Monthly Archives: November 2014


Nairn in Darkness and Light

AMID the chatter and babble of the referendum debate, certain words and phrases rang out and were repeated, over and over. But among those echoing words, surely few were used as inconsistently or confusingly as the one around which, in a sense, the whole conversation revolved: nationalism. This inconsistency was most striking among Yes campaigners. For while some were keen to defend the virtues of the ‘civic’ from the reputation of the ‘ethnic’, many were equally keen to distance themselves altogether. ‘I am not a nationalist, but…’ was as common a refrain as ‘I hate all nationalism, so…’.

What was clear throughout, then, was that this remains a difficult and, for many, a dirty word. What was equally clear was the lack of thinking that surrounds it. Over the past five decades, Tom Nairn has worked to counter this lack of thinking. Few have written as cogently and comprehensively about nationalism, and few have explored so thoroughly this country’s ‘odd historical sidestream’ or its slow crawl back towards self-rule.

Just a few days before the referendum, Luath Press published this weighty anthology of Nairn’s essays which, if the introduction is anything to go by, is aimed primarily at ‘younger readers’ not already familiar with his work. The thirty pieces collected here first appeared between 1964 and April of this year, and together they provide a clear outline of how his thinking has developed and why it has endured. Though they cover a range of topics, from the Royal Family to 9/11, Europe and Enoch Powell, the principle focus throughout is what Nairn calls the ‘Modern Janus’: nationalism, and its Scottish strain in particular.

Though it does little service to his precision and subtlety to summarise, his basic argument is that Scottish nationalism, unlike many other varieties, has not grown from oppression or exploitation. Instead, it is a response to the failure of the British state, post-empire. It is ‘at once a product of the collapse of the system, and the sharpest possible comment on the advanced state of this collapse’. Much of his historical analysis focuses on the peculiarities of the Scottish example – why, for instance, nationalism did not take hold here in the nineteenth century, when it was spreading across much of the rest of Europe. The nation’s economic success in the previous century; the emigration, to England and beyond, of the intelligentsia; and the subsequent failure of ‘a higher romantic-national and intellectual culture’ to develop: each contributed, he argues, to this tardiness.

In his introduction to this collection, Anthony Barnett, founder of openDemocracy, writes that ‘despite his unmatched scholarship and range of reading, anything that risks turning Tom into an academic would give a false impression. Tom is a writer. He is a writer first and foremost. You should bathe in his prose, let it take its time, and indulge yourself in it. Don’t read him for a quick steer.’ On that final point at least, Barnett is right. A ‘quick steer’ is the last thing to expect from this book. But first and foremost Nairn is a thinker, not a writer; his words are a vehicle for his thoughts, and one is struck most often by the cargo not the carriage. The essays that first appeared in the New Left Review in particular are, as one expects from that publication, demanding, and the ‘younger readers’ to whom this book is addressed may be forgiven for imagining, now and then, that they are drowning rather than bathing. This is not, though, a criticism. ‘Difficult’ may not be a label that sells many books, but neither should it be considered a health warning. What is worthwhile is often challenging, and Nairn is certainly both.

There are, however, several pieces collected here in a rather different and more accessible style. The short essays originally published in the Scotsman in the early 1990s are provocative and enjoyable, and likewise the articles that first appeared in Question Magazine. The most exhilarating among these is also the most personal. In ‘The New Exiles’, published in 1976, Nairn visits two of his university friends, Jonathan and Susan Barker, originally from England but then residing in a remote part of northern Scotland. These friends loved the country, he writes – they moved north for that reason – but talk of devolution at the time horrified them, to a degree that was almost comic in its extremity. ‘I’m afraid of the knock on the door, really afraid,’ Jonathan claimed, conjuring images of a ‘racial purification squad, with an expulsion order’. The Barkers considered any talk of devolution to be ‘sinister’, and Nairn, in his essay, seeks to unpick and understand their concern. How could his friends, who had been so welcomed in this country, be so gripped by anxiety? It is difficult not to wonder what effect this essay had on their friendship, for Nairn’s conclusion is not a comfortable one. The Barkers, he writes, had an ‘imperialism of outlook’. Their love for Scotland ‘had retained within itself some elements of unconscious superiority. With the due qualifications, it had not been wholly unlike the profound affection felt by so many British imperialists for India’. When Nairn moved to England, he claims, he went through a process of ‘adaptation, alienation and self-definition’. The Barkers, moving north, had not.

Time and again, Nairn underlines his belief that Scottish nationalism is not, in fact, anti-English, either in its origins or its manifestations. ‘Only if the entire English nation by some unimaginable act relegated itself to the ranks of the Damned would it be likely to turn “anti-English”,’ he writes. Elsewhere, the fundamental point is reiterated: ‘the key to these neo-nationalist renaissances [in Scotland and Wales] lies in the slow foundering of the British state, not in the Celtic bloodstream’. To focus on ‘ethnicity’ is to miss the point entirely.

While times have changed much since Nairn began writing, and while his own thinking has likewise evolved in those years, many of the observations collected here seem as relevant today as they ever were. Some, perhaps, more so. Many of the arguments employed by the No campaign in the run up to this year’s referendum had been considered and dismissed by Nairn years ago. In ‘The Twilight of the British State’, published first in 1977, he identifies one of the key ideas that ‘obfuscated’ the logic of those opposing Scottish independence; that is, ‘the concept of the viable larger unit’. According to this argument, if something works on a big scale, it is probably unworkable on a smaller one. ‘“Surely we’re better all together, in one big unit?”’ the thinking goes. It is, he argues ‘spurious’ logic. ‘In their own day, the Napoleonic Empire, the Hapsburg Empire, Tsardom, Hitler’s New Europe and the old British Empire were “justified” by precisely similar arguments; and in certain of these cases the “internationalist” defence was put forward by manifestly sincere, progressive thinkers.’

 Similarly, there is what might perhaps be called the ‘solidarity argument’ (usually employed by those to whom ‘solidarity’ means voting Labour and nothing more). In 1992, Nairn devoted a column to the claims, made then by Brian Wilson MP, that Scottish voters have a moral responsibility towards the ‘ordinary people’ of England. In an article for the New Statesman, Wilson had accused the SNP of wanting to leave ‘the English to their fate’ (that fate, of course, being the Conservative party). Twenty years later, Wilson and others are still peddling that argument, driven by an ‘astounding moral nationalism’, to which they seem entirely oblivious. Their belief is that Scotland and the Labour Party have ‘a universal mission: the salvation of England, no less’.

Though a long-time critic of Labour in Scotland, Nairn has, for much of the past half century, been equally or more critical of the SNP. That antipathy towards a party he once accused of ‘sectarian infantilism’ has softened over time however. Back in 1968, Nairn proposed a leftist or ‘Socialist Nationalism’ to counter the ‘delusions’ he identified in mainstream SNP thinking. In somewhat uncharacteristically ardent terms, he insisted that ‘such a Nationalism must exist by sharply combatting the overpowering past which conventional Nationalism drools over, that it must see cultural liberation from Scotland’s pervasive myths as a precondition of political action, and that it must utterly condemn the kind of garrulous, narcissistic windbaggery to which the intelligentsia has so often resorted.’

But in the most recent piece in the book first published this year on the openDemocracy website, Nairn writes in support of the Scottish government’s ‘White Paper’ on independence. A Yes vote in the referendum, he argued, was now necessary. It was a chance for the country to move forward, towards a ‘new form of self-rule’. There is, in this piece, an impatience rarely evident in his work. ‘Let’s do it’ he wrote, ‘rather than hang around for more decades of brooding about it, and trying to summon up enough self-confidence to take on the new age.’ This is not the impatience of a youthful flag-waver in George Square; it is, rather, that of a man in his eighties who has, for fifty years, argued that the end of the British state is nigh. 

The result of September’s vote would probably not have surprised Tom Nairn – after all, he was always sensitive to what he calls the ‘self-colonisation’ of Scots – but it would, no doubt, have been a disappointment. Rather than choosing to ‘resume’ independence, the electorate instead chose to cling on to the crumbling edifice of the United Kingdom. Yet it is a testament to the strength and breadth of his political analysis over the years that, while a Yes vote would have been a validation of his arguments, the No vote was perhaps equally so. His work, and this book, will continue to be essential reading for anyone wishing to understand the road this country has taken and the direction in which it is travelling.


Tom Nairn

Luath Press, £16.99, ISBN 9781910021644, PP420

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Gays United

IT has been twelve years since the last anthology of contemporary Scottish LGBT writing appeared, a period of enormous change, legally, ideologically, and socially. With that in mind, Zoë Strachan has assembled Out There, a pick ’n’ mix of Scottish fiction, nonfiction and poetry which, according to, is only the third such collection ever published. The idea came to Strachan a few years ago at Ullapool Book Festival, when she was speaking about how the gay experience finds expression through her work. A number of questions cropped up: ‘about the unpublished manuscripts that might be mouldering in attics; about the lack of gay male counterparts for the generation of world-class Scottish women writers who are lesbian; about whether we can talk meaningfully about gay or queer fiction; about how new writers will embrace, subvert and reject such labels and themes.’ 

Who here?, to paraphrase Harold Ross. There are poems and stories from Jackie Kay, Carol Ann Duffy, Louise Welsh, Jo Clifford, Ronald Frame and Ali Smith, as well as Val McDermid, Damian Barr, Jenni Fagan, Kerry Hudson, Kirsty Logan and Nicola White. Among the less familiar names are Janette Ayachi, Shane Strachan, Tat Usher, Katherine McMahon, David Downing, and Marcas Mac an Tuairneir. It is worth noting, as Strachan does, that most of the better known names belong to women.

Though sturdy and mainly enjoyable, there is nothing breathtaking, and nothing so heart tirring and eye-opening in Out There that will reform one’s thinking about LGBT issues. The star of the show is Ali Smith’s ‘A & V at the V & A’(originally published in 2012), a sprightly tale of sexual frisson and adultery that equates the dazzling, overwhelming vastness of a museum full of treasures with intimacy and all its delights and unexplored rooms. A and V are nameless and genderless, and while the assumption is that they’re female, the story doesn’t rely on this, which underscores a pertinent point about the universality of love – gender is meaningless, connection is all. We connect with Smith’s characters immediately.

David Downing contributes a wistful story ‘The Quilt’. In it, a respectable middle-class woman returns to her decaying childhood home after her sister’s death. Everything about the old house is neglected, decaying, damp, and indifferent. By employing endless descriptions of discomfort – emotional as well as physical – Downing creates an atmosphere in which neither reader nor protagonist can settle.

In ‘After Ovid’, an extract from a novel in progress, Ronald Frame considers the plight of a timid university don entrapped by an undercover officer in a public loo, and then frozen out of polite society when word gets out. It’s a familiar scenario, but deftly handled.

