by Brian Morton

Dancing On Their Own

November 26, 2013 | by Brian Morton

There’s every opportunity here for wry reworking of some well-known phrases and sayings. The past is, indeed, another country and nostalgia isn’t what it used to be. Some rejigging of clichés may be required, though. As no historian of the 1960s fails to remind us, Philip Larkin thought something wonderful happened between the end of the Chatterley ban and the Beatles’ first LP. But nostalgia, driven by wishful thinking and self-serving ideologies, truly isn’t what it never was. ‘If you can remember the 1960s, then you weren’t really there’ might be usefully recast as ‘nobody remembers the 1960s as they really happened’. There’s a revisionist spirit among those slightly too young to have benefited from the invention of sex at the start of the decade or old enough to have been an earlier adopter of that new-fangled pleasure. Sceptics and the merely envious (the usual reason for hating the Sixties is not having been there) take the position that the following decade was by no means as dull, disillusioned and compromised as it is routinely painted and just as committed to high purpose as any other ten-year historical slice. In retrospect, dullness may be worse than compromise, but even that isn’t so. There’s been a leap to defend the 1950s as well, partly in recognition of the truism that every cultural phenomenon has a back-story and prehistory, but also in response to clear evidence that most of the liberations attributed to the 1960s, political, social, sexual and aesthetic, are more properly attributed to the previous decade. This is an argument developed in W. T. Lhamon’s excellent 1990 book Deliberate Speed. Even so, it’s a position that enrages Sixties loyalists past measure: historian Arthur Marwick gets into quite a bate if anyone declines to accept that 1960 to 1970 was the most noble period in the whole history of humanity.

It’s often assumed that the 1960s simply passed Scotland by, that in Edwin Morgan’s bon mot ‘Yes, it is too cold in Scotland for flower people; in any case / who would be handed a thistle?’ One can imagine a voice from the crowd shouting ‘Me! me!!’. It’s Hugh MacDiarmid, of course, and between those perspectives, or between MacDiarmid’s tensely strung nationalism and Morgan’s and Alexander Trocchi’s aesthetic and moral internationalism, much adversarial energy has run. It remains a valid perception, though, that social and moral liberation was a high-end metropolitan phenomenon (Swinging London) that only slowly spread out from the centre. There’s reinforcement for this in the recently published first volume of Mark Lewisohn’s massive biography of the Beatles. With 950 pages barely taking the story to 1962, Lewisohn has the boys dabbling with Dionysus in Hamburg, but firmly rooted in a still-provincial Liverpool, still pinched and ‘post-war’, Laurentian in the restrictive rather than the libertarian sense. How much further behind were Edinburgh and Glasgow, for all the cosmopolitan culture of the former’s still-young Festival and for all the internationalist, Atlanticist urges of the latter. 

Recent commentators like Dominic Sandbrook have been more inclined to suggest that in the 1960s the majority of the population still lived a life defined not so much by Chatterley, the Pill and the Rolling Stones, but by bingo, Blackpool and Berni Inns. ‘Butlins’ deserves to be in there as well. Or it could be put another way: Liverpool, indeed a single Liverpool family, delivered not just The Beatles, but also The Scaffold. It’s an uncomfortable truth that our cultural perception is always tunnelled and flatteringly selective. We think of 1967 as ‘psychedelic’ and 1976 as ‘punk’ and yet a quick look at the pop charts, as a fine recent documentary on Easy Listening demonstrated, always shows a majority of cardiganned crooners, novelty acts and bubblegum. In one of the more tightly focused chapters of The Scottish Sixties, Alistair McCleery makes the fine general point that ‘The 1960s were not uniform or simultaneous throughout the UK’ , adding that Larkin wrote his famous lines while working as a librarian in… Hull.

The coincidence of the Chatterley trial coming at the cusp of a new decade has reinforced the view that the coming of the 1960s marked a ‘revolutionary’ expansion of human potential. Some felt this really was the case. Edwin Morgan is quoted as saying to Alec Finlay that his real life began not in 1920 but in 1960. But in reality the Chatterley trial marked the beginning and not the end of the war on ‘obscenity’. McCleery’s nicely researched essay about the trial of Trocchi’s Cain’s Book in 1964 was symptomatic of a tightening of stricture rather than a loosening; also of a widening of moral concern, in that the primary objection to the book (that lineal ancestor of Trainspotting and Filth) related to drug use rather than sex.

