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Living History – Scottish Review of Books
by Rosemary Goring

Living History

October 28, 2009 | by Rosemary Goring

BROUGHT UP IN DUNBAR, not far from the hill where Cromwell took terrible command over the Scots, I was nursed into adulthood on a diet of history, on tales of battles, riots, persecutions, as well as the less sensational business of ordinary lowland people, whose drove roads over the Lammermuirs were visible from my bedroom, and whose boats had tugged at the mooring ring in Belhaven’s ancient harbour, which was unearthed a mere hundred yards from our front gate.

All this was learnt at home because, as I recall, Scottish history had not reached the school curriculum in anything except a cursory form. By the time I got to university, it was a relatively new addition to the agenda even there.

That my childhood, which spanned the 1960s and 1970s, was steeped in Scottishness, was attributable to my father, whose passionate interest in the country’s history and geography and wildlife became, to an extent, mine. In those days these were unfashionable fascinations. Even as Scotland tried to inch its way towards devolution, academic and cultural emphasis remained firmly focussed on London. In our briny backwater, what we were taught was culled from decades of unthinking deference to the south and our aristocracy. My father’s insistence on the significance of Scotland’s role, past and present, and his aversion to any sort of social privilege, was at that time a minority view in those of his generation.

Many have written that as they stepped into the world beyond their family hearth, they found their Scottishness a handicap: the stronger their accent, the greater their shame. In Dunbar the opposite was true. Nobody was particularly interested in what happened south of the border, and even less so in the life lived behind the gates of the minor prep school on our doorstep, the tribes of each being dismissed as snobs.

In the case of the prep school, it was probably a fair assessment. To write off the entire English nation, however, simply because they lived beyond the border a mere thirty miles from us, seemed less reasonable. If, like me, you had an English mother who had passed on her vowels as well as her genes, it was like carrying stigmata, the sort you didn’t want to parade. Sassenach was the kindest word that was yelled in my face.

This wind-bitten, hard-living, pugnacious town was proud, in a dour sort of way, of its history, but reluctant to learn more about it than was strictly necessary. You might have thought that in this locale, Scottish literature would have been a boon for teachers, a way of showing that high culture could strike a chord with anyone, even parochial weans like us. Yet the first literature that could be called Scottish that I remember being taught was Macbeth. Our set texts were more often American – The Catcher in the Rye, The Fixer — or English – A Town Like Alice, Animal Farm, the poems of Wilfred Owen. The books I learned most from were taken from the bookshelves at home. Bypassing my father’s collections of Scottish poetry, biography and dense-looking history, I picked up my mother’s and sister’s books: Jane Austen, Scott Fitzgerald, Dostoevsky, Gide.

When I was fourteen, I asked a publisher who had retired to Dunbar what I should be reading. He pointed me towards the Blooms-bury set. By the time a proselytising English teacher from Inverurie drew my attention to George Mackay Brown and Lewis Grassic Gibbon and Jessie Kesson, I was too immersed in angst-ridden Russian gloom and elegant French misery to pay attention. Thus it was possible to reach the age of 17, when I left school, without reading a Scottish classic beyond Robert Louis Stevenson, and still be considered adequately educated.

The spirit of the age I first grew up in is impossible for me to gauge, living as I did a countrified, tomboy existence in which our daily Scotsman was merely fodder, once my parents had read it, for the hamster’s litter. That shameful ignorance persisted until I left university, when I finally, and reluctantly, recognised the importance of newspapers and a rudimentary knowledge of current affairs.

By then it was the mid 1980s, and nobody, not even the most blinkered history graduate, could escape the political seismology of a country straining to defend itself against the cruel injustices of a Thatcher government. That much of the Scottish literature I now came to read germinated long before this particular generation of dissatisfaction was irrelevant. Whether it chimed with the day’s affairs or was rooted in an older Scottish tradition, the works of Muriel Spark and Norman MacCaig, Candia McWilliam and William McIlvanney, James Kelman and A L Kennedy, spoke a language that was invigoratingly real and present, and Scottish.

Possibly because I came of age in the 1980s, or perhaps because it was a time of such national passion and fury, that decade encapsulates the awakening spirit of my own life. In an attempt to capture the mid to late 20th century through the eyes of people who helped to shape it, Paul H. Scott has compiled fragments of autobiography from a small group of cultural luminaries. Spirits of the Age: Scottish Self Portraits stretches from philosopher George Elder Davie, who was born in 1912, to poet and writer Jackie Kay, born in 1961. In between is a cast of 28 others, almost all writers, including Muriel Spark, Edwin Morgan and Alastair Reid.