Nicola White’s short story ‘I Live Here Now’, describes the arrival of new couple in a small town – they’re called ‘the boys’ in meaningful italics, and treated as exotic, if belated, harbingers of the twenty-first century. The narrator is perplexed: she’s gay and has lived there for years, doesn’t that count? A casual remark that sounds her alarm bells underscores the thinness of the veneer of acceptability. By keeping the focus tight, on her narrator’s thoughts, we understand that this sense of unease is largely self-imposed. Kirsty Logan’s ‘Dog-Bait’, meanwhile, is a multi-perspective story full of haunting bitchery, sexual transgression, and warped family dynamics. Characters are delineated quickly and savagely. With assured economy Logan manages to raise questions about femininity, sexual allure, and the limits of female aspiration. It’s an accomplished and disturbing piece.

Less effective are stories such as Toni Davidson’s ‘As the Veneer of Sexuality Begins to Fade’, about a polymorphous and perverse collection of archly nicknamed university hipsters who strike poses, take intoxicants and shag. With lines such as ‘He choreographed their pathos’, it feels as self-conscious as the people it describes. Roy Gill’s short story, ‘Generations’, doesn’t seem to know whether it’s a tribute to Doctor Who or a coming out tale, placing more emphasis on arcane technological data than on the central relationship. And Paul McQuade’s ‘Per Aspera Ad Astra’ suffers from an overload of characters and choppy cross-cutting that makes it difficult to know what’s going on or why; nor does he generate enough empathy for any of his scenarios to inspire the reader to untangle it all.

Overall, what do these pieces tell us about being LGBT? With few exceptions, they demonstrate what should have been obvious all along: human is human. We love, we fight, we fornicate, we work – universal activities and emotions regardless of sexual preference. Perhaps there could have been more emphasis on the minority experience of being gay in a predominantly straight world, but perhaps the fact that we’re not beaten about the head with that message is testament to our changing times. Isn’t the reason that art touches us simply because deep inside, humans are more similar than not, regardless of our circumstances?

 Still, there are other questions worth asking: Do we need such an anthology? Haven’t times moved on? Is there a danger of ghettoising LGBT writers in the name of right-on-ness? If you’re a fan of anthologies, then surely any grouping is valid. On my shelves are collections of cat poems, stories by Scottish female writers, horror stories written by comics, love poems, Scottish love poems, Best American Short Stories, Stories of Motherhood, Christmas stories… So why not Scottish LGBT writers?

Why do we read, anyway? Myriad reasons: for entertainment; to be dazzled by an author’s style; to discover hitherto unexplored – maybe even imaginary – worlds, and to see our own world explained anew or challenged. There’s a natural instinct to look for ourselves – and our friends and our family – in fiction, as well. For heterosexuals and those at ease in their birth gender, that has been the norm throughout the history of storytelling. The LGBT community has a lot of catching up to do. Imagine a gay adolescent tormented by his or her desires – then imagine the relief of that teenager on reading a book depicting same ex love, and discovering that they are not alone.

There is certainly a need for a counterweight to fiction in which gay characters are killed off, punished, marginalised and treated as anything other than perfectly normal. As Paul Brownsey says in his author’s note: ‘My stories often centre on characters who are gay but the stories are not usually about being gay. This has sometimes prompted the question: Why, then, do you make your characters gay, if you’re not making a point about homosexuality? Things will be as they should be only when this question is never asked.’

For those who identify as Scottish – ‘by birth, residence, inclination or formation’ as Strachan defines it – the need for LGBT literature is especially acute. Jeff Meek, in his closing historical essay, notes that Scotland did not decriminalise male homosexual acts between consenting male adults in private until 1980 – thirteen years after similar legislation in England and Wales. Fifteen years after that, in Gendering the Nation, Christopher Whyte (also a contributor here) wrote, ‘To be gay and to be Scottish, it would seem, are still mutually exclusive conditions.’ In 2012, a survey by the University of Cambridge for Stonewall Scotland found that 5 per cent of lesbian, gay and bisexual pupils in Scottish secondary schools experience homophobic bullying. (1,614 were surveyed; 158 of whom identified as LGBT.) This research found that 26 per cent of gay young Scots have attempted suicide, and more than half self-harm.

 Such statistics are a reminder that for all the back-patting about the gay kiss in the Commonwealth Games’ opening ceremony, for all that Scotland removed ‘spousal veto’ from the Equal Marriage Bill, and despite the social news and entertainment website Buzzfeed’s recent (rather rackety) story, 19 Reasons Why it’s Wonderful to Be Gay in Scotland, this nation still has a distance to travel on the road to enlightenment. It was stirring look at public buildings during last summer’s games and see the rainbow flag flying. It felt like two fingers up to the forty-two Commonwealth countries where homosexuality is a criminal act.

But there is a big difference between rule books and reality, as anyone who’s suffered illegal discrimination is aware. Tolerance has to get into our DNA, until someone’s sexuality and gender are noted in the flick of an eye – just as we notice tall/short, blonde/brunette – and then set aside as an element of but not the essence of the human before us. This gulf between our best and worst selves surely helps to answer the question posed earlier, wondering why there’s a preponderance of world renowned gay Scottish women authors, and fewer gay men who have reached that level of recognition. It’s certainly not an issue of numbers or a lack of talent. Could it have something to with what Strachan, in a 1999 essay, referred to as the ‘dull, thudding masculinity of Kelman, Sharp, McIlvanney, Gunn’? What she noted about Scottish literature is equally applicable to a certain breed of Scottish man. Are women simply freer to be themselves? That’s not an accusation of cowardice. For many, keeping shtum is the way you stay alive.

Finally, if there’s been little said about the transgender experience here, it’s because there’s only one piece in Out There that speaks directly to the issue: In her punchy essay, ‘The Fine Art of Finding a Safe Place to Pee’, Jo Clifford describes going to the opera in New York City while still in the early stages of her transition from male to female. This imbalance suggests that even in an anthology such as this, the transgendered voice isn’t being heard loudly enough.

Out There: An anthology of Scottish LGBT writing

Edited by Zoë Strachan

Freight Books, £8.99, PP256, ISBN 978-1-908754-68-4

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Unquiet Flowed The Dons

WHEN Alex Ferguson arrived at Aberdeen in 1978 to take charge of the city’s persistently underachieving football club, few anticipated the spectacular success he was to achieve over the next eight years.

I certainly didn’t; I had been a committed Dons fan for 16 years and had grown too used to false dawns. Yet the foundations were in place. The club’s chairman and vice chairman were exceptional men who balanced each other perfectly. They were maybe Scottish football’s classiest ever double act. Both had played for the club: the chairman, Dick Donald, was wealthy, shrewd and a canny man manager; his vice chairman Chris Anderson was a football visionary, a progressive far ighted administrator who had been intensely frustrated at Aberdeen’s failure to realise its potential as the sole league club in Scotland’s third largest city. Further, Ferguson inherited a fine squad; the basis of it was the central defensive partnership of the supreme Willie Miller and the younger Alex McLeish. There were two other exceptional players, Gordon Strachan and Steve Archibald, who had been signed during the brief but impressive reign of the previous manager, Billy McNeill, and several other very good ones.

So the club was not in the doldrums. But it took Ferguson’s genius – and I use the word advisedly – to turn potential into achievement.

Five years later Aberdeen would be officially crowned as the best club team in Europe. The story of Ferguson’s adept building of the club, his inventive use of the solid base he inherited, has been told often, but never as thoroughly as in Michael Grant’s diligently researched book. Among other things Grant has interviewed each one of the illustrious team who splendidly triumphed in Europe in May 1983 – the Gothenburg greats.

I was privileged to be present at Gothenburg, but two earlier away games show Ferguson’s ability to keep learning, to gain from adversity, and to pick up lessons from every single game. He was the ultimate football obsessive, almost maniacal in his intensity, but also possessed of immense charm, which he deployed with both sincerity and occasionally, when required, with artifice.

Anyway, these two games: In late 1980 I was at Anfield, Liverpool, to see the Dons take on Liverpool in the second round of a European Cup tie. Aberdeen had lost 1-0 in the first leg at Pittodrie. Few of the small number of fans who travelled to Merseyside had any hope of success. Yet none of us expected humiliation. Liverpool beat Aberdeen 4-0, and the victory should have been far bigger. What impressed most was how Liverpool kept possession. For long periods of play no Dons player could get near the ball. Ferguson learned from the drubbing. Just over two years later, in March 1983, I was in Munich to see the Dons playing Bayern, a club replete with famed German internationals, in a European quarter final.

Aberdeen were composed and confident. When they got the ball, they looked after it, and didn’t give it away. It was the best 0-0 draw I’ve ever seen. They went on to beat Bayern in a momentous second leg at Pittodrie.

Ferguson had not changed the personnel much in the intervening 28 months. Of the team who played at Munich, eight had played at Liverpool. But the difference was yawning. At Munich I saw a team with extraordinary self-belief; Aberdeen were imperious, and thrived in the intimidating context.

Most Scots were emphatically not interested in this. They were more concerned about how Ferguson’s team was growing used to arriving in Glasgow and swatting away the Old Firm on their home territory. There was an unexpected sociological twist. Never have I known the fans – both the real fans and the armchair fans – of Rangers and Celtic to be so united. Unfortunately what united them, from around 1982 onwards, was a dislike of the Dons that bordered on detestation. For a time their atavistic enmity seemed forgotten, as the cocky upstarts from the North came to Glasgow with every expectation of winning at Ibrox and Parkhead.

But the arrogance remained. When Rangers asked their former player (Ferguson had played three seasons for Rangers before leaving because he had annoyed some in the club by daring to marry a Catholic girl) to be their new manager, my many Rangers upporting colleagues were convinced that he could not possibly decline. After all, he’d been born in Govan, between Ibrox and the Clyde, within walking distance of Ibrox, and he had grown up a Rangers supporter. For several days the tension mounted, till Ferguson said No. One of my journalistic friends – a decent man I greatly respected – turned pale when he heard the news. I thought he was going to faint. For a full five minutes he struggled to believe it.

Michael Grant is an Aberdonian, and he clearly loves his home town club. His book is excellent, not least because it is based on formidable research. He explains, as well as anybody can, Ferguson’s unique management style: highly effective, yet almost demonic at times, and consistently crafty, even when he appeared to lose control. And Grant is sure-footed as he charts the growing disillusion that Ferguson experienced towards the end of his Aberdeen years. Despite the success he provided, the club was supported by derisory crowds. At Pittodrie in November 1982 I watched Aberdeen beat the other half of the New Firm, Dundee United, 5-1. The likes of Gordon Strachan and Peter Weir played football that was beautifully inventive. Fewer than 10,000 fans witnessed it. That was bad, and things did not improve. Ferguson increasingly understood that his work deserved better support, more popular endorsement. The move to England became inevitable. He bided his time, and spurned several approaches; Grant reveals that the one that was most tempting for Ferguson came from Tottenham Hotspur.