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Scottish exceptionalism often rests on very specific cultural differences. For instance, the Chatterley verdict didn’t immediately apply to Scotland, where it remained subject to McGrundyish assault. The cover of The Scottish Sixties shows the burning of a copy of Lady Chatterley’s Lover outside Jim Haynes’s legendary The Paperback bookshop in Charles Street, lang syne demolished to make way for the higher learning. Three young Bohemians stand about, dwarfed not just by perspective and the dip of the pavement but by the formidable figure of rectitude in the foreground, an Edinburgh lady armed with paraffin, matches and the genes of John Knox. Haynes’s shop, with its rhinoceros head and multilingual signs (‘Bokhandel’, ‘Quair-Howe’), also features on the cover of John Herdman’s Another Country, a republished study of the decade’s literary flytings.

It’s worth saying that much as the Chatterley trial was a London affair (the subsequent Trocchi prosecution originated in Sheffield), so the Edinburgh Festival was, like the pachyderm of Charles Street, irruptive rather than endemic. Its majoritarian story is one of protest and opposition. Nostalgia for the Festival, as for the early Fringe, the scandalous Writers’ Conference of 1962, the first incarnation of the Traverse Theatre (in which Haynes also had a hand) is the property of a coterie, many of whom were not native Scots or even Scots by formation. And one might say that the only substantively Scottish content of the infamous Writers’ Conference – I had this from Robin Jenkins – was the whisky that miraculously replaced water in the on-stage decanters and upped the temperature considerably.

Inevitably, the Conference features strongly in these pages. Also present was the young (in career terms) Edwin Morgan, still six years away from the breakthrough publication of The Second Life, an event that should always be on the list whenever the cultural triumphs of ‘sixty eight’ are itemised. Though the weirdly mixed sexual subtexts of an event that put William Burroughs, Norman Mailer, Mary McCarthy, Alexander Trocchi and Hugh MacDiarmid on the same bill must have been troubling to a man of Morgan’s sensibilities, he came away from Edinburgh much changed, not least in believing that Scotland’s cultural dynamo wasn’t running in Edinburgh at all but in westward-looking Glasgow. He was unmoved, as well he might have been, by MacDiarmid’s unconvincing embrace of the industrial proletariat. Was there ever a poet so utterly un-urban in spirit? As James McGonigal shows in ‘The Direction of the MacAvantgarde’, Morgan drew more from Mailer’s ‘existential’ recasting of the writer as someone who looks ever outward.

An oddity – or maybe not – of the period is that while much of the purely literary debate about the right direction for Scottish letters focused on poetry, public awareness of the clash between libertarian modernism and older forms and proprieties focused entirely on fiction. Few if any poets were had up for obscenity, while the hallmark of envelope-stretching modernity was the willingness to find new tropes for fornication. For me, and I don’t doubt many like me, the Sixties began, belatedly, mid-decade, between the lifting of a parental ban on A Green Tree in Gedde and the Beatles’ best LP. My father was convinced that I would be bored and confused by Alan Sharp’s novel before I was corrupted by it. How wrong he was. Heady stuff and from the most unexpected of provenances, just over the firth in Greenock. It even gave ‘Cappielow’ a literary role. It was, in its way, as revelatory as ‘Tomorrow Never Knows’. Revolver, for the record, was the Beatle’s best LP, and don’t let anyone try to tell you different.

There’s maybe room for one more offering from the dictionary of phrase and fable. At almost every level and in often counterintuitive combinations, the Sixties were the best of times and the worst of times. The architecture was brutal, but what it swept away was infinitely worse. Utopian social engineering combined mischief with genuinely good intentions. I recently reminisced with a former colleague who’d shared a parallel career in research and teaching at the universities of Essex and East Anglia respectively: the former famous for hot-headed radicalism, the latter for hedonism. I expressed contempt for much of the student politics of the time with its mass-demo-followed-by-disco mentality and fiery kneejerking about any injustice not close enough at hand to require actual intervention, to be told that the Scottish universities had been shamefully quietistic during the period from 1965 to 1975; ‘too obsessed with independence’ to be involved in the ‘real’ struggle. Leaving aside the possibility that separation from a large and over-determining Union partner might well seem like the ‘real’ struggle to someone living in Scotland at the time, I suggested that maybe the style of Scottish student politics, even in places with a substantial English demographic in the student population, might have been simply different to that in the South.

There’s a hint of that, albeit optative, in a comment by that viscerally intelligent anarchist Muriel Spark whose ‘expatriate’ vision is neatly contrasted with Alexander Trocchi’s in an essay by Sylvia Bruce-Wunder. Spark said that she would like to see ‘in all forms of arts and letters, ranging from the most sophisticated and high achievements to the placards that students carry about the street, a less impulsive generosity, a less indignant representation of social injustice, and a more deliberate cunning, a more derisive undermining of what is wrong’. My strong sense is that this is how the Scottish counter-culture really functioned, once one got out of earshot of ‘Whither Scottish letters?’ debates conducted in Lallans. As Herdman’s curiously structured memoir suggests, these debates were dominated by men, some straight, some gay, most of them obsessed by the difference.

There was, though, a newly feminised spirit abroad, just below the surface, something ‘deliberate’, something ‘derisive’, above all, ‘cunning’. If it looked like quietism from the outside, that again was an instance of division by a common language, and as such is perhaps acknowledgement that the big question for Scotland, from its political superstructure down to its floor of creative production, is what language we should after all speak. Compared to ‘velvet’ readings/rebellions/revolutions elsewhere in post-imperial Europe, Scotland’s libertarianism was not clearly enough identified with a demotic, and too deeply complicit in its own ‘colonial’ domination. In the 1960s Scottish culture still didn’t have sufficient gravitational mass to keep all the best and the brightest north of the border, but there were enough who stayed to plant the kailyard with exotic brassicas.

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The best of times and the worst of times. A great deal depends on the focal length and the sampling technique. A collection like Bell’s and Gunn’s almost inevitably over-promotes the literary. Tom Normand’s closing chapter on ‘Scotland’s Visual Culture in the 1960s’ feels like something of an afterthought but throws up enough of what was happening, thanks to the late John Bellany, Alexander Moffat, to the eloquent absence of Robert Colquhoun and Robert MacBryde, later to the arrival of such mind-stretching visitors as Joseph Beuys and Bernd and Hilla Becher, thanks to Richard Demarco in large measure, to give some sense of a country whose ‘counter-narration’ was both instinct with international movements and quite apart from them. Scottish visual culture had dependencies different from but often greater than those of its literary culture. Her music was in a more complex situation still, drawn inexorably to the over-determining styles of American pop, and its UK outpost in London, but still capable of delivering something highly distinctive.

Bob Anderson’s ‘Clan Balls, Luvvers and Incredible Strings’ looks at popular music in Glasgow during the decade. Lulu’s still ridiculously undervalued appropriation of blues and soul was one part of the story, but so was The Poets’ moody, threatening ‘Now We’re Thru’; so was the Incredible String Band’s extraordinary syncretism of traditional folk, improvisation and long-form (Whitman, Ginsberg) poetry. There’s scant room in the Bell/Gunn collection for George Bruce and not at all, in Anderson’s essay, for Jack Bruce, who might seem the archetypal Scottish musician of the period, impossible to pin down as to genre, mystically inclined but socially aware (how many people remember what Harmony Row actually was, or that one of Bruce’s finest songs was dedicated to Spanish immigrants round Charing Cross in Glasgow?). And, despite MacDiarmid and Ronald Stevenson hosting Shostakovich in Edinburgh in 1962 (the latter’s magnificent Passacaglia on DSCH has just been re-recorded), there’s not a peep about classical music, which was dealing with gravitational pull from Darmstadt and New York as well as from the Guildhall. Not much about jazz, either. Another strong contender for soundtrack to Scotland’s Sixties is saxophonist Bobby Wellins’ peerless solo on ‘Starless and Bible Black’ on Stan Tracey’s Under Milk Wood. