just by listening to people talk in social situations. For whatever reason — and if that reason is escapism I make no apologies — it’s only stories set in another time and another place that I find worthwhile. And though I make no apologies for escapism, which I see as one of the important purposes of stories and literature, I find that I’m often apologizing for my disinterest in the here-and-now fare that makes up the bulk of what’s to be found on the streaming services (and in novels as well, the kind of novels that I never, ever read). The contrast with contemporary reality is part of the appeal of science fiction and fantasy. Those stories are almost always in another time and another place. Historical fiction, and classic fiction, are also of course set in another time and another place. Some people, I think, would bypass a series such as “Strathblair” because it’s 30 years old. But for me, that’s part of the appeal.

“Strathblair” ran for two seasons on the BBC, 1993 and 1994. It is set in the 1940s, just after World War II. The setting is rural Scotland, in the hills of Perthshire. I have watched seven episodes so far. At first I thought the series would be a kind of Scottish β€œLittle House on the Prairie.” But it has turned out to be more adult than that, with some dark themes. Characters include newlyweds with no farming experience who move to a neglected farm; a grouchy laird; and an even more grouchy old farmer who is very much set in his ways. The series appears to be an authentic picture of rural Scottish life in that period. The credits include an agricultural adviser. There is a great deal of fascinating detail — accurate, I assume, because of the agricultural adviser — about how the farming (mostly sheep) is done. In the kitchen scenes we often see what they are cooking and eating. Whether they’re at home or in a pub, we get a view of their drinking habits (a lot). There are lots of old cars and horse-drawn farming equipment. Cows get milked. Hay gets ricked. Sheep get dipped. Dogs are a necessity. The outhouse is in full view. Chickens, though treated well, live their short lives. Even what they’re wearing is fascinating, including the tweeds in classic styles such as the laird’s Norfolk jackets.

“Strathblair” can be streamed on Amazon Prime Video.


  1. Malinda wrote:

    Hi David πŸ™‚

    When up against that tired old criticism of ‘escapism’ in reading or writing made pretty commonly by what I can only point to as the dim-witted β€” I always fall back to Tolkien’s pronouncement on it (and its legitimacy as human need) from his ‘On Fairy-Stories’ (originally a lecture given to U of St. Andrews in Scotland, 1939, and then later elaborated upon and published in the ’40’s):

    ‘ I have claimed that Escape is one of the main functions of fairy-stories, and since I do not disapprove of them, it is plain that I do not accept the tone of scorn or pity with which ‘Escape’ is now so often used. Why should a man be scorned if, finding himself in prison, he tries to get out and go home? Or if he cannot do so, he thinks and talks about other topics than jailers and prison-walls? ‘

    On that note how is there even a debate about whether escapism is something one should apologize for? How many escape into their cults or scripture or rituals and no one bats an eyelash? In that case it’s not ‘escape’ that’s on trial. It’s the balm itself and what that is that’s in the dock I guess.

    On the topic of contemporary writing, I find I don’t object to contemporary as the window itself into the media (whether novel, tv, or film) but for me it’s all to do with how it’s done and if it offers something vital or wise or strange; whether it tugs me. In essence, how it’s done and what it gives. Like you, in stories, I’m most inclined to the classics, hist fic, fantasy, some sci-fi, lots of non-fic of all size and shape, and memoirs in particular (which may or may not be contemporary, though usually they are), but I’ve been enchanted from time to time by the right here-and-now book or production.

    What are your thoughts about here-and-now writers that write from the scenery of their foreign cultures and experiences? Often I find that that alone can feel like a whole other time and place, though it’s happening in real time (in the story).

    A handful of cotemp writers I’ve read some of but plan to read a lot more of in coming days (which spring to mind & I hope I’m spelling these right): Murakami, Yanigahara, Donna Tartt, Cormac McCarthy, Kaled Hosseini, Palahniuk (got to go to a reading of his once, which he showed up to in a shiny robe of all things, super fun) . . . I’m sure I’m forgetting lots of superb ones which I will kick myself for later.

    A series which used to be on a lot when I was young that reminds me a little of your ‘Strathblair’ is ‘All Creatures Great & Small.’ Don’t remember enough of it but that some of it was humorous. A blind Yorkshire lady in her 90’s named Catherine I used to care for was a big fan of it.

    Oh, also, really like your Edna selection β€” you were uncannily reading my mind because I was just searching my stacks the other day for my Edna collected poems wanting to locate her badly (I finally did! β€” and other stuff) and then I saw your post. πŸ™‚ She is a master.