When Manchester United eventually called, his departure was inevitable.

At first, he struggled – he harped on too much to his players about what he had done at Pittodrie – just as when he arrived at Aberdeen, he overdid the patter about how good his St Mirren team had been, which Grant brings out amusingly and well. This was one of the rare times he repeated a mistake. But after a problematic first few seasons, he was on his way to unparalleled success. He deserved it all. I doubt if anyone has ever worked harder and more obsessively at the chancy and volatile business of football management.

Fergie Rises: How Britain’s Greatest Football Manager Was Made At Aberdeen

Michael Grant

Aurum Press, £18.99, ISBN 978 1781310939, PP352

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The Sins of the Father

In The Father, August Strindberg’s harrowing account of the protagonist’s descent into paranoid insanity, the problem that initially obsesses the Captain is how to control Laura, his wife, and have her comply with his wish that their daughter be educated as a teacher and not as an artist. Laura counterattacks by announcing she has informed the doctor her husband is insane, and telling him he has ‘fulfilled his function as an unfortunately necessary father and breadwinner’. Most damningly, she malevolently suggests that he has no rights over the girl since he is not really her father. It is this accusation that disorientates the man, sending him to consult the Bible and writings of classical authors to find great men undermined by similar fears and causing him to conclude that ‘we men have no children’. Undoubtedly Strindberg’s play was prompted by his own misogyny, for he was one of the few writers deserving a label now too casually attached to many male writers, but the Captain’s conclusion is one which Alan Cumming might be glad to share, even if his problem is the opposite. He wishes to detach himself from a father he views, reasonably, as odious.

Cumming is one of the most outstanding actors in a gifted generation who are Scottish by background but cosmopolitan in ambition and achievement. He has won prizes and plaudits on both sides of the Atlantic, has addresses in New York and Edinburgh, and took an active part in the referendum campaign in support of the Yes side. His awards include an Emmy for the long-running TV series, The Good Wife, and a Tony for his portrayal of Emcee in Cabaret. In recent times he has given deeply moving, bravura performances in two NTS productions, as Dionysus in The Bacchae and as Macbeth in what was virtually a one-man version of the tragedy.

In Not My Father’s Son, subtitled ‘A Family Memoir’, he makes references along the way to his jet setting life style, mainly to say how he enjoys the unreality of long-haul flights and the hours spent in luxury airport lounges since this is a parallel, ethereal dimension where he is free of demands and pressures. Celebrity interviews and fawning profiles are the stuff of his day to day life, as are the equally common hatchet jobs which the tabloids feel obliged occasionally to deliver. There are passages on filming in Cape Town, on appearances in Cannes with Patti Smith (who was ‘prone to spitting’), references to work in cinema, TV or theatre all naturally woven into the narrative. These are infrequent, and anyone expecting an excited, glittering account of the joys and torments of celebrity status, or a chronicle of a rise to the top had better take the title and subtitle seriously. The acting success features mainly as an obstacle to the completion of the central aim, which is Cumming’s attempt to come to terms with his upbringing on the Panmure estate near Carnoustie, and specifically with his relationship with his father.

Scottish literature contains many depictions of dark, scowling, dominant, silent men, sometimes embittered by the sheer inadequacy of their own lives and in consequence driven to cow and terrify their families. William McIlvanney has produced such figures in The Big Man or in Docherty, while other writers as dissimilar as Thomas Carlyle or the Red Clydesider, David Kirkwood, in his memoir My Life of Revolt, have given puzzled, awed portraits of their fathers in an attempt to understand the men they had themselves become and, almost incidentally, to provide insightful depictions of Scottish, Calvinist manhood. None of these men from fiction or biography displays the sheer vileness of Alex Cumming. This is a deeply unsettling, upsetting chronicle of domestic power as exercised over his wife and two sons by a man whom Alan Cumming comes to describe as unbalanced, neurotic and insane, and in a sense the reader will hope that it was so and that his conduct was not more freely willed. Today’s culture is not at ease with the terminology of evil, and prefers to attribute the characteristics which in other times would have been described as wicked to some form of mental defect. Strangely, that was how Macbeth, a sick inhabitant of a mental hospital not of a prison cell, was presented in Cumming’s masterly performance.

Cumming senior imposed a reign of domestic terror, never showing affection, making his sons convinced of their own worthlessness, dolling out beatings, inculcating an atmosphere of fear which only lifted when he left the family home of an evening to pursue one of his innumerable affairs. In these circumstances, Alan and his brother instinctively devised strategies to avoid causing disturbance or provoking further outbursts of rage. The opening section, which sets the scene and the tone as effectively as any novelist could do, reads:

‘“You need a haircut, boy!”

My father had only glanced at me across the kitchen table as he spoke, but I had already seen in his eyes the coming storm.

I tried to speak but the fear that now engulfed me made it hard to swallow, and all that came out was a little gasping sound that hurt my throat even more. And I knew speaking would only make things worse, make him despise me more, make him pounce sooner.’

In this case, the trigger was an innocent request for a glass of water, which led to Cumming being dragged to a shed, bent over a bench and having his hair cropped with clippers normally used for sheep shearing. To describe the father as dominant or even tyrannical is inadequate for a man with totalitarian control over the psyche as well as over the body, leaving Alan and his brother as cowering wrecks, physically afraid in boyhood and quivering in adulthood at the memory of the treatment they had received. What drove this man, Cumming asks – cruelty, cowardice, madness? Other products of such a background might have drowned among the flotsam and jetsam of lost humanity, but Cumming in the most important respects escaped, and is able to write that he now lives a life of joy and is surrounded by love, particularly due to the happiness felt in his same sex relationship with his husband. 

The book is written in a colloquial style and with a sprightliness of touch which clash with the dark subject matter, and moves back and forwards in time, with chapters headed Then followed by others headed Now, that is 2010, when he participated in the BBC programme, Who Do You Think You Are? That experience seems to have been the inspiration for the book, but the programme focused on the astonishing, tragic life and death of his grandfather, a decorated WWII hero who disappeared from the family after the war and who perished later in Malaya in mysterious circumstances which the programme’s researchers clarified, with due dramatic effect.

The discussion of Cumming’s father is a refutation of the notion that fiction can access deeper truths than those revealed by history or biography. In his anxious soul earching, the actor probes the contradictory emotions of the human animal and lays bare his own soul while questioning his father’s motives. Even when the parents separated and Cumming has freed himself by moving away, his father continues to act with unimaginable malice. Supposedly worried by the impact on his son of what might be revealed by the TV programme, he put about the tale that his animus towards his son derived from the knowledge he was not his father, but the result of one night’s adultery by his mother. However improbable, the allegation caused turmoil but DNA analysis revealed that it was a calumny. This result created further agitation in Cumming’s mind, for the possibility of not being his father’s son was welcome, but now he was confronted with the need to disown him by an act of the will. The book is an act of catharsis.

The process of self-liberation is intertwined at a deep level with Cumming’s life as an actor. He wonders if the boyhood need to practise concealment and impose masks on himself, as Pirandello says all humans do, endowed him with that pixie-like quality which critics have noted in his performances. But drama and life overlapped more intriguingly, and painfully, in 1993. At that time, he had been married for seven years to the actress Hilary Lyon, whose name is not mentioned in the book, and they decided to start a family. Every month’s lack of success was a relief to him, as the very idea of fatherhood tormented him and he worried that he might turn out like his own father.

At the same time, the pair were appearing together in England in Hamlet. He writes that his own predicament gave him fresh insights into Hamlet as a youth who did not want to be in Elsinore, who longed to return to university, who faced estrangement from his girlfriend, who was sickened at his mother’s speedy remarriage and who had no wish to avenge a father he had never particularly been close to. Hamlet’s conduct was thus a wholly rational response to an impossible situation. Any connection with a vision inside Cumming’s head was scarcely accidental. As it happens, I saw that production and did separate interviews with the couple at the time. If memory serves, Lyon told me that she was struggling with the motivations of Ophelia, who was not a modern woman, while Cumming’s declared problem was the cruelty which Hamlet showed towards Ophelia, particularly, he said, when Ophelia was played by his wife. The production itself crackled with the youthful energy Cumming brought to the part. The soliloquies, especially ‘To be or not to be’, came from the very core of a troubled, baffled youth who could not understand how he had got into this mess, while the burial scene was marked by blustering bewilderment. This was decidedly no country for young men, but this was the point when his career took off. Hamlet was followed by Cabaret, which transferred to Broadway, where it was acclaimed. Hamlet and Emcee, what a duo of parts for someone struggling with his past and his identity!

Horrifying but enthralling and always gripping, this book is a case study of a survivor and not a rounded autobiography. Alan Cumming the actor deserves separate treatment in a biography, but respect for him on stage will be enhanced by this knowledge of where he came from.

Not My Father’s Son: A Family Memoir

Alan Cumming

Canongate, £16.99, ISBN 978 1 78211 544 1, 294PP

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SRB Diary: À Paris

After a very fine reading by Canadian novelist Joseph Boyden, at the Edinburgh Book Festival in August, I found myself seated at dinner with a mixed crew of Scots and Canadians – writers and festival-goers. It wasn’t long before the analogy arose, between secessionist ambitions in Quebec and the longings for an independent Scotland. What struck me, however, more than the confluence of political interests and leanings, was how easily the conversation flowed, how small the gap seemed between them and us, divided as we notionally are by a very wide ocean and a lot else besides. I could summon some reasons for the companionability – historical, ideological, genealogical – but they didn’t exhaust my surprise at the suddenly shrinking world seated round that table.

Some of those Canadians have since got in touch with me: expressions of condolence, in the main. They may not have realised that, as a long-time resident of Paris, I did not have a vote; they certainly did not know how, had I had the vote, I would have exercised it. Nor are they the only ones. The highly overqualified janitor in the building where I teach gives me a sad smile of recognition when I pass him in the morning. He wants me to know he is on my – defeated – side. My email inbox is full with messages from friends and acquaintances from far-flung states (from Oregon, from Japan, from Australia), all offering the same consolation. When I buy my baguette, I begin to believe I detect the same sympathetic gaze on the face of my friendly baker. Almost none of my sources of sympathy could say if in fact I’m in need of it – I’ve lived away from Scotland for nearly forty years, and politics have rarely been on my lips. But they all want me to know, unequivocally if not always explicitly, that they are sad: a flame has been extinguished in their hearts.

