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Tete-a-Tete – Scottish Review of Books
by Brian Morton


September 14, 2009 | by Brian Morton

Tete-a-Tete – Brian Morton

FOUR RIVERS ran out of Eden. Three flow through Langholm, and young Christopher Grieve could tell each of them by its sound alone. It was a first lesson in native harmonics and a vernacular cadence that sought nothing less, when he became Hugh MacDiarmid, than to put Scotland on a world stage, part of a large utopian comity in which the local, the national and the international flow together in a great undifferentiated chord.

For MacDiarmid, the absent Euphrates was Englishness, the imperial stream that imposed an alien tonality on Scottish poetry and bullied its way across the Scottish landscape. Nothing, though, was further from his mind than a return to Eden. MacDiarmid loathed the bland deproletarianising urge that insisted Scotland ’s reality lay in scenery and farms. He wanted the cities and the machine to be part of the picture, too, which is why in Alexander Moffat’s iconic portrait of the poet ‘Hymn to Lenin’, now thirty years old, MacDiarmid is set not just against Border hills and Shetland skerries, but against a vivid diorama of the Bolshevik Revolution, with Scotland’s imprisoned Lenin, John Maclean, also visible.

The translator and critic Michael Hamburger was the first to note that even the most extreme forms of urban modernism, including Marxist-inspired ‘proletarian’ writing, almost invariably showed an element of the pastoral at their core. For Hamburger, or at least in Hamburger’s version of the modern poet, the country was the archetype, the city a mere phenotype. It’s a potent idea, but more powerful still was MacDiarmid’s desire not so much to reverse that priority but to collapse the distinction altogether and make the little white rose and the foundry equal aspects of a modern Scotland. His version of the pastoral was summed up in the machine-like gutturals of ‘teuch sauchs in the Reuch Heuch Hauch’ – a very shibboleth for modern Scots! weed out the English infiltrators who can’t utter it! – and in an almost unconscious lapse into conventional imagery in the great manifesto of December 1925, when he says “The Scottish Renaissance has taken place. The fruits will appear in due course”. This was powerful because it asserted the priority of ideas, of a particular idea, over practice. It shifted the emphasis away from ‘works’, which will appear ‘in due course’ – be patient! – and toward the ‘work’ of remaking language.

Moffat’s other key work of his richest period was, of course, Poet’s Pub, a celebration of conviviality as a mode of cultural practice. He has recreated something of that with Alan Riach in Arts of Resistance. This might be Milne’s bar again, in the great days. MacDiarmid, George Mackay Brown, Norman MacCaig, Alan Bold, Edwin Morgan and even, half-seen on the stairs,  the art critic John Tonge (author in 1938 of The Arts of Scotland and co-dedicatee of MacDiarmid’s epic masterpiece On a Raised Beach) are all as vividly present in the book as they are in Moffat’s picture, which has become a powerful Ur-image in contemporary Scottish arts, revisited by John Bellany and Calum Colvin, but never better re-presented than in these remarkable dialogues with Riach, whose own greatest contribution to date has been a firm placing of MacDiarmid’s poetry on an equal footing with the modern poetry mainstream, but proudly remote from its academicized ‘traditions’.

Two academics themselves, but engaged in a thoroughly unacademic exchange. The book comes out of a series of three unscripted lectures given by the authors at the National Galleries of Scotland. One of those in attendance was poet and storyteller Linda MacDonald-Lewis, who has done doughty service in bringing Scottish literature and history to American ears. It was she who persuaded Moffat and Riach to “retake” their conversations with a tape running, acting as facilitator and occasional chair. What emerges is, of course, more than a transcript, but a beautifully crafted process of association, reference and (both textual and visual) illustration. It’s a sumptuous book, worth every button of the thirty quid they’re asking for. Even the smaller reproductions have impact and something like Stanley Cursiter’s 1913 The Sensation of Crossing the Street, West End, Edinburgh, an urban ‘epiphany’ presented as a pixilated flower-garden, provokes an unexpected gasp, familiar though it is.

If there are objections to be got out of the way, the first might be the absence of Eve. MacDonald-Lewis is not very much present  in the book, just a few questions, exclamations and “now, now, boys”, but nor were there many ladies in Milne’s bar – one mythological figure storming the barricades, one dark-haired beauty peeking round MacCaig’s elbow – and that’s reflected in the text as well. Willa Muir, Joan Eardley, Phoebe Anna Traquair and Liz Lochhead all come under scrutiny, and Riach makes the strong point that a central aspect of the modernist project was a recentring of women in the narrative. Lewis Grassic Gibbon did that almost single-handedly, his feminism more convincing than his Diffusionism.

Another quibble comes from the relative absence of music and architecture in the discussions. Composer and pianist Ronald Stevenson and MacDiarmid’s teacher F. G. Scott need more attention. Charles Rennie Mackintosh’s Glasgow School of Art, finished exactly one hundred years ago, written out of the record for the next forty, is touched on by Moffat, who graced the building as head of painting for thirteen years, but anyone new to this might want something more about Patrick Geddes, another of MacDiarmid’s vital sources and another, like Mackintosh who was squeezed out of Scotland, and reduced to founding a Scottish College in Montpellier. In giving proper attention to the often remote landscapes associated with the 20th century poets and the landscape painters, Moffat and Riach seem to run some risk of lapsing back into the very pastoralism they and MacDiarmid were determined to resist. They put much of that right in the book’s final section, ‘Poets of the City’, which gives a vivid account of Scotland’s evolving urban vision, but by then too much of an old discourse has been allowed back in. Connected to that, and to Geddes’s and Mackintosh’s exile, there’s an over-familiar emphasis on the Auld Alliance, on the determination of Scottish painters to leapfrog London and soak up sun and colour. What’s lacking here is some understanding that English artists also escaped from the fog and drizzle, sometimes bound for the Med and a change from umber and grey, but sometimes for a good north light and a whiff of the ‘sublime’. A little more nuance and dialectic (to which MacDiarmid was committed) is called for. Scottish education is (rightly) slaughtered for its neglect of Scottish literature, history and music, but how and why did this happen? Did the English Taleban just move in and burn everything in Scots? Hardly.