Those this side of seventy – indeed this side of the grave in the case of Robin Jenkins and David Daiches – include Ronald Frame, Jan-ice Galloway and James Robertson.

Given the average age of the contributors, it’s not surprising that the pictures evoked feel like impressions from a sepia-tinted era. Muriel Spark’s piece, written in 1961, harks back to a time when Edinburgh was intensely parochial, inward looking and restrictive. It is a place, she writes, “where I could not hope to be understood”. David Daiches’s starting point is even earlier, seen in his sense of lifelong gratitude towards Scotland for being kind to his family, particularly his German father, a rabbi who found his spiritual home here.

Though James Robertson’s elegiac portrayal of his childhood town of Bridge of Allan, and the political shifts his own thinking took in the years after public school, is almost contemporary with my own upbringing, elsewhere this collection reads like a history lesson, of the sort I used to love as a child: tales of triumph over adversity – Alasdair Gray’s grandparents, Agnes Owens in her first, poverty-stricken marriage, Sheena Blackhall in her Doric home, so cheerless a place it might have sprung from the imagination of A J Cronin.

That this work predominantly reflects the experiences of those who at best are in early middle-age, at worst elderly, is not to detract from its fascination. Though uneven in quality and interest, these absorbing pieces form a sort of creative Hadrian’s Wall across the 20th century, holding back the forces of parochialism and poverty and disapproval in their quest for self expression and in so doing clearing a broader path for others to follow. But it takes only a glance at the list of contents to acknowledge that there are so many other, no to mention younger, spirits Scott might have invited to take part, to widen and refresh the portrait.

In one other significant respect, Spirits of the Age does not hit its mark. This shortcoming is a reflection, probably, of contributors’ reticence and self restraint. On one or two occasions writers discuss the problems of surviving financially in their profession. Alas-dair Gray is the most explicit and honest. In an interview in 1982, he says: “They [my parents] wanted art to enrich my life in the spare time left over from earning a wage, but they thought, quite correctly, that living to make it would bring me to dole-queues and wearing second-hand clothes, and borrowing money, and having my electricity cut off – bring me to the state many respectable working folk are forced into during depressions, for reasons they cannot help. That I should choose to become a seedy parasite in order to make obscure luxury items hardly anybody wanted worried them, as it would worry me if my son took that course. So till a few years ago I was embarrassed when I had to tell people my profession. But that feeling of shame stopped last year when I earned enough to pay taxes, so it was not important.”

To read most of the other articles, however, is to imagine that the writer’s life is as financially untroubled as that of a corporate lawyer. It is very Scottish not to whine (in public), to be stoical in the face of what is, after all, a decision no-one has forced upon you. But while the material here rarely discusses penury, it does reveal the element of quasi-religious calling that all the arts demand. No-one has chosen their particular creative path because it promises easy riches or a simple life. They all knew to some degree what they were letting themselves in for, yet the pull was too strong to be denied. What they don’t do, though, is tell us how hard that is. Yet talk to many of them in private, and the picture is quite different: stories of monotonous, in some cases almost crippling hardship, both financial and psychological, which has to be surmounted if another page, or canvas, is ever to be filled.

Perhaps that partly explains the almost universal tug these writers feel for their past. I doubt there’s a single household in Scotland that does not have stories of economic or emotional hardship or difficulty to share. Indeed, one of the strongest bonds in any Scottish gathering, seen with great clarity in this collection of personal tales, is a sense of shared heritage. It’s as if we all carry an inherited burden of endurance.

In this aspect above all, the voices Paul Scott has drawn upon mirror my own sense of the Scotland I grew up in. Asked for a portrait of themselves, many of these artists have focussed as much on their country and their ancestors as on the details of their own biography. It’s as if they cannot be defined without reference to the history of the places and people who nurtured them, and where their imaginations were first sparked into life.

As story after story unfolds, it seems that the spirits of this age feel themselves to have been moulded by who and what has preceded them. At which point, one has to ask whether any meaningful dividing line can ever be drawn between one age and the next, between one spirit and its ancestor, or whether we sit on a perpetually revolving wheel that simply gathers more spokes with every turn.

Ed Paul Henderson Scott
The Saltire Society, £11.99
ISBN: 0 85411 087 9

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