* * *

At that same dinner table one of the Scots, a first-timer perhaps in Book Festival company, declared admiringly – almost enviously: ‘It’s a grand life you writers lead, so it is, gadding about from one country to another.’ Nobody sought to contradict him, since who would deny that it is, comparatively, a grand life. Yet as I gaze over the piles of papers, books, unfinished commissions, post-it notes, unread copies of the TLS, that threaten to subside and sink me under them, I can find myself wondering. The objects on my desk seem to gad about, right enough, while I just sit here watching.

On top of one of the piles lies a completed work by a student of mine, Emma Ramadan, who has recently left to work for a year as a Fulbright Scholar in Marrakech. Her Masters thesis consists of a critical introduction to, then a translation into English of, Sphinx, a novel by French Oulipo author Anne Garréta. The members of the Oulipo group (of whom Georges Perec was probably the most illustrious) liked to set themselves literary constraints. The principal constraint in this 1986 novel is that it is a love story that does not reveal the gender of its lovers: ‘I’ am/is in love with ‘A***’, but as there are no gender markers, there’s no way of knowing, from the language at least, if both are women, or neither, or just one (and if so, which). It’s all very well to write of a longing for ‘ses lèvres’ or ‘son corps’, when the possessive in French agrees with the object, not with the possessor; but try to drag that into English… Emma has found some very ingenious solutions, and her English translation of the novel will soon be published by a new small press called Deep Velum – in Dallas, Texas, of all improbable places.

Emma seemed sorry to be leaving Paris when last I met her, days before her departure for Morocco. Yet months before, while she was mid-way through her translation, she could not wait to get shot of the city. She may have personal reasons for the turn-around, but I wonder if the change is not linked to her having been, for a spell, a translator hard on the job. Translators surely do, in one sense, make the world smaller. Across geographical, cultural, and linguistic borders (the trans part) they carry their wares to a new home (the late part) – hoping to find a welcome there. But even as they do so, they themselves stay put; a translator can, on any given day, feel singularly static, solitary, shrunken even – not just deskbound, housebound, but also in some pitiable way like the tourist agent of yore, organising trips for others but never for her/himself. And like the tourist agent, too, menaced as well as assisted by digital technology – though I’d like to see Google Translate attempt to produce an ungendered version of ‘ses lèvres’ and ‘son corps’.

* * *

Every day, it seems, I am to be in touch with India. Most frequent are the calls from Indian men and women with names like ‘John Patterson’ and ‘Edith Jones’ who claim to be from Microsoft, and who have just discovered a bug in my computer which only they can fix. A biddable friend and neighbour was convinced to follow instructions, and it cost her several hundred euros to regain control of her data (the police were uninterested). I’ve tried various approaches to discourage these calls, since hanging up only prompts a call on my mobile. For weeks I tried in vain to convince John or Edith, over the call-centre hum, that their ruse was up; only to have it shouted at me that Microsoft alone could know this much about me and my computer.

But yesterday, a breakthrough. When ‘Stephen Richards’ called, I asked him off the cuff if he would tell me his Indian name. ‘Vijay,’ he told me, unthinkingly. ‘Well, Vijay,’ I tried, ‘you’re presumably a highly educated individual if you’re able to take control of my computer from that distance and then defraud me of hundreds of euros.’ Silence. ‘But don’t you think you could put your expertise to some more useful purpose?’ I didn’t much care for my tone, but since for once I was being listened to, I pressed on. ‘How does it feel to be lying to people every day? Do you go home and lie to your wife?’

‘Say that again?’ 

‘Do you find,’ I tried, ‘that it becomes a habit, lying to people?’

‘Listen, Mr Gunn,’ Vijay said, ‘you want to know the truth?’

‘Please, tell me.’

‘All right then. This is the payback for two hundred years of English oppression.’

I was so surprised that I was momentarily speechless. It must have been the fiftieth call; the first true word. ‘Thank you for your honesty.’

‘You are welcome.’

‘But,’ I had to add, ‘I’d like you to know I’m not actually English. I’m Scottish.’

‘British then, you’re all alike.’

‘And I live in France.’

‘European then!’

* * *

More pleasant, if less frequent, are my dealings with Pondicherry – pleasant not least because of the colours and aromas the sound of that place name evokes in me. It’s there that Cambridge University Press sends authors’ typescripts to be transformed, with amazing alacrity, into page proofs. And, in the case of the CUP book on which I have been working this year, transformed again… and again…

Atop one of the more perilous piles on my desk, above thousands of hard-corrected pages, above hundreds of pages of scans of what has been described as ‘the most difficult handwriting of the twentieth century’, sits Volume III of The Letters of Samuel Beckett, 1957-1965, which arrived from the press just four days ago. When the editorial team of which I am a member read through the proofs in April, we found an alarming number of – fortunately small – errors, all of which I duly noted before returning the proofs to Pondicherry. On the second proofs, nearly half as many again. I watched in marvel at how expertly the page designers added or subtracted words, phrases, sometimes whole paragraphs, without – motion and stillness again – permitting the pagination to alter.

Letters are themselves intended to ‘gad about’, of course, but the fact that this volume reveals a Beckett who – notwithstanding his reputation as a hermit forever writing in his room – appears to be in perpetual motion, only added to the claustrophobic sense of motionlessness that proofreading a text as complex as ours threatened to induce in me. London, the Alps, the Dolomites, Liguria, Tunisia, Sardinia, Yugoslavia, Portugal, Berlin: he even writes a letter while on his first long-haul flight to New York – ‘Writing about ½ way across the pond,’ it begins. His most common journey is to Ussy ur-Marne, east of Paris, where he has a cottage. It is here that he reveals himself a surprisingly keen ornithologist: ‘The swallows have finished school,’ he writes in August 1959, ‘and are making ready to depart.’ This being Beckett, not all birds are so lively: ‘I find on the outer window sill a sparrow & mouse dead side by side. I supposed an owl had left them there uneaten or to be eaten later.’ When asked (by Nancy Cunard) if he does not feel lonely there, he responds: ‘I don’t find solitude agonising, on the contrary. Holes in paper open and take me fathoms from anywhere.’

* * *

Another pile is of books alone – a pyramid more than a pile, with at its base an enormous coffee-table volume full of photographs of the author, and at its summit a slim leather-bound Album Marguerite Duras. In 2012, I foolhardily volunteered to review the first two tomes in Duras’s Œuvres complètes – foolhardily because each is nearly two thousand pages long. For the following two years I lugged these two doorstops wherever I went, as I travelled to give lectures, failing not only to read them but even to remove them from their slip-covers.

So despite what I’ve said about feeling stationary, have I in fact been gadding about? Well, presumably I have. Yet the strange thing is that when I think back to the places I visited, it’s those two fat volumes I see most clearly. There they are on the windowsill of the fourteenth floor of the Hotel Niwa in Tokyo; or in my suitcase in some other hotel, this time in Seattle. Rather as with the travelling gnome in Amélie, the images from these two tomes’ journeys appear more bright and vivid than those from my own.

To mark the centenary of Duras’s birth, the final two volumes of her Œuvres complètes were issued in April of this year, to my considerable embarrassment (given I had signally failed to write my review). I sent my kindly editor at the TLS the following lines, uttered by Bassanio in The Merchant of Venice:

In my school days, when I had lost one shaft,

I shot his fellow of the selfsame flight

The selfsame way with more advisèd watch

To find the other forth—and by adventuring both,

I oft found both.

Whether it was the Shakespeare that convinced him, or the fact that I don’t usually miss deadlines, I was granted the extra time required to review the nearly eight thousand pages of Duras, and the several books on Duras, that, now the review is written and dispatched, constitute the pyramid I must soon disassemble. Just let me first find some space on the shelves… 

* * *

Oh! Calcutta! 

Tomorrow, I need to work on a letter from 1969 in which Beckett attempts to extract his briefest of plays, Breath, from Kenneth Tynan’s scandalous review of that name. But I find myself breathing ‘Oh Calcutta!’ for quite other reasons today, as it is from that city that I have just received the proofs of my novel The Emperor of Ice-Cream. It was not a Scot but an Indian, Naveen Kishore of Seagull Books, who decided to publish my account of the Italian community in Scotland during the 1920s and ’30s.

And so it is that I correspond with my editor Bishan Samaddar, in Calcutta, about the finer points of how Italian Scots might really have sounded back then, and about whether my narrator – Lucia is born in 1910 but is elderly when she writes the tale of her three brothers and their involvement with Fascism and ice-cream – would have used a hyphen when spelling ‘mid-field’ or ‘soul-mate’. In a week or two the corrected proofs will be sent to be printed in Philadelphia, in order for the novel, graced with its cover illustration by Sicilian artist Lanfranco Quadrio, to be distributed by Chicago University Press.

There will indeed be a lot more gadding about, in this ever hrinking world; while I sit at my desk, receiving those last – by now belated – expressions of condolence.

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The SRB Interview: Rona Munro

Rona Munro was born in Aberdeen. Primarily a scriptwriter for the stage, she has also written for radio, television and film. Her theatre credits include Bold Girls (7:84 and Hampstead Theatre), Dear Scotland and The Last Witch. Little Eagles, a play about the space race, was produced by The Royal Shakespeare Company, and Iron was staged at the Traverse Theatre, Edinburgh and won the 2003 John Whiting Award. Her writing for television includes the dramas Rehab and the BAFTA–nominated Bumping the Odds for the BBC. She wrote the screenplay for the Ken Loach film Ladybird Ladybird and the 2010 Jim Loach film Oranges and Sunshine. She is co–founder with actress Fiona Knowles of The MsFits, a feminist theatre company which has been touring since 1986. 

Her latest project is The James Plays, a trilogy about three, fourteenth and fifteenth century Scottish kings. Directed by artistic director of the National Theatre of Scotland Laurie Sansom, and staged with one company of actors, it is a joint production by the NTS and the National Theatre of Great Britain. James I: The Key will Keep the Lock follows the return of James I to the Scottish throne after being imprisoned in England from the age of thirteen; James II: The Day of the Innocents is a dark investigation of how Scottish feuding nobles manipulate a child–king. James III: The True Mirror is a lighter Renaissance comedy about the hedonism of a reckless ruler and a queen’s struggle to choose between different forms of love.

The Festival Theatre was home to the trilogy in August this year as part of the Edinburgh International Festival. Lucky audience members were given the chance to see all three plays in a single day. The production was still performing at the Olivier Theatre, London, when Nick Major met Rona Munro at the NTS headquarters on the banks of the Forth and Clyde Canal, Glasgow. In a small office, Munro sat next to her large bright pink suitcase, which matched a pink strand running through her silver hair. She presided over an uneaten bowl of kale crisps and a glass of water. During the interview words galloped out of the writer, who frequently apologised for her extensive – though never dull – chat. The conversation encompassed the politics of theatre, the dearth of Scottish history plays, and the continuing struggle for women’s rights.