In the same way, the very regular use of ‘Presbyterian’ as an easy critical shorthand is just plain slack. By what means did Pres-byterianism lay a dead hand on the Scottish imagination, if indeed it did? Compton Mackenzie contributed an essay on Catholicism to the same Routledge ‘Voice of Scot-land’ series as MacDiarmid, Neil Gunn, Edwin and Willa Muir. It’s mentioned, but its argument isn’t taken up.

Finally, the idea of ‘resistance’ is flagged up very strongly indeed, but other than these Balkan resistances – to England, to the Church of Scotland, to gloom and the aesthetic equivalent of SAD – the word is only ever defined as a generalised opposition (as Moffat has it) “to anything that dulls or numbs the intellect and the sensual understanding of the world”. It’s very clear that the authors intend their book as a kind of political intervention that addresses key questions posed by MacDiarmid in 1926, about broadening the constituency of art and its audience, resisting the merely academic, and stimulating art production to the maximum. It’s equally clear that in Arts of Resistance they have done just that, despite the apparent negativity of the title. My old English teacher Robin Jenkins – who’s one of the omissions here and in some respects a more serious one than WS Graham, who Moffat and Riach flag up as an absentee – used to say that the word ‘stress’ should only be used in prosody, never to describe a state of mind. In the same way, I tend to think ‘resistance’ is best kept for physics and for analysis of electrical currents. As a valorific here, it’s too one-dimensional and crude.

As are most of these objections to what is, at every level, an important book that by its very existence and form makes the right kind of intervention at just the right moment. It is a measure of its success that the most valuable components are not necessarily those directly related to its core arguments. It is a further measure of how provocative and stimulating it is that one instinctively wants to join the argument, order another round and jab a nicotined finger in the virtual Milne’s Moffat and Riach conjure up. There’s much to learn from Arts of Resistance. I hadn’t realised that MacDiarmid was as close at one time to William Gillies as he was to William Johnstone, and knowing that subtly repositions one’s sense of MacDiarmid’s attitude to the Border landscape and how it is represented. In other cases, what’s valuable is an insight, like Riach’s proposal of The Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde as the key literary text for the 21st century. Because in it Robert Louis Stevenson (who properly emerges here as a modernist pioneer) “envisages what happens when a wanton, childish appetite is energised by adult power and violence follows. .. what happens when you separate adult reason and childish lusts. Isn’t that a model of contemporary western society?” ‘Deed it is.

There are moments when the artfulness of the dialogue second-guesses an objection from the reader. When Riach again asserts that “You can grasp a MacDiarmid word like ‘thrawn’ more quickly than the fancy vocabulary of T. S. Eliot; ‘polyphiloprogenitive’ indeed!” – ‘LINDA: Pardon?’ – it’s very tempting to jump in and say Mac-Diarmid wasn’t above using words like ‘lithogenesis’ and ‘carpolite’, and besides wasn’t Eliot writing in comic mode in ‘Mr Eliot’s Sunday Morning Service’, with its references to ‘sapient sutlers of the Lord’ and ‘sable presbyters’. Riach is, of course, ahead of all this. MacDiarmid’s appropriation of dictionary language is part of an effort to combine multifarious elements “into an epic vision of what language is all its varieties is capable of”, not least resistance to cultural imperialism. Any hint that MacDiarmid, unlike the chucklesome Eliot, might lack a sense of humour, has already been disposed of by Moffat, who finds a wonderful description of the poet’s meeting with Gillies, where after several glasses of malt, they comb the hair down on their foreheads and dance around Hector and Mary MacIver’s ‘Boutique’: this anecdote from her Pilgrim Souls.

If most of these examples comes suspiciously early in the book, that is because the section on MacDiarmid is the key one, that on the poets of the Highlands and Islands in some sense the weakest of the three, and the closing section on the city a restatement and variation of the first. All have their riches, though. Running through the book is a renewed sense of MacDiarmid as the Vorbild of Scottish modernism, a great role model or guru who, as George Elder Davie insisted, left no disciples. Compare Ezra Pound – who was also, incidentally, the worst thing ever to happen to T. S. Eliot – and the generation of acolytes he left behind. MacDiarmid was a passionate enabler who opened up a word-hoard and got the poets talking to the painters and the composers, and reading science again, and reconnecting with a useable past. Ironically, if MacDiarmid has a follower, albeit a largely unconscious one, it is Irvine Welsh, who rates brief mention here. There is the same richness of utterance, the same confident mixing of registers, the same splenetic humour, the same recognition that the pastoral is now only an option, not the grounding reality. This particular late fruit of the Renaissance rotted before it ripened, like a medlar, and fell pretty far from the tree, but the connection is unmissable and in its strange way underlined what MacDiarmid’s Renaissance – Geddes preferred ‘Renascence’ – was all about, a rebirth and reawakening of something deep and strong, and uniquely our own.

Arts of Resistance: Poets, Portraits and Landscapes of Modern Scotland
Alexander Moffat and Alan Riach, with Linda MacDonald-Lewis
LUATH PRESS, £29.99 pp192, ISBN 1906307636

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