by SRB

The SRB Interview: Angus Peter Campbell

September 14, 2009 | by SRB

Angus Peter Campbell – The SRB Interview


NOVELIST, POET, journalist, and actor, Angus Peter Campbell/Aonghas Pàdraig Caimbeul was born in South Uist in 1952. Campbell left Uist to attend secondary school in Oban, where he was taught English by Iain Crichton Smith. He graduated from the University of Edinburgh with a degree in Politics and History. While a student, he met and was encouraged by Sorley MacLean, then Writer in Residence at the University. After graduation, Campbell pursued a career in journalism, beginning a long association with the West Highland Free Press; later he worked on BBC Radio and Grampian television. In 1992, he published The Greatest Gift, the first of several volumes of poetry. While it was written in English, its successor collections have moved between English, Gaelic, and Scots. He has also written a number of novels – An Oidhche Mus Do Sheol Sinn (The Night Before We Sailed) (2003) and Là a’ Deanamh Sgeil Do Là (Day Speaketh Unto Day) (2004) were written in Gaelic, while 2006’s Invisible Islands was written in English. Also in 2006, he acted in Seachd: The Inaccessible Pinnacle, a Gaelic language movie set on Skye. Today, he lives on Skye with his wife and six children. Colin Waters spoke to him about language, the lack of diversity in the Scottish media, and what Gaelic literature, magical realism and Irvine Welsh have in common.

Scottish Review Of Books: You once spoke about how the effort to marry modernism and folk tradition without condescension was a terrific challenge. What conclusions did you come to about that challenge?

Angus Peter Campbell: The conclusion I have come to is that we’re now post post-modernist and that they fit perfectly. You see, the contemporary world seems to me to be straight out of the Gaelic folk tradition: magical and fragmented, without any seeming ‘logic’ weighing it down. The capacity in ancient stories to move from A to Z on a wisp of grass, for example, strikes me as being utterly modern. I think the challenge for Gaelic literature, as it may be for all literature, is to find a means of transporting ourselves as lightly as possible through the ether we inhabit. Which is why, the older I get, the more anti-gravitational I get. The effort is to fly without beard or baggage, which is why the stuff I’m writing now is in many ways simpler and more streamlined.

SRB: What were your earliest encounters with Gaelic literature?

APC: It all depends of course what you mean by Gaelic literature, or indeed by the word literature itself, which has come to be associated with written literature. This is chiefly because the mainstream dominant culture within this country, which is of course mirrored in our mainstream media, choose to associate with this form, whereas we all know that Gaelic, and other European cultures, have equally rich other forms of literature– we have oral literature, and aural literature and visual literature and tactile literature and all kinds of other literature. My first exposure to ‘Gaelic literature’ may very well have been the birds (the curlews) singing outside our house on the moor, or the sound of the cart taking the peats home, or of our neighbour Eairdsidh Beag playing the bagpipes, or of someone singing in the village. I went to primary school in South Uist where ‘official literature’ if you want to put it that way, was hidden between the cover of books and therefore in English. ‘Literature’ was Black Beauty and Kidnapped and Treasure Island. Once in High School we got an official Gaelic book – WJ Watson’s magisterial Bàrdachd Gàidhlig – but as far as I could work out none of the poets in it was still alive. No doubt this set me subconsciously thinking that poetry belonged to the dead.

SRB: You were lucky to be taught by not one but two great Scottish poets, Iain Crichton Smith and Sorley MacLean. What was that like, what did you learn from them?

APC: They were both alive. Iain was an absolute joy as a teacher – challenging, inspirational and funny. I was in his English class from age 12 to 17, and during that period he opened windows to world literature. One day he would bring in an LP of Beethoven and play it then ask us to write a poem in response; the next he might read us the Gospel of Matthew, Chapter 6 – “Consider the lilies of the field, how they grow: they neither toil nor spin; and yet I say to you that even Solomon in all his glory was not arrayed like one of these” – just for the joy of the words (I can still hear him reading these words); the next day again he would introduce us to Lowell, or Ginsberg or Arthur Miller. I think I learned two things from him – that poets were alive, and that we could stand at ease next to the great internationalists. Sorley didn’t actually teach me – he just happened to be the Writer in Residence at the University of Edinburgh when I was a student. I went to see him with some poems of mine and he was tremendously encouraging and supportive, and remained so throughout his life. I think Sorley just verified what Iain had seeded: that poetry was a great international language and that Gaelic could proudly stand alongside Spanish or Greek or Russian or English or whatever in that great discourse.