SRB: What was your first experience of theatre?

Rona Munro: My very first experience of theatre came when I was at primary school. There was a senior school attached and the girls there – they seemed like giants to me but I think they must have been fifth year – put on a play. I just thought: that’s it, that’s what I want to do. I had a lovely English teacher and he helped me and my classmates put on a play I’d written. But because I lived in Aberdeen I didn’t see a professional theatre production for years and years. The first one I remember seeing was 7.84’s The Game’s a Bogie. And previous to that I’d seen The Cheviot, the Stag, and the Black Black Oil on television. I think that was the other light bulb moment. It was so Scottish and so funny and I think the one they televised was in Plockton Town Hall, which was a venue I knew from holidays in the area. It made me think: this is a very possible thing, this is something I can do. 

So did your influences come mainly through watching theatre rather than reading in that solitary way in which perhaps novelists nurture their artistic temperament?

Well that’s two productions in fifteen years! I did get involved in the school drama club but apart from that I was a bookworm like a lot of writers. I just read and read and read.

What were you reading when you were young?

When I was a kid I loved the historical novels: Geoffrey Trease, Rosemary Sutcliffe and then Mary Renault. But I also loved all the fantasy books like CS Lewis and Lord of the Rings. But honestly it’s a bit of an affliction, and it still is: I’m a terribly fast reader, so if we ever went away on holiday and we were away for seven days I’d need about fourteen books.

You mentioned 7.84. They were a leftist agit–prop theatre company started by John McGrath…

Yeah, in its broadest sense. But 7.84 theatre company developed beyond that. The Cheviot the Stag and the Black Black Oil was a seminal piece for Scottish theatre, let alone political theatre. I think it was part of that moment when Scottish theatre and writers got a kick–start again. So even if it was agit–prop in the broadest sense it was very rooted in our language and our culture. Especially for a teenager, as I was, that sense that you could write in your own voice was very important. 

Is politics the unavoidable stage where the action must take place, or is it something that you approach quite consciously?

I don’t write to have a particular affect on an audience. The politics for me is in representing voices or people that been under–represented. So it might influence my choice of subject matter but within that I don’t think it’s appropriate for me to suggest that I have access to any higher truth. The place for my political opinions is in whatever political activities I choose to engage in, or how I vote. When I’m writing it’s going to be informed by my politics, but I’m trying to represent what can be universal whatever your political opinion. If you put characters on stage that people are not familiar with seeing centre–stage or carrying a narrative, that is political. Just putting women centre–stage when I started out was a fairly political act. By making the audience have that act of empathy with someone whose experience isn’t theirs is political. But within that I don’t think plays should be arguing a case one way or another – characters within plays can – but plays themselves? If they are doing that it’s not drama as I understand it.

If a viewer or reader is lured into an imaginative space in order to be persuaded of a political point does it discredit the art? 

I don’t think audiences are stupid. I think if a writer tries that without being upfront they don’t like it. For instance, I write for a theatre group called The MsFits, which is myself and an actor called Fiona Knowles. We started way back in the 1980s because we’re both feminists and we’d both come through a period of quite active feminism, the Thatcher years and everything the left was doing at that time. We wanted a vehicle to put Scottish feminist theatre in front of an audience, so that was and is The Msfit shows. They definitely have a feminist agenda, but that’s advertised. So I think it’s the difference between making your bias clear to an audience and then having a story where you have a whole range of characters who all have their own individual bias. 

And The Msfits put on a one–woman show every year?

It’s always a piece of storytelling. When we started off we used to do comedy sketches and songs and poems and there was two of us. It very rapidly emerged that when you have a comedy duo there is the comic one and the straight one and I was very definitely the straight one, and not that good, whereas Fiona is brilliant. When I had my son it became difficult for me to perform and tour. That was when it shifted from the comedy sketches and songs to me writing something for Fiona, which is usually a story told from the point of view of three or four different women. It is all directed towards the audience and she is all the different characters telling the events.

Could you talk about your feminism? 

I’m a feminist of necessity because it’s what makes sense. What I’ve learned is what I would define as feminism and what most people define as feminism are not the same thing. I’d say feminism is about a basic inequality that still remains to be addressed, which is equal pay for equal work, freedom from violence against women, and freedom of opportunity for men and women. But it’s not like saying every woman has to be a steel welder or that all men are the enemy or any of these stereotypes that have been put on it. I think it comes down to simple economics. In that sense I’m a feminist.

You said you were an activist in the 1980s.

The whole of theatre was. Partly there was so little theatre – Scotland today is in so much of a healthier state than it was back then. So you had a whole community of artists in all fields that had the opportunity to grow a little bit and then had everything squashed down. All the cutbacks in the eighties pinched that even tighter. It seemed like everybody was doing theatre at benefits, for free and for Support the Miners. So that was the engine that was producing the new work and the exciting work. A lot of those people have gone on to do amazing things. But agitation and resistance is what produced the best work of the time.

Do you see a demonstrable progress for women’s rights between that 1980s period and today?

Yes, which is not to say that it’s all gone away. One of the nicest things from my point of view is that I am increasingly rarely identified as a ‘woman writer’. Not that I’m not proud of being a woman writer, but what used to be implied by that was: in a fringe box on the side of proper drama. And that was very much the climate when I started writing. If you were a woman writer it was assumed you were probably writing stuff that was of interest to women of a certain type and not to anyone else. I think the fact that that is not in most people’s heads anymore is in itself progress.

And theatre today is in a much healthier state than in the eighties? 

It’s very particular to Scotland. I don’t think the general public is aware of how much healthier our theatre culture is up here compared to what it is down south, because it has had more funding and more development. There is a self–confidence in young writers and a sense, quite rightly, of entitlement to put stuff on and find a Scottish audience. That did not exist in the eighties. I’m delighted that nobody even knows that that is a gift that didn’t even exist back then. I’m worried it will cease to exist because people think it’s written in stone. All you need is a change in government or policy and all that could evaporate again. I’m also worried more money is put into development than production, for very obvious reasons. Development is cheap and production expensive. I think the balance across Scotland isn’t quite right, and there are so many talented writers with nowhere to put their work on. But compared with what it was like? It’s like being the only person in a ballroom and then going out to the loo and coming back to find it’s rammed full.

You have written for television, film and radio. What made you move into those mediums? 

I think like a lot of writers I have and always probably will be open to any offer. You hope you get ones that allow you to make a living. I was lucky enough to write for a radio drama quite early in my career, and that drip feed of semi–regular income was a life–saver. It was the difference between having to have a proper job and being able to sustain yourself just with writing. But it was something that sought me out rather than I sought it out. It was great discipline for me, writing for a radio series and then writing for a TV series, because the deadlines are absolute. There is none of this ‘oh, I haven’t been inspired by the muse’. It was wonderful to develop those kind of writing muscles.

It drills a work ethic into you.

Yeah, and it makes you make decisions. One of the difficulties when you’re writing your own projects is that the choices are infinite, so it’s really easy to defer making them. When you have those deadlines it’s not a question of what’s the best idea, it’s a question of what’s the idea you’ve got? Do it. Then you can see whether it’s a good idea or a bad idea.

Do you prefer writing for stage?

I always say I love the medium I’m engaged with at the time. Having said which, I find writing for television extremely hard in the current climate. When I started writing TV they still had a culture at somewhere like the BBC where a producer would go: that seems like a good person, that sounds like a good idea, let’s bash them together and whack it on and see what happens. There was an awful lot more TV drama, and some of it was abysmal, but all the shows we remember as truly great TV drama seem to come from that period. Now everything is so expensive and there is a whole culture of script editing. Scripts seem to be constantly in development, circling the airport and waiting to land. Meanwhile a writer is doing draft after draft after draft with everyone second–guessing whether it will or won’t be a hit. I find that absolutely debilitating.

Being in a rehearsal room with a bunch of actors is probably the biggest thrill if I’m honest. It’s that thing of being part of a team and everyone engaging with what started off as you in a little room. The director comes on board and is adding their ability, and the actors come on aboard and add their ability, so that cumulative talent builds up. It’s exciting because it’s collaborative. I find it immensely moving when you see a very talented actor taking your words and making them theirs, and the thrill they get out of that. You don’t get that closeness of working with the actors in any other medium.

How closely did you work with the National Theatre during the production of The James Plays?

What I normally do is come along for the first two weeks of rehearsals, just until they’ve done the read through once. I figure my role is to be there as a resource, and then I go away and let them get to it, so they can say ‘I hate that line’ without me sitting there like a sad crow in the corner. But The James Plays was so big. The knock–on effect of having three plays was that there were so many things that came up. So the short answer is: I was there all the time but I didn’t expect to be. 

When did you get the idea to write about these three Scottish kings?

It was something I really wanted to do but I didn’t think anyone would be crazy enough to want to engage with it. I did history at Edinburgh University. I was a very indifferent student but I did love the medieval period – always have, going back to the books I read as a kid. When I had to drift beyond the medieval period and start engaging with contemporary politics or economics it all became about the Dundee Jute Mills and coal exports, whereas when it’s people running about with swords in their hands I was always very interested. Then I had the experience of going to see the Royal Shakespeare Company do the cycle of all the history plays with one company of actors. At that point I had not seen Shakespeare done well so I knew I ought to think he was great but I hadn’t seen the evidence; and I slightly resented the fact that this dead Englishman had a stranglehold on so many theatre spaces that new writing struggled to get into. So I went in with a chip on my shoulder and came out realising what amazing pieces of storytelling they were and what gifts they are to actors. I realised that so much of what we understand about English history came from those plays. Even if people haven’t seen them they know the stories, and we didn’t have an equivalent in Scotland. So I thought: wouldn’t be a fun idea to try and do that? And then Vicky Featherstone [former artistic director of the National Theatre of Scotland] had me in three years ago for a chat, and they always say: what’s your dream project? You tell them, then they say: I don’t think we’ve got the budget. But Vicky said: I think that’s a brilliant idea, let’s do it.
And what she was committing to was this grandiose idea of writing three plays at the same time. 

So the idea of writing a trilogy was there from the start?

Yes, and my ambition was to do it with one company of actors. I don’t think anyone but Laurie [Sansom] would have been mad enough to attempt that. I really lucked out there because it turned out to be logistically a very big ask. But it was wonderful to have that opportunity to do it as one thing. I hope that passes on to audiences as well, that they get that excitement – which has been running all the way through – of the scale, yet you’re engaged with one set of characters.

You write in a preface to the published script that you’ve long had the ambition to write on this scale. What stopped you before?