    Finally, my father has a Royal typewriter the perfect shade of opal blue and refuses to give it to me. But my favorite thing once used to be typing out song lyrics and letters to friends on that thing (and an electric one we had β€” can’t remember the brand) as a kid.

    Anyway there’s music in them.

    Thursday, April 7, 2022 at 3:43 pm | Permalink
  2. Malinda wrote:


    Forgot I was going to mention above: things set in an historic time and place are not always promising either simply because of it β€” take ‘Bridgerton’ as prime example. I personally do not understand the hype over it. I appreciate very much that they are a pop show that took a highly inclusive approach to the casting, which made me sad I couldn’t get into it at all like everyone else around me seemed to do β€” but honestly, I tried several episodes and could barely stomach it. It’s so popular though, I’m afraid to chastise it but really it’s awful β€” proving period does not equal perfection (in this case).


    Thursday, April 7, 2022 at 4:11 pm | Permalink
  3. daltoni wrote:

    Hi Malinda: I’ll write more tomorrow morning about your first comment while I’m having coffee, but for now, Bridgerton: I quit watching after five minutes of the first episode. πŸ™‚

    Thursday, April 7, 2022 at 4:26 pm | Permalink
  4. Malinda wrote:


    So relieved there’s another initiate of the secretive ‘Bridgerton’ Makes Me Totally Nauseous Club β€” a club that is so secret if friends knew I was a member of it β€” they would not understand it and likely be very hurt, since they love B so much.

    It seems to be a truth universally acknowledged that if you’re a Jane Austen fan, you must be, you will be, a Bridgerton fan, too β€” as though one instinctively follows the other.

    (β€” Which really in my eyes is doing a disservice to Ms. Austen?)

    Please write back whenever’s convenient, but morning coffee time is for sure always idyllic for that type of thing! (Definitely one of my fav times of day.)

    Thursday, April 7, 2022 at 4:59 pm | Permalink
  5. daltoni wrote:

    Hi, Malinda: Tolkien! I have read a good bit about Tolkien, so it’s possible that I came across the escapism quote years ago and absorbed the idea but forgot its source. But it’s just as possible that the idea developed in my own head, since I have been a reader of science fiction and fantasy since I was a child and have felt compelled to defend my taste often enough. We might ask if vacations are about escapism, for example, or even if cocktails or a slosh of wine are about escapism. We might also argue that a here-and-now rule, or the idea that stories should be “like life” (another suffocating idea) puts too many limits on the human imagination, both for writer and reader.

    I must admit that I don’t read contemporary foreign writers. Maybe I would if a superb review led me to think that I might like something in particular. But I also read a lot of nonfiction and a lot of so-called news, so I think it would be fair to say that I satisfy my curiosity about the here-and-now world with nonfiction. I’d far rather read a contemporary memoir than a here-and-now novel.

    If you don’t have a typewriter but would like to have one, the best option is to find a typewriter shop, if there is one near you. But there aren’t many typewriter shops anymore, so the next-best option is to buy a typewriter on eBay. We need to keep the typewriter renaissance going! There is some good typewriter discussion (and a lot of typewriter portraits) on Reddit at /r/typewriters. If I had the storage, I’d buy many more typewriters. There is a great value, I think, in buying more typewriters than we actually need, to give them safe homes where they can survive into the future and to keep them out of landfills. The value of old typewriters has bottomed and is starting to rise, and it’s easy to imagine that the typewriters that survive until, say, 100 years from now will be quite valuable.

    Friday, April 8, 2022 at 6:50 am | Permalink
  6. Malinda wrote:

    David: Thank you for the generous info on how to obtain a typewriter of my own (since dad is stingy and doesn’t even use the Royal, it sits dormant in its case, but what can you do?) I’ll have to look into it and see if there are any kind of vintage typewriter shops here in San Diego County β€” we seem to have a little of everything in this area, so why not typewriters? If that fails like you said β€” there’s eBay.

    Switching topics, it’s a bit timely for me that we’re having this discussion on taste or theory of what prevails in people to ignite them to create or consume ‘story’ β€” and how that turns.

    I happen to just now be flying through a book on writing put together by a writing prof, and it’s probably the best one so far I’ve picked up. Her approaches struck a real chord with me but also I don’t necessarily agree with her every dictum. For ex, in general, she steers her students away from writing what they don’t know toward what they have personally experienced but don’t think is worthy. (Standard?) What’s key about this though is that she wants them to dig into the ground of their deepest buried life to find their real selves. Attractively, she calls it ‘compost.’ Truthfully, it’s one of the best chapters in her book.