SRB: You were a journalist for how long? How did you get into the profession?

APC: I’ve been a journalist now for 34 years. First of all as a print journalist with the West Highland Free Press, then as a radio journalist with BBC Radio Highland, then as a television journalist and editor with Grampian Television. I got into the profession by responding to an advert for a journalist in the Free Press the year after I left university. In the meantime I’d been working in the building trade.

SRB: I was interested to read that you wrote a weekly column for the West Highland Press on TV. Given your defence of the Gaelic language and culture, I would have thought – correct me if I’m wrong – that you’d be more wary of TV. After all, it does promote a sort of monoculture; it isn’t so long ago, for example, that I read that kids in Glasgow have developed a cockney twang when pronouncing certain words because they watch Eastenders so much.

APC: I’m not in the least ‘wary’ of TV: what I am very aware of is its power, not only as a viewer (or perhaps we’re now called ‘cultural consumers’?) but also as a television maker. I have worked long enough within the industry to know from first-hand experience that I had inordinate power in my hands. As a Television News Editor I was daily aware of the power I had to ‘manipulate’ news, in the sense that it was entirely within my power to shelve certain items, to prioritize, to include, to exclude delete, edit etc. What gave me the right to do that any more than my granny? What I became very aware of is that the power of the media lies in the hands of a few very rich individuals and corporations who – naturally – have their own agendas. One of my tutors at university, Richard L. Aschraft, taught me enough to realize that such power was undemocratic, unfair and unjust. It often came from a class and gender position, so that those who were excluded from that media power were, to put it rather starkly, daily victims of media abuse. That’s why, by the way, I greatly welcome the public democratisation of information via the internet, though that too is now filled with different kinds of cyber-thugs. And while I’m waxing lyrical about the undemocratic power of the media I might as well specifically mention that I include the written press at the heart of that injustice. What gives writers at the Herald or Sunday Herald or the Scotsman or the Scottish Review of Books for that matter, the apparently god-given right to cast judgements on everything from politicians to poets, from stem-cell research to scientology? Are they any wiser than my fore-mentioned, late Granny? Of course not – but what they have is untrammelled access to the daily column pages. Why, as our great writer James Kelman has often said, are the opinion columns of these so-called national organs not graced by the presence of real writers, such as Kelman himself? Which leads me finally to critics and literary journals such as the SRB. Again – apart from the fact that they are given the chosen power to say it – what right have these critics to make or destroy careers and reputations and publishing houses? Of course I’m well aware that hundreds of books come flying for review to the desks of literary editors each week, and the first real power that these literary editors have is choosing which of these books to review and which to discard. The next sword of power in their hands is the power to carefully choose the reviewer, and the reviewer himself or herself then has the added power of not just ‘reading’ a book but obviously reading it with their own pre-given personal agenda. We all have personal agendas. All of us justify a social or linguistic or gender or class position and that has to be read into any text we either write or read. There is also the pressure on the reviewer – which again stems from the incessant demands of capitalism – of the deadline, that dreaded word, which can often contribute to misjudgement and enhance the prejudices. A Gaelic publisher friend of mine often tells me of reviewers asking him for copies of books to read and review – three days before the copy deadline. Quite how you can come to a balanced and full opinion, or even provide a decent snapshot, within such a tight timescale is beyond me.

SRB: Poetry and journalism seem almost polar opposites. Did you feel a real crunching of gears when you swapped from one mode to the other, or is there some hidden sympathy between the two I might not be aware of? Was there anything in the job that prepared the way for your poetry and your fiction?

APC: See above. Having being trained in a newsroom, however, was great preparation for fiction: it’s all constructed. News gathering did teach me certain skills: precision, rapidity and alertness for example. But I recently wrote a poem comparing the making of poetry and fiction to planting crops and journalism to the combine-harvester which comes along and sweeps it all away into the big machine. The media seems to me to be like the fairies of old that would come and steal the goodness out of the produce. Art, in other words, sows growth while journalism steals the harvest.