I don’t think I would have felt ready until Vicky asked me. I think a difficulty a lot of writers have is budgetary. When it’s new writing you go into a studio space on a limited budget. It’s going to be a small venue and you’re basically told you can have four of a cast but probably not six. For the vast majority of dramatists working in Britain today that is their experience. At the point they get to do something larger they may never have had the experience of doing it before and they have to learn everything. I was lucky enough to get to a point in my career when I could do larger things. There is a trajectory leading up to The James Plays that probably starts with doing an adaptation of Mary Barton for the Royal Exchange Theatre in Manchester, which they supported and nurtured for a long time. I learned an enormous amount doing that. Sarah Frankcom, the director, was fantastic. Then probably working with the Royal Shakespeare Company on Little Eagles. With the RSC it’s not just that you want to write for a lot of actors, you have to write for a lot of actors because they have this ensemble. Again I was fortunate to be working with another fantastic director, Roxana Silbert, who I’ve worked with several times since Iron, which was probably my most successful play before The James Plays. So it was Mary Barton, Little Eagles to here, and I don’t think I could have done it in one jump. 

What is the reason for the dearth of history plays in recent theatre? Is it because producers just turn to Shakespeare when they want to put one on, or is it more complex than that?

There are two arguments: why don’t people do more history plays? And the other is: why don’t people do large productions? In the case of large productions the reasons are financial, there just isn’t the money. To finance this one I know that it was an extremely convoluted and difficult process and we could very easily not have had the money. However, I think the reason why there are not as many history plays is a perception thing. There is a tremendous hunger amongst audiences for history plays but maybe we as producers and creators haven’t caught up with that. But I think that fashion might be turning. 

Historical novels are incredibly popular at the moment, so where does that perception come from in theatre?

I think the idea that it is going to be Shakespeare but bad Shakespeare. In other words, it’s going to be about strange people who are nothing like contemporary human beings talking an odd language and dealing with issues that have no relevance for today. And the counter–argument is: just do it in contemporary language and in a way that shows them as fully–rounded human beings.
We struggle to describe The James Plays sometimes because of the kind of plays that pop into people’s heads when you say
‘history plays’.

Was it for inclusivity that The James Plays were written in modern Scots? 

Yes, but I think it was bigger than that. People in the fifteenth – century weren’t different to you and me. They were homo sapiens with the same brains and the same emotional reactions, it’s just the circumstances were different. And when they were talking to each other they would have experienced that as contemporary language. To reproduce what their experience would have been you have to bring the language up to the present day. And then it’s just about avoiding glaring anachronisms. The cast used to laugh at me because my veto was on ‘OK’.

You do include some poems by Robert Henryson and another by James I, which you translated yourself. How difficult was that? 

They’re not translations in the sense that I would want to be scrutinised by any department of Scottish literature. I actually found the process of translation quite moving: I’ve not entirely finished but I’ve translated most of James I’s ‘The Kingis Quair’ for myself. It’s that thing of getting inside another writer’s head. It made him very real for me. And then you always have to think: well that’s just how you’re imagining him and you’re imagining him that way for all sorts of reasons – because it suits your purposes – but there was enough fuel there to imagine he would’ve thought this or felt that, and just to get a sense that this was a real person, which is what is so exciting about history, the fact these people lived so long ago yet they are so real and so close
to us in another sense.

The story of James I is an amazing political drama: he is the prisoner of Henry IV and V, and then he returned to Scotland but still in financial and psychological chains. Why is this period not part of a widely recognised Scottish history?

Bannockburn, Bonnie Prince Charlie, Mary Queen of Scots. Those are our big hits. It’s a mystery to me, and I don’t think it’s a reflection of the quality of the academic study. It’s certainly not a reflection of the strength of the stories. My mother’s generation knew those stories in a way that I and successive generations don’t. I think there is a fashion in the teaching of history in schools, which is – quite rightly – to move away from telling the stories of kings and queens and actually give you more of what happened to the common people. But at the same time I think there is a place for the stories and they have a value. Shakespeare has made sure those stories are part of English culture and British culture, but we don’t have a Scottish equivalent and now they’re not taught in schools they are in danger of being lost.

You talked about the similarities between people in fifteenth–century Scotland and people now, but there are also historical parallels between then and now. There are important questions about self–determination in the first play. At one point James I says: ‘England has pursued our wealth and bled our wealth for a hundred years or more and looks ready to do it for hundreds more until this is a nation of beggars. Then they’ll flick us a coin of our own stolen gold and call it charity’. How conscious were you of the particular historical moment in which you were writing?

Obviously I was very aware, though at the time I started we weren’t aware the referendum would happen this year, and it certainly didn’t come clear till quite late on that all three plays would go on this year. It was probably a good thing I didn’t have to write with the burden of knowing these productions would actually go on straddling the referendum. At the same time I really wanted them to go on this year because at the moment when you’re considering what your future’s going to be is exactly when you should be looking at your past. It did seem to me, looking at the fifteenth century, that so much of what is the contemporary relationship between Scotland and England is mirrored in the relationship back then, financially in terms of alliances and economic power, all the seeds of what ended up being the relationship between Scotland and England were sown back then. But while that’s a big part of James I and it’s certainly a part of James III, it’s almost not even visible in James II. In terms of pieces of drama James I is the only one directly engaging with that, whilst the other two are doing something else, and then we bring it back at the end of James III. We very consciously said this will be the moment when James I invades the aesthetic of James III. You suddenly come back to the violence and what England is doing, and what the implications are for the country. The current political
climate definitely informed what the audience brought to it, but the plays work out
of that context.

There is an irony across the plays: James I wants to rule but can’t and then James III needs to rule but he is a reckless hedonist who doesn’t want to. If it wasn’t for Queen Margaret the country would’ve fallen apart at that time, and she stands up and says, ostensibly to the audience: ‘you know the problem with you lot? You’ve got fuck all except attitude’. That sounds like one of those prototypical Scottish identity traits which have infected politics, perhaps more so in the past. 

It’s one of them. But what I was doing was saying: these are the events, as I know they happened, this is the version of the events that tells the best story, this is the character I’ve created: what would she say? There was a chunk of that speech which drifted into on–the–nose issues around the referendum. I made the decision to take that out – not without some soul–searching – because I thought the character wouldn’t have said that. What it is informed by is the audience’s awareness, because if you have that speech before the referendum it sounds like: what are you scared about? Just go for it. Then after the referendum you either hear it as: you always bottle it, or you hear it as: well now you’ve got nothing to complain about. Give it five years and hopefully it would still work but it might mean something completely different. What you are always trying to do is control your own bias and just write something that that character would genuinely say to Scottish people at the time. Actually that speech was written very early on and not changed much.

There is a lot of humour about differences between Scottish and English culture. Was it a conscious decision to deal with that using comedy?

Things like that aren’t conscious decisions. 

I think conversationally most people deal with most things that are difficult with humour.
I think the weird thing is not to do that.

Given that most of history has been written by men and for men, did you have less factual information about the women of the period to work with? If so, did that affect how you imagined the women? 

There is very little about any of them, which in some ways is a gift and in other ways is a curse. In terms of contemporary historians, that awareness that women were there and were part of the picture is something that is very much alive and is quite rapidly being addressed. But I think in terms of the way the rest of us see history: all our images come from a nineteenth century version and in that aristocratic women are all sat in a window doing tapestry. One of the things I read up on was the duties of a medieval queen or lady who was running a castle. An enormous amount of work was expected of you, and that was very much a woman’s role but it wasn’t a passive one. It comes down to economics again. If you’re not the direct inheritor of chunks of land and wealth then there isn’t a record of you. It doesn’t mean you’re not influential. You’d certainly be influential, emotionally on all the men in your life, and as a mother. But it’s speculative, so in James II you have evidence that he came in to his majority and married Mary of Guelders and shortly thereafter he was very proactive in running his own affairs. Now it’s completely speculative that her character informed that change in his character, but it’s a reasonable piece of speculation. 

She shakes him out of his madness. James II is noticeably darker and surreal than the other two plays. What made you decide to change the tone in that one? 

It was really a pragmatic thing. Because of this ridiculous ambition to do three in a row I thought, from an audience’s point of view, it would be so much more exciting if they were tonally different. Then you look at each story and you have to tell that history, but what is the play about? It’s about the characters over and above telling a chunk of medieval history. So James I is about the struggle to decide what kind of a ruler you want to be. The moral struggle. You don’t want to be Henry V but the unruly Scots are not allowing you to be something more benign. James III was almost about a guy who refused to rule, but I wanted it to be about a particular type of relationship and the choices a woman has to make once she has children. It’s is about what kind of love a woman should choose. James II for me is about the torture of children. When you look at what happened to those baby princes and princesses and how violent the world was it just must have been ghastly. I don’t know the true events that led to James II stabbing William Douglas but I’m prepared to put money on the fact he was a seriously disturbed young man. But to talk about being psychologically disturbed in medieval terms is a nonsense because they wouldn’t have seen it like that, which is its own challenge. I think being a parent I couldn’t think of a worse nightmare. You see it all over the world now when people have to grow up before their time. That was the darkest story I could imagine. 

One line that stuck out for me was repeated by Balvenie, the Earl of Douglas. He says it in James I and repeats it in the II: ‘the good life is invisible unless you own the land they bury you under’. When he dies his son William Douglas lays the map of Scotland over his body. Obviously that has a certain relevance for Scotland and its history of land ownership. What was the relevance of the line for you? 

It’s the line that demonstrates his character. I have to say I have no idea if the real Balvenie was like that. The main historian on James II – Dr Christine McGladdery – certainly shares the suspicion that he was the monster you see in James II. Whether he was the snivelling put–upon guy you see in James I, who knows? But I was thinking of a type of character that would be useful for the drama. If you are horribly bullied and then become a bully you are often the most dangerous because you have a sense of grievance and self–pity. But in a historical sense he’s articulating what the plays demonstrate, which is the only stories from the middle–ages that are visible are the stories of the kings and queens and the magnates. Everyone else? We can’t even guess what they were like. So even though Scotland was poor and had a very small population, those royal stories are the only ones that have survived, so that line is like an apology to the invisible dead. But on his death bed to his son [William Douglas], Balvenie is saying: you’ll lose everything – this land is my legacy. Then you see his son talking to James II saying: what is the point? I’ve been to Rome and I saw paintings and unimaginable beauty, and I come back here and I’m supposed to feel like a rich man because I have a thousand wet sheep? If that is the goal of your life, if you destroy and twist and abuse your own son and murder your nephews just to get that footnote in history of ‘I owned this land’, what is the point? I wanted to make that statement: that material wealth is actually no legacy that does you any good.

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How Duchamp stole the Urinal

Calvin Tomkins met Marcel Duchamp in 1959 when he wrote an article about him for Newsweek. They were friends until the artist’s death in 1968. The Museum of Modern Art has just published a new and revised edition of Tomkins’ now standard 1996 biography of Duchamp. Ann Temkin, Chief Curator of Painting and Sculpture at MoMA, praises Tomkins in her introduction for unfailingly bringing ‘a splendid lightness of touch to the weight of his careful and thorough research.’

