A Truth Lover by John Herdman

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Published by Polygon, Edinburgh, 1978

A Truth Lover by John Herdman was published first in Akros in 1973, and again in 3 Novellas by Polygon Fiction, in 1978.

The tale begins with the ominous line: 'Freedom: by definition, what has not been attained'

Truth Loving Man

A curious series of events in the Cromlech bar leads to an act of incredible violence. Participating is the narrator, Duncan Straiton, later called as a witness to his associate being glassed in the face. Told in diary and flashback.

Alan Bryce with whom he has searching arguments is a young confidante and does not return in the narrative after separation. Thereafter a story in which we find the young man uptight and unpleasant, to a poorer elderly man, collecting glasses in the pub. We find out for example that he detests beggars, and presumably still does at the time of writing, which is much later.

An old school acquaintance of Duncan's, one James Jardine is glassed in the face, and this is the event that sets the story a kicking. So far, and probably until the end, we will philosophically at least only be asking what the definition of 'truth' is, vis the title. I notice that the word 'Edinburgh' doesn't appear, and although landmarks such as The Mound do, the city not.

Quest Begins

Feeling the absolute need to refuse to appear in court as a witness to the glassing, Duncan Straiton leaves for Europe. There should be no doubt in thew reader's mind that the decision is class-based - Duncan Straiton cannot help siding with the 'working class' individual. Hinting at the author's own literary heritage, the assault is described as taking place with the 'dogged violence' of the Frankenstein's Monster.

Further, Straiton confesses to a prejudice against the law, which is a deeper prejudice about authority in general, surely. He writes that in defying the law, 'I hope to make the acquaintance of my own nature, discover the truth through the suffering which this perverse commitment will entail.' Jardine loses an eye in the incident and Straiton assures the reader that justice will be done, because there are plenty other witnesses, so it is this refusal to witness that is key.

The Law

Almost inevitably, it is the specific crime of contempt that Straiton is punished for. 'No judge looks upon any crime with greater abhorrence than upon contempt of court'. Straiton addresses the judge saying 'I have long trained myself to hate you judge' and delivering the angriest portion of the book, possibly the angriest portion of all John Herdman's work. Straiton is accused of arch pride and arrogance in defying the court, and sent to prison for three months.

In prison, Duncan Straiton is fairly content, and 'mercifully alone'. There he reflects on the ego as the false self, something that must be killed and he likens the situation to an encounter he had with a sick black rabbit, when he was 15. The young Duncan's attempts to kill the rabbit are harder than he expected, but even though he knows he is stronger, the ego can hide, slip away, adapt and always reappear somewhere else. This killing of the ego, he sees as unavoidable, horrible and distasteful. The journey is like another incident Straiton reflects upon, which sees him leave town on an impulse, one wintery day, and in unsuitable clothing, and tackle a hillwalk in a snowstorm.

The book of the Bible that Straition is drawn to in prison is Jonah.


  • The man from the fable who belives the world to be flat, and who returns from his global expedition satisfied after giving up at the point where he may have been about to be proved wrong.
  • Guy Lozelle, a homosexual Canadian whom Straiton meets in Paris. Straiton leads him on, although he confesses to the reader his prejudice, and as Lozell's hopes reach their height, Straiton humiliates him and breaks a bottle of whisky in the man's rooms, as he flees.
  • In Zurich, where the narrator describes himself as taking part in a 'drab, picaresque farce' he meets a hopeful young poet called Benedict Parimalvoni. Once again, Straiton leads this man on and then humiliates him, with a cruel but possibly truthful critique of his poetry.
  • Frau Herzog is the fastidious Christian owner of Straiton's lodgings in Zurich.
  • To prove that 'falsehood can be as absolute as truth', Straiton tells us of a character he once knew, called Tom Bremner, an absolute liar. Straiton is fascinated that Bremner lies for the sake of it, but Bremner over many years becomes degraded, seedier, and finally kills himself.

After Prison

Upon release from prison, Straiton wanders the UK a Little before returning to Scotland and more typical Herdman territory, taking a menial job in a Cairngorm hotel, in which he takes great, almost Calvinist pleasure.


As a youngster Duncan Straiton dresses as Mozart to go to a children's fancy dress ball. Nobody recognises him as Mozart as such, despite his precocious attempts to perfect the look. The young Straiton is astonished and offended when somebody points out that there are many eighteenth century gentlemen at the ball and responds: 'But there is only one Mozart.'