SRB: If journalism is so mendacious, why do you still work in that field?

APC: Mostly because I only steal the harvest which I have planted myself and which belongs to me.

SRB: In The Greatest Gift, you often link personal, family moments with destructive events then in the news. So, a child’s first day at school brings to mind the Tiananmen Square massacre, a bus passing by reminds you of your father which in turn brings Salman Rushdie and the risk posed to his life by his novel The Satanic Verses. That line “I love you/in the devilish imbalance of every contrary thing”, it’s almost as if by loving or being touched by love you feel duty bound to correct the balance by reminding the reader of horror too, a yin and a yang thing. What made you return so often to that trope in this period of your writing career?

APC: Maybe you’ve got it wrong – maybe it was the other way round, in the sense that every horror was actually outbalanced by the daily touches of love. In that sense, nothing of course has changed, and that balance or imbalance of every contrary thing is as old as the hills. For example, I’m sure there were great moments of tender grace all across Eurasia while Genghis Khan razed everything before him though these have been swept out of history. Think, for example of the number of beautiful private things that happened on 9/11, though the headline now shadows them all.

SRB: The Greatest Gift is a long book for a first collection of poetry. Over how long a period did you assemble it, and if it was a number of years, did you find how you wrote and conceived of verse had changed by the end of that span?

APC: It took a couple of years. I wrote in while living in the Granton district of Edinburgh, conscious of the fact that I was in an area where third-generation unemployment and poverty was common, but that despite that grim fact, folk were doing their best. It seemed (and still seems) to me a terribly tragedy that such great human potential was not only allowed to go to waste, but – through the consequences of the specific free-market forces unleashed by Thatcher – left to die on the margins and fringes of society. The Greatest Gift was an effort at articulating that unnecessary anguish.

SRB: The Greatest Gift, your first poetry collection, is engagé with the politics of the period. Have you ever worried that the namechecks given to Thatcher and so on, might one day make the poems dated?

APC: No. I have no doubts that Margaret has left her permanent marks on history.

SRB: In your first collection, you wrote “The Gaelic language/is an old boxer, flabby, remembering victories”, but by the time of your latest collection Fruit On Branches, it “is like a patient lying/weak on her deathbed”. Do you believe matters are becoming terminal for Gaelic now, or can it still be turned around?

APC: Nothing is terminal.

SRB: In ‘Harvesting The Ocean’ from Fruit On Branches, you write: “I am drowning here trying desperately/to harvest Gaelic/from the great tide of English”. Why then include English translations of your Gaelic poems which stand next to the originals in that volume?

APC: You’re mistaken. They don’t actually “stand next to the originals in that volume” – the English versions of the original Gaelic poems appear as the third segment of a trilingual volume, with the second section of the book being in Scots. To my mind at least that represents three separate and distinct books or streams, rather than a Gaelic river being swamped by an English ocean. What I have deliberately avoided doing in that book is publishing Gaelic on one page with the English on the facing page: that confrontation seems to me to be much more dangerous, like putting my daughter in the ring with Mike Tyson. The trilingual book, to me at least, seems a real choice: the reader can then, of course, choose which language to read free from pressure. I suspect, of course, that what you’re really asking, however, is why have English – or Scots – at all. The practical reason, of course, is that there are many Gaelic learnerswho will find a reference to the Scots or English versions quite useful. No one doubts that English is a huge tide: it is. But that having been said, I can of course swim well in that tide – here I am, after all, speaking to you in English. It seems to me that languages, in the plural, can warp and weave into other. The current global financial crisis, however, surely clearly demonstrates one thing: market forces on their own cannot be permitted to rule people’s lives. The international tongue of that capitalist beast – in other words English – needs to be controlled along with its banks and institutions for the safety and survival of us all.

SRB: Do you look at how the Welsh handled the issue of their native language and then how the Scots have and see a missed opportunity? I know you’ve spoken in the past about the difference in budgets between the Welsh Books Council and the Gaelic Books Council.