Lightness is crucial to Tomkins’ assessment of Duchamp. He criticizes those who take Duchamp too seriously. ‘Approach his work with a light heart’, Tomkins recommends, ‘and the rewards are everywhere in sight.’ This affable attitude, which demonstrated a warm friendship, has led Tomkins to brush aside all the recent research that undermines Duchamp’s own account of his life, which Tomkins used as the basis of his biography.

The startling fact has now emerged that Duchamp stole his most famous work, the urinal, from a female artist, robbed it of its original meaning, and turned it into something it was never intended to be: a piss take against the whole of art. This revelation undermines the whole argument of Tomkins’ book, discredits his ‘careful and thorough research’ and changes the history of art.

When the mood took him, Duchamp could be honest about his dishonesty. In an interview for Vogue in 1962, he told William Seitz ‘I insist every word I am telling you now is stupid and wrong.’ Research has now revealed that Duchamp’s account of his life is a hall of smoke and mirrors. But, extraordinarily, there is a ‘smoking gun’ in all this subterfuge, and Duchamp is holding the incriminating weapon himself.

On April 11, 1917, just two days after the directors of the Society of Independent Artists had rejected a urinal as a submission for their exhibition, Duchamp wrote to his sister telling her that ‘One of my female friends under a masculine pseudonym, Richard Mutt, sent in a porcelain urinal as a sculpture’. This letter did not enter the public domain until 1983. It contradicts Duchamp’s own later account of this seminal incident.

In The Complete Works of Marcel Duchamp (1979) Arturo Schwarz reports that Duchamp claimed that he and his friends Walter Arensberg and Joseph Stella went shopping on Fifth Avenue, ‘after a spirited conversation at lunch’, and bought a urinal from the J. L. Mott Iron Works. Duchamp then took it back to his studio, signed it R. MUTT, and submitted it to the Independents exhibition, calling it Fountain.

The board of the Society of Independents, of which Duchamp and Arensberg were members, had decided that they would hang every work of art submitted. Duchamp wasn’t present when the urinal, a late entry, was considered. Arensberg argued that it was art because an artist had chosen it. Mere choice, he claimed, could be transposed to an object and turn it into a work of art. The board, however, voted to reject the item on the grounds that it wasn’t art. Arensberg, and then Duchamp, resigned in protest.

The submission and rejection of Duchamp’s urinal is now regarded as one of the key, early turning points in the history of modern art, on a par with the revolutions of Fauvism and Cubism, De Stijl and Der Blaue Reiter. Fountain is always cited as the source of Conceptualism, the modern art movement that America, rather than Europe, gave the world. In Conceptual Art the idea behind the work is more important than its visual appearance or any aesthetic considerations.

Many leading Duchamp scholars, in particularly William Camfield, Rhonda Roland Shearer and Glyn Thompson, in research published between 1996 and 2008, have discovered that this account of the urinal’s submission is simply not true. Duchamp and his friends couldn’t have bought the urinal from the J. L. Mott Ironworks because they didn’t sell that particular model. And the urinal was submitted untitled. Thompson argues convincingly that it was Alfred Stieglitz who named it Fountain when he photographed the rejected entry later.

The public outrage has also been hugely exaggerated. Since the urinal was never exhibited, no one saw it. Arensberg tried to generate publicity through his modest magazine, Blind Man 2, but there was little interest. Guillaume Apollinaire referred to the incident in the Mercure de France fifteen months later but he dismissed it as a pale American imitation of the famous blague known as the Boronali Affair of 1910 in which some abstract paintings which fooled the critics were later shown to have been made by a donkey’s tail. Japes against modern art were common by this time. They’d begun much earlier in Paris, when in 1883 Alphonse Allais exhibited a sheet of white paper in a frame and called it Anaemic Young Girls at their First Communion in the Snow.

Tomkins ignores all these discoveries in his new edition. He argues that Duchamp wanted (for reasons he doesn’t explain) to keep his involvement in the ‘affair’ of the urinal secret. This was why he pretended in his letter to his sister that a ‘female friend’ had submitted the object. But this explanation makes no sense because his sister, a Red Cross nurse in Paris, had no contacts with the New York media and, anyway, Duchamp’s letter would have taken weeks to arrive in war-torn Europe, long after public interest in the incident had fizzled out. The most obvious explanation is that Duchamp in his letter was telling the truth. But if he was, who then was this ‘female friend’?

The great new addition to the story of Duchamp, besides all the excellent, forensic work by Duchamp scholars, is the research of Irene Gammel. Her enthralling, moving and beautifully paced biography, Baroness Elsa, published in 2002, not only throws a spotlight, for the first time, on a highly influential creative figure in the maelstrom of art at the turn of the century, but radically changes our perception of Duchamp.

Baroness Elsa was born plain Else Plotz in Swinemunde, Germany, in 1874. Her father was a builder and local councilor who philandered freely, beat her mother and, Elsa believed, inflicted her with syphilis. In her poem, Coachrider (c 1924), Elsa wrote:

Look at Papa – Killer!
He beams – lovably – virile – despotic by blood – I adore – abhor him –

Elsa’s mother, Ida, forbidden to play her beloved piano by her husband, retreated into religion and romantic fiction. She insisted that her two daughters pray before they went to sleep. ‘Like going for a pee before bed,’ their atheist father laughed back. Ida attempted suicide and later died in an institution in 1893. As Elsa put it, she ‘left me her heritage … to fight.’

Elsa’s genius was to find new ways to break out of the social straightjacket that bound women in the 19th Century. She turned her life into a theatrical performance in which she could fight her mother’s battles openly, in public, in the street, whenever and wherever she wanted to, not when any man told her she could. Djuna Barnes, a friend late in Elsa’s life, wrote ‘People were afraid of her because she was undismayed about the facts of life – any of them – all of them.’

Gammel unravels the complex threads of Elsa’s marriages, first to the Jugendstil architect August Endell, and then to Felix Paul Greve (later Frederick Philip Grove), the translator of Oscar Wilde, who with Elsa’s helped, faked his own suicide in 1909 to escape his creditors. This event brought her to America a year later.

Her third marriage, in 1913, was to Leopold Karl Friedrich Baron von Freytag- Loringhoven, the impoverished son of a German aristocrat who had, like Felix Greve, fled Europe to escape debts. Soon after the marriage, Leopold vanished with Elsa’s paltry savings. However, he left her with a title and an entrée into the most exclusive artistic circles in New York. The Armory Show had just transformed New York, making it modern and cosmopolitan. The Baroness was soon a habituée of the Arensberg circle, where Duchamp himself held court.

Duchamp’s relationship with Elsa came at a crucial time in both of their lives and merited re-examination in Tomkins’ new edition. But the Baroness is given the same half paragraph as before, once more entertainingly dismissed as a woman ‘unhampered by sanity’. Though Tomkins acknowledges her innovative use of found objects – she sewed ‘flattened tin cans, and other strange talismans’ on to her dress – he doesn’t take her interest in them seriously. Found objects could be works of art for men; for women they were merely decorative fetishes.

The Baroness and Duchamp had studios in the same Lincoln Arcade Building, on 1947 Broadway in1916. According to Elsa, they enjoyed many midnight rendezvous. Elsa’s nickname for Duchamp was m’ars. She loved puns. M’ars was a word play on my arse and Mars, the god of war. She called herself ‘m’ars teutonic’, a female god of war, with, of course, a magnificent German posterior.

The American painter, Louis Bouché, recounted a remarkable incident. He’d bought Elsa a newspaper clipping showing Duchamp’s painting Nude Descending a Staircase. He described the scene: ‘she was all joy, took the clipping and gave herself a rub down with it, missing no part of her anatomy’, while reciting her own poem ‘Marcel, Marcel, I Love You like Hell, Marcel.’

Tomkins just quotes the line but leaves out the context, giving the impression that Elsa was, like many women, besotted with his hero. But, as Gammel correctly observes, Elsa’s ‘engagement with Duchamp was astutely critical.’ The rub down was cleansing as well as erotic; she presumably used the newsprint not just to arouse herself but also to wipe her ‘ars teutonic’.

Nude Descending a Staircase was the painting that had made Duchamp famous in America when it was exhibited at the Armory Show in 1913. Its notoriety had been predictable. Nudes didn’t move, and certainly didn’t come downstairs. The implications were scandalous: nudes in the living room, whatever next!

The year before, the Salon des Indépendants in Paris had rejected the picture not because it was too radical as a work of art but because its title was too provocative. They didn’t want any fuss in the press; they were, by then, trying to establish Cubism as a serious art form. They asked Duchamp to remove the title, but he refused.

The understandable row in the American media, as it happened, proved to be remarkably good-humoured. The American Art News offered a ten-dollar prize for the best poem about the picture, and awarded it to a ditty that ended: ‘You’ve tried to fashion her of broken bits,/ And you’ve worked yourself into seventeen fits;/ The reason you’ve failed to tell you I can,/ It isn’t a lady but only a man.’

There remains a deep ambiguousness about Duchamp’s sexuality. This was most obviously manifested in his female persona, Rrose Selavy, who appeared intermittently from 1920 to 1941, wearing furs and make up. But it also appeared in his art. His female nudes are masculine and mechanical. It was this coldness in Duchamp that Elsa caught in the portrait she painted of him on celluloid. It is now lost but was remembered by the artist George Biddle: she depicted him as an electric light bulb spitting icicles.

This contrasts with Elsa’s own bracing and embracing personality. She inspired all who came into contact with her, from Frank Wedekind to Ezra Pound, Djuna Barnes and Ernest Hemingway. The photographer Berenice Abbott said ‘The Baroness was like Jesus Christ and Shakespeare all rolled into one… perhaps she was the most influential person to me in my early life.’ Elsa became famous in literary circles from 1918 to 1921 when The Little Review presented her poetry side by side with excerpts from James Joyce’s Ulysses.

Visual art was vitally important to Elsa, but hardly any survives. George Biddle described a visit to her studio in October 1917: ‘odd bits of ironware, automobile tiles… ash cans, every conceivable horror, which to her tortured yet highly sensitive perception, became objects of formal beauty… it had to me quite as much authenticity as, for instance, Brancusi’s studio in Paris.’

Irene Gammel, with immaculate scholarly precision, draws together the threads of the circumstantial evidence surrounding the submission of the urinal to the Independents exhibition in 1917 and comes to the conclusion that Duchamp’s mysterious ‘female friend’ was the Baroness. As Elsa’s, the urinal becomes meaningful. Gammel relates it to several incidents in her life, including her father’s comment that saying one’s prayers was the same as taking a piss before bed. The urinal sent to the Independents exhibition, which was essentially a gentleman’s club, was another sally in her mother’s war against her abusive husband. But it was a much richer image than that.