    So I know you were saying a rule such as writing fiction ‘like life’ is suffocating β€” but what about writing ‘like inner life’ as she’s suggesting with her fertilize-it compost metaphor. I do find it intriguing . . . and fits in with other notions I’ve been ruminating over, like the inevitable suffering that often produces meaning or art. β€” But I did also disagree with her (even before talking to you about story) in this mode of hers to stop students from writing the fantastical or fabricated. Why does it have to be either/or? β€” was my first thought. She could be stifling the spark of some really good imagination.

    So, I’m torn because I am really caught up in writers who have rich ‘inner life’ and time and place are important to me but also not everything to me. There’s a lot I look at in my literature life β€” like lyricism, the mind(s) specifically you’re wading in, what they divulge. But time and place are virulent and necessary because you get to live a whole new atmosphere foreign to you, which is sometimes the whole point.

    I suppose this puts me forever on the fence of liking whatever appeals to my sensibilities or my most treasured philosophies, and in the process finding the can’t-live-without moments, the revelations.

    Friday, April 8, 2022 at 4:54 pm | Permalink
  7. daltoni wrote:

    Hi Malinda: It’s all very complicated, isn’t it? I can only make an observation or two. For example, there are many kinds of writing, so generalizations have limits. Too much self-disclosure in, say, a blog or a newspaper op-ed would probably not be appropriate. And yet most kinds of memoirs would demand a high level of self-disclosure, in that the writer’s inner life may be the key to the story. Along those lines, a friend, Jonathan, who has written seven books including a memoir, says that there is no crime in a writer worse than insincerity. Also, let’s not forget nonfiction, for example books that are written for the purpose of persuasion in “the marketplace of ideas” and which may require a great deal of research — that is, stuff the writer didn’t know, at least until the research was done. As for teaching writing (I am skeptical about the degree to which that can be done), there is writing written as an exercise, and there is writing written for publication. Writing teachers, when assigning exercises, probably do well to tell students to stick to what they know.

    Having said that I am skeptical about the degree to which writers can be taught, I’d add this: I have never known anyone who could write who was not a voracious reader. My personal view would be that writers best learn by reading. A reader with a talent for writing will naturally read in a critical and thoughtful way. And then, when a writer reaches the point of getting into print, the next most important thing is working with a good editor.

    I’d have one other observation that should be taken with a grain of salt, since it relates no doubt to my newspaper career, and newspaper writing is a particular kind of writing. Newspaper editors are always modeling the mind of the reader, with little or no interest in the mind of the writer (or reporter). I wonder if writing teachers ever talk about that. The emphasis in “creative writing” always seems to be on the mind of the writer (hence the reference to “compost”). I would venture the opinion that any writer, even a memoirist, is unlikely to ever be published unless that writer can model the mind of the intended reader. That is, writers must ask themselves, with every sentence, “Am I producing the effect in the mind of the reader that I want to produce?” Editors (and agents, who are often good editors, I think) are the gatekeepers on the way to publication, and the final judgments of editors and agents are always going to be based entirely, or nearly entirely, on the effect a piece of writing produces in the minds of readers.

    I like the idea of “compost,” but I think it’s only half an idea until something more is added, which I might call resonance. To what degree can a writer’s own compost be made to resonate in a meaningful way with the as-yet-unturned compost in the minds of readers? It’s that resonance with the reader, fertilizing the reader’s mind through resonance with the writer’s mind, that makes a story good to read and good to publish.

    Saturday, April 9, 2022 at 9:12 am | Permalink
  8. Lori wrote:

    Strathblair became my all time favorite Scottish TV show when I discovered it on Amazon Prime. I liken it to All Creatures Great and Small, So much so that I saved the last 3 episodes for weekend viewing, But alas, it was not to be. Amazon’s provider yanked the program with no advance the first week of April, 2022, A Scottish BBC program, it was never shown in the US from my research, Neither DVDs nor VHS tapes released. I hope it becomes available to finish but in the meantime I’ve ordered the book the series was based on,

    Thursday, April 28, 2022 at 4:59 pm | Permalink
  9. daltoni wrote:

    Hi Lori: Ack! That’s terrible that you missed the last three episodes! I ended up watching all the episodes of both seasons, and I thoroughly enjoyed it. It’s one of those series in which one becomes attached to the characters. Let’s hope it returns to streaming someday…

    Thursday, April 28, 2022 at 5:06 pm | Permalink

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