APC: Yes. The Welsh were prepared to starve to death for their cause, and won. We were all too fat to go on hunger-strike. Of course the consequences of our continuing timidity are obvious. Take literary funding, as a small example: the Welsh Books Council are handsomely funded by the Welsh Assembly, but the Scottish Government, through their funding agency Bòrd na Gàidhlig, have yet to grasp the importance of seriously investing in literature and publishing. While the Scottish Arts Council do their bit to support the Gaelic Books Council, Bòrd na Gàidhlig currently provide something like 5% of their budget to Gaelic publishing. The Gaelic Books Council still have no full-time editor for Gaelic books, for example – despite Bòrd na Gàidhlig being approached last year for support for a post of full-time editor. Even more telling may be this small statistic – The Gaelic Books Council has a total staff of 4. MG ALBA – the administrators for the new Gaelic TV channel – on the other hand now has a staff of 25. Which, by the way, is probably more than the total number of Gaelic writers we have. That doesn’t take in to account the dozens working for the BBC, or STV, or in the independent sector. The ‘official message’ is that administrators are more valuable than artists and that television is far more important than literature. I believe – of course – that without literature our language will perish, even if everyone in the whole world were to speak it.

SRB: In ‘Victory And Defeat’ (from The Greatest Gift), you write, or your poetic persona writes, that he is “a Gael and a socialist and a Christian”. Are you attracted to causes or cultures that could be said to be in decline?

APC: I’m with the great William Faulkner on this one who said, “I decline to accept the end of man”. It strikes me that I am a day older than I was yesterday and therefore officially ‘in decline’. By that definition, even my young six-year-old son is officially in decline. If your line of argument was followed none of us would believe in anything, campaign for anything, live for anything, hope in anything. Of course it is a fight, but no righteous cause is ever dead and buried. We could all just lie a-bed because all is doomed. I believe the very opposite: that all things uncomely and broken, as Yeats put it, are well worth fighting for. Which is not, by the way, to agree with you that Gaelic or Socialism or Christianity is ‘in decline’. The cause of Gaelic seems to be very much on the rise; the rightness and need for Socialism strikes me as being more relevant right now than it has ever been; and as far as I can make out, rather than being in decline, there are now more professing Christians world-wide than there have ever been. Maybe you’re just being too Euro-centric: Christianity is seeing tremendous growth in places such as China. For the record, I am still a Gael, a Socialist and a Christian.

SRB: Your poetry keeps returning to Biblical imagery and language – what role has your faith played in your creative work?

APC: It has given me assurance, and therefore liberty. There may be others who need neither or who can have liberty without assurance, but I’m not one of them. The Bible itself, of course, covers all the great creative issues, from love to freedom and deals with all of the raw material which provides the bedrock for stories and journalism and poetry, from murder (Cain/Abel), to incest to prostitution, revenge, anger, justice, deceit, duty and all the rest. Tolstoy believed that the templates for all great stories were already rooted in the scriptures and dared anyone to find a thriller better than the story of Joseph and his brothers and an adventure greater than those of Abraham and Moses, for example. It is of course chock-full of great poetry as well, ranging from David’s lament for Saul and Jonathon – “How the mighty have fallen” – to the Psalms, the Song of Songs and many of Paul’s passages. Which is why as a teacher and poet (and not as a theologian) that Iain Crich-ton Smith read them to us so often in class. O, and by the way, they read and sound as beautiful in Gaelic as they do in Hebrew, Greek, Latin and the King James’s English.

SRB: What is it about the magic realism of South American fiction that so speaks to you? Does South American magic realism have something in common with the Gaelic tradition? Is this affinity something to do with Catholicism, as others have suggested?

APC: Yes, I think it does. I think it has to do with transubstantiation and other altered states. Gaelic stories are filled with such translations: you flung an apple behind you, and it turned into a forest, then into a lake, then into a fire, to separate you from the pursuing dragon. I grew up in a community where such stories were both real and true. I think a writer like Irvine Welsh has basically used the same tradition, just in an urban context. He too was surrounded by altered states, and made art out of that same raw material.

SRB: You write in Invisible Islands that language is “essentially political”. Is your socialism linked to Gaelic and if so, in what way?