The urinal, amazingly, was one of a pair, one of the very few sculptures by Elsa to survive. This was a U-bend plumbing trap turned upside down and mounted on a carpenter’s mitre block (therefore framing it, by punning implication, in religion). It looked like a metal ‘g’ and Elsa called it God.

God in one of Elsa’s poems is described as being ‘densely slow – He has eternity backing him’. If god is everywhere, as many believers maintain, he has to be in the most despised corners – in a U-bend to catch blocking waste that could have once been plumbed into a urinal.

Elsa’s sculpture God, however, could also be a portrait of Duchamp. She wrote ‘m’ars [Duchamp] came to this country – protected – by fame – to use his plumbing features – mechanical comforts – He merely amused himself. But I am m’ars tuetonic… I have not yet attained his heights. I have to fight.’ If God is Duchamp, a bent pipe, then the urinal could be a self-portrait. Laid on its back, it takes the form of a womb cradled in a pelvic girdle that could have received Duchamp’s sperm.

America’s declaration of war on Elsa’s beloved Germany on Good Friday 6th April 1917 could have been the trigger that made the spontaneous Elsa submit the urinal, as a late entry, to the Independents exhibition in New York. It would normally have taken three hours to send by train from Philadelphia, where she was living at that time, but the Easter weekend meant that the urinal didn’t arrive at the Independents until Monday, 12 days after submissions had closed.

Elsa didn’t title the urinal but signed it R. Mutt in a script close to the one she sometimes used for her poems, but which is unrelated to Duchamp’s handwriting. R. Mutt, Gammel explains, is a pun on Urmutter, the German Earth Mother whom Elsa’s symbolist friends had adulated in Munich in 1900. R. Mutt could also have been a pun on armut, meaning poverty, Elsa’s own material poverty and the poverty of American culture, which she frequently railed against. And Elsa’s favourite expletive was shitmutt. Everything fitted. The urinal was Elsa’s declaration of war against war, praise for her motherland, and her challenge to the privileged, aloof, sexually ambivalent Duchamp.

The only evidence that survives of the original urinal is the photograph Alfred Stieglitz took of it for Arensberg’s Blind Man 2 magazine. He lit it carefully so that the shadow within the urinal forms the profile of a pristine white, veiled Madonna – Elsa’s and his own German motherland is being fired at. Even more pointedly, as Glyn Thompson has pointed out, Stieglitz chose to photograph the urinal against the American Modernist Marsden Hartley’s painting Warriors, which was not hanging in his gallery at the time but had to be taken out of the storeroom. Warriors was Hartley’s hymn to the German military manhood. Stieglitz, an American German Jew, by photographing them together, identified the urinal with pro-German feeling as America went to war. Stieglitz did not take photographs casually. This suggests that he knew who had submitted the urinal and what it meant.

Gammel, bamboozled as so many have been by the towering status of Duchamp, does not go so far as to suggest that the urinal was solely Elsa’s, but meekly proposes that she ‘was involved in the conception’ of it. The implication is that Duchamp took the final step and made the actual submission to the exhibition. But it was in fact submitted from the address of Louise Norton, the wife of the poet Allen Norton, who knew Elsa well. Duchamp’s name wasn’t linked to the urinal until 1935, when André Breton tried to recruit him into the ranks of the Surrealists.

Any lingering doubt that the urinal could be in whole or even in part by Duchamp has been removed by Glyn Thompson’s examination of what Duchamp was actually doing at that time. Duchamp stopped painting after 1912 and became a follower of the wealthy, indulgent, chess-playing writer Raymond Roussel who built absurd verbal fantasies on words that happened to sound alike but had different meanings.

By 1917 Duchamp wasn’t interested in provoking a debate about art; he was trying to do without visual art. His Readymades made use of ordinary, found objects that had no aesthetic value. They were elaborate, private rebuses, to be read, in a Rousselian way, not seen. None of them were exhibited in galleries because they weren’t works of art. The fact that Duchamp called Elsa’s urinal a ‘sculpture’ in his letter to his sister proves that the urinal couldn’t have been his. Sculpture by then was anathema to him.

Duchamp, on his own admission, didn’t do the urinal. That is proven. Why then did he claim later that it was his? He was, in part, taking his revenge on art. Both his elder brothers, Jacques Villon and Raymond Duchamp Villon, were successful artists, whereas he was not. Envy and self-loathing seep out of many of his unguarded utterances: ‘why should artists’ egos be allowed to overflow and poison the atmosphere?’ he said in 1963. ‘Can’t you just smell the stench in the air?’

He also appropriated the urinal for practical reasons: he had so little of his own to show. When he eventually gave up trying to be a chess champion in 1933 (his serious ambition till then) it dawned on him that he could build an artistic career by repackaging his early notoriety in America. The problem he faced was that few of his early paintings survived and his Readymades were not visual art, and most of them, anyway, no longer existed, having been allowed to slip back into the visual anonymity from which they had come. Nevertheless, he managed, especially after gaining American citizenship in 1955, to turn himself into one of the grandfathers of modern art, as great as Picasso, Matisse and Mondrian, even though the ‘iconic masterpiece’ he built his reputation on was stolen property.

Tomkins’ upholding of the Duchamp myth has to be considered in the light of MoMA’s support in republishing his ‘updated’ book. The art world as a whole sustains the orthodox view that the urinal is by Duchamp. Countless curatorial and academic reputations and the whole school of Conceptual Art have been founded on this attribution. And national pride is at stake: the urinal was America’s contribution to the founding of Modernism. The date1917 adds authority, for the urinal is contemporary with Dada and Surrealism.

Added to that is the money. Millions of pounds have been invested in the copies Duchamp commissioned of Elsa’s urinal (there are thought to be 14 of these though the number is disputed), the majority of which are now in public galleries around the world from Paris to Tokyo, London to San Francisco, Ottawa to Jerusalem. It is a sad reflection of our culture that artists can become billionaires by creating collectable objects, whereas poets, even if they make as great a contribution to society, rarely earn more than pennies. Elsa died destitute; she was frequently arrested for shoplifting. In prison she learnt how to make pets of rats.

Duchamp’s urinals need to be relabeled Elsa’s. This could have a profound impact on the future of art. Duchamp’s pinched urinal is nasty, empty and spiteful. His belated explanation of ‘R. Mutt’ as a reference to the J.L. Mott Iron Works (where no-one could have bought this particular urinal) and to the popular newspaper comic strip

Mutt and Jeff is a meaningless obfuscation. Elsa’s original urinal is fulsome, loving and furious. Its form is disquietingly beautiful and its punning signature painfully profound.

That one object can mean two such different things is the chief drawback of Conceptualism. What you see in a found object is not totally orchestrated by the artist, as it is, say, when you look at a Goya, a Matisse or a Michelangelo. Conceptual art is dressed, in part, by the viewer’s own thoughts.

Duchamp made this point in a lecture he gave in Houston in 1957: ‘The creative act is not performed by the artist alone; the spectator… adds his contribution.’ And then he added, ‘This becomes even more obvious when posterity rehabilitates forgotten artists.’ He was describing what he himself was doing at that time: faking his own reputation by stealing Elsa’s work and changing what it meant. Conceptual art started then, when he began to build this lie, not earlier, as the orthodox view maintains, in 1917.

Egalitarians in art, Tomkins among them, have argued that participation is liberating for the public because it enables them to contribute to the artistic process. This might be true of minor manifestations of art, like country dancing, but not many feel the need to add their pennyworth to a creation by Rembrandt, Shakespeare or Beethoven.

Spectator contributions are, moreover, subject to deception and self-deception. The naked Emperor was dressed not only in the minds of his beholders but also in his own. Conceptual Art carries such wishful thinking to extremes: it argues that anything can be art if an artist says it is, and that no one has the right to say that something isn’t art nor that someone isn’t an artist. Conceptualism strips art of aesthetic judgment, which is essential to all creative expression. This politically correct philosophy of ‘anything goes’ has to led to the art world being awash with the detritus of found objects, tracks left by would-be shaman, while the disciplined skill of visual creativity, above all the arts of painting and sculpture, have been marginalised.

When Duchamp stole Elsa’s urinal and robbed it of its meaning he was attacking the whole of visual art. Tomkins repeatedly quotes Duchamp as saying that he wanted to put art ‘once again at the service of the mind.’ Since the time of Courbet, Duchamp argued, art had become exclusively ‘retinal,’ in that its appeal was primarily to the eye. This is nonsensical. The retina can’t see. The mind sees. All art is a mental perception, and, in that way, conceptual. To imply, as Duchamp so often did, that the marks of Van Gogh, Picasso, and, later, Pollock were mindless gestures hid his secret loathing of visual art itself.

Elsa’s urinal is the opposite; it is a glorious celebration of visual art. It declares that even the most unlikely, despised object can become, in the hands of an artist, a beautiful, resonant work of art. Elsa’s urinal wasn’t an idea ‘chosen’ by the mind; it was ‘seen’ in an inspired moment of revelation. As such, it re-affirms the primacy of sight in visual art. It deserves to rank alongside Dali’s Lobster Telephone, Picasso’s Head of a Bull made of a bicycle saddle and handlebars and Niki de St Phalle’s target, I Shot Daddy (to which it is similar in feeling).

The back cover of this new edition of Tomkins’ biography is emblazoned with a quote from the critic Richard Dorment: ‘What Tomkins makes us see more clearly than ever before is that Duchamp set art free. By making it more intelligent, he made it more interesting and also more fun. What he did cannot be undone.’ It has to be because he didn’t do it. What he did do has led future generations into making increasingly tedious, repetitious piss-takes of art. Duchamp’s theft is a canker in the heart of visual creativity.

** *

Duchamp – A Biography by Calvin Tompkins. New and Revised Edition. MoMA 2014. 539 pp. £16.95

Baroness Elsa – Gender, Dada and everyday Modernity, a Cultural Biography by Irene Gammel. MIT 2002 534 pp £36.29

* **

Other Articles referred to in this review:

Marcel Duchamp’s Fountain: Its History and Aesthetics in the Context of 1917 by William Camfield (in Marcel Duchamp: Artist of the Century. eds. Kuenzli and Naumann, The M.I.T. Press, 1996)

Marcel Duchamp: A readymade case for collecting objects of our cultural heritage along with works of art, by Rhonda Roland Shearer. Tout-fait. vol. 1 / issue 3. December 2000.

Jemandem ein R Mutt’s zeugnis ausstellen, Monsieur Goldfinch, by Glyn Thompson, Wild Pansy Press, 2008.

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