Small book that meets all expectations from gifted author and poet

Small Expectations, Donald S Murray. Two Ravens Press, £9.99.

Donald Murray’s book Small Expectations is a myriad of poems and short stories which weave together a Hebridean upbringing encompassing myth and satire, humour, struggle and loss.

Two of the main ideas arising from the book are the loss of native language and (thus) the battle between Gaelic and English … what remains? Not only the threat of a disappearing language, but the disappearance of traditional ways of life are poignantly noted by Murray; work such as Gutting-Knife, Whelks and Sheep Shears are particular in depicting imagery of an everyday life that has all but gone.

Joe and Biddy will not be sitting by the Rayburn waiting for you return.

Their children born in your absence will not be given your name, but – you will learn – be called “Titania”, “Margherita”, “Oberon”

In honour of the TV in the corner constantly switched on.

Let not your mouth froth in anticipation of foods that were once familiar.

But expect instead lasagne, chicken korma, for the Scotch broth you once savoured is long gone … … Though you came to earth on this landscape You no longer quite belong.

Works in the chapter “Voices in the Hebrides” map the physical and emotional battle between being a speaker of both Gaelic and English. The Ghost Inside My Throat throws up torturous imagery of the disadvantages of being brought up with dual language: “two tongues splintering my larynx as it stretched to cope with the lilt and gutturals of my native language [and] the dry precision of the words the coloniser had brought”.

Then there is the mourning in Missing Vocabulary for a fading identity with every lost word or phrase.

Language, a strikingly poignant poem, incorporates both of Murray’s main themes to heart-breaking effect: Gaelic was sown into us like grains of oats, turnip-seed, split potatoes plough folded below earth each spring it took root among the small talk villagers stacked at the peat banks or found gleaming in green fields … … yet now croft land lies fallow Winds keen through rush and nettle, Cold showers of thistledown blow where potatoes stalked and blossomed and words of English broadcast on the air find strange new seed-beds on our lips.

Along with ideas of identity and community there is also a feeling of confinement in the way Murray writes. He notes in his inspirations the song Should I Stay Or Should I Go by the Clash while compiling the book and I think this is something that any islander can relate too. There comes a point in many people’s lives where they reach such an impasse; the beautiful restlessness in Zuguruhe – the title meaning anxious behaviour in migratory birds – certainly rang true with this should-I-stay-or-should-I-goer and, I should think, anyone who can admit to feeling the push and pull of island living.

Small Expectations has a unique brevity all of its own and one could be tempted to read and flick. It may look like a hotchpotch collection of poems, prose and candid insights but it should not be dipped into here and there! Each piece is purposefully sewn into the next, forming a web. The reader would be missing out – and doing the author a great disservice – by doing so.

By reading the book in its entirety the reader can reap the benefits of Murray’s craftsmanship and after all, as Shakespeare wrote, “The web of our life is of a mingled yarn, good and ill together”.

Louise Scollay


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