APC: All language is political in that every word we speak or write or hear or read displays or betrays a class position. The easiest example is accent: whether the accent is an Eton accent or a South Uist accent, it is as essentially a socioeconomic-linguistic-cultural sign or emblem. Language communicates not just verbal, but visual and sociological data. My socialism is linked to Gaelic in the sense that I believe socialism to be the natural manifesto for the wretched of the earth: those on the margins, who have been de-valued not because of any intrinsic lack of worth in themselves, but as the direct consequence of deliberate political processes which have robbed them of their resources, their dignity and their natural rights. That process is called Imperialism and of course was most manifest in the likes of Latin America where the European conquerors immediately enslaved, eradicated and robbed the indigenous peoples of their lands and resources. Aside from the horse and sword, the principle weapon in this onslaught was language itself. If you really want to conquer and enslave a people you must first make sure that they lose a grip on that which gives them a sense of self: their culture and language. Do you really think it was an accident that the Roman Empire – as was the Russian Empire, and the British Empire and the Chinese Empire and the American Empire, etcetera – were each held together, glued together, by a common dominant language? And the best teachers of that dominant language are of course the converted natives themselves. The socialism that I believe in is of course a socialism which is intrinsically opposed to cultural as well as political imperialism. The re-distribution of wealth, which is at the heart of socialism, is not just confined to material wealth, i.e. money and land. It also extends to redistributing linguistic and cultural forces.

SRB: There haven’t over the past hundred years been a huge number of novels in Gaelic. Chiefly, the language – so it seems to this outsider – is at its best when contributing to an oral tradition. Is there something uncongenial about Gaelic used over the long haul of the novel?

APC: The question of course says far more about you and about outdated mainstream opinion than it does about Gaelic or its oral or literary capabilities. Gaelic has a long and distinguished literary tradition, dating as far back as the 10th century and in the 1000 years since then has produced a substantial number of literary works which would grace the top table of any civilization from here to Outer Mongolia. These literary works and manuscripts include the great poem The Lament of Deirdre dated from 1238, the poetry of Muireadhach Albannach from the late 12th century, the Dean of Lismore’s exquisite collection of written Gaelic poetry from the 14th, 15th and 16th centuries right up to Sorley MacLean’s Dàin do Eimhir first published in 1943 and then up to the current crop of novels and books of poetry which are being published. The simple point I’m making is that despite your assertion Gaelic has had a long, rich and priceless literary tradition. And of course that literary tradition is now continuing, through the novels being published through new initiatives such as Ur-Sgeul. Alongside that literary tradition it also, of course, had a very vibrant oral culture as you well acknowledge. The survival of that oral culture had to do with many factors, not least of which was the fact that as soon as universal education was instituted in 1872 Gaelic was deliberately excluded so that you had generation after generation growing up and being taught in schools to read and write in English, and not being taught to read or write in their own native language. To put it briefly, illiteracy in their native language was institutionalised, so that – until the emergence of Gaelic-medium education over the past twenty years – a century of deliberate illiteracy was assured. The purpose of course was to extirpate the Gaelic language, which was considered backward, uncivil and uncouth and make us all subjects of an empire upon which the sun never set, apparently. So to answer your question, of course there is nothing ‘uncongenial’ about Gaelic being used over the long haul of the novel. It’s not, after all a disease or a virus. Gaelic seems to me to be as perfectly able to deal with the novel, in any classic, modernist or post- or post-post-modernist shape form or size, as much as any other language. The last five years have seen Gaelic novels (and I don’t just mean my own) covering subject matters every bit as broadminded and as varied as works in English. Novelists were always there – they just haven’t always had the opportunity.

SRB: One of the problems with writing books in Gaelic is that because the pool of Gaelic speakers is so small, it tends to be enthusiasts for the language who review the books. Does it concern you that this may distort a true assessment of a book’s worth?

APC: I can assure you that this is absolutely not the case: the ‘professional’ Gaelic reviewers may or may not be enthusiasts for the language – how would I know? – but they can also be as unbalanced and as prejudiced as any other reviewer. I often privately compare critics to nose-pickers: if they want to pick and chew their own noses, that’s fine by me, but I would generally prefer if they left mine alone. The real value of a book, however, lies well beyond the artificial limits of a review. The real value is when it becomes part of a folk consciousness. The real value is when someone writes privately to you, as they have, to say that the book moved them to tears or joy and – most importantly – brought them to a new or renewed sense of the value of life.


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