Wednesday, 5 June 2013

Dissatisfaction and disquiet

[The Waterstones Scottish book of the month is James Robertson’s The Professor of Truth. Here is what he writes about the novel on the Waterstones website:]

After my last novel, And the Land Lay Still – which fills nearly 700 pages, has a huge cast of characters and covers 60 years of social and political change – I was keen to write something more concise and closely focused. At the same time, I had become increasingly interested in, and disturbed by, the story of the destruction of Pan Am Flight 103 over the town of Lockerbie 25 years ago this year, and its long and complicated aftermath. Gradually I came to realise that these two strands of thinking were not in competition but were drawing together. The Professor of Truth is the outcome of that process.

Like many other people, I can remember exactly what I was doing on the evening of 21st December 1988 as news of that terrible event broke. I was working as a bookseller in what was, at the time, the only Edinburgh branch of Waterstones, on George Street. The shop was crowded with customers buying Christmas presents. A colleague who mistakenly thought I was from the Lockerbie area phoned in to tell me there’d been a plane crash there. When I got home later, that was the only story on the news. The scale of the devastation, the fact that it had happened in Scotland, and the announcement a few days later that it had been caused not by bad weather or mechanical failure but by a bomb, made a deep and lasting impression.

The ramifications of the Lockerbie bombing have spread far beyond Scotland, of course. There has been much dissatisfaction and disquiet over the conduct of the investigation into the bombing, the process and outcome of the trial of the two men accused of carrying it out, the conviction of one of those men, and his subsequent release from prison, on compassionate grounds, eight years later. A year ago that man, Abdelbaset Ali al-Megrahi, died of cancer even as his country Libya was emerging from a bloody revolution. Yet despite his death and the overthrow of the Gaddafi regime, blamed by the USA and UK for the bombing, serious questions about Lockerbie persist, and the affair continues to cast a long shadow over the Scottish justice system.

Julian Barnes has said that fiction is “telling the truth by telling lies”. One of the functions of a novel is to explore what it is to be human, and to do this more subtly than is possible through, for example, the hard facts or loaded opinions of journalism. I could have attempted a work of non-fiction about Lockerbie, but there is no shortage of such material on the subject, both in print and on-line. What I wanted to do instead was move away from the real event, and imagine the emotional and philosophical journey that might be taken by a man after losing his loved ones in a similar set of circumstances. In the novel, that journey also becomes a physical one: Alan Tealing, a university lecturer, receives a visit from an American former intelligence officer, and this prompts him to travel from snowbound Scotland to Australia, in one last attempt to unravel the truth about who killed his wife and daughter.

So The Professor of Truth is a novel which grew out of, rather than is about, the Lockerbie affair. I hope it is read, and is readable, as a novel, but if it can also help to expose some of the still hidden aspects of the real events that inspired it, that in my view would be no bad thing.

James Robertson, for
The Professor of Truth, by James Robertson, is available at your local Waterstones bookshop ( or online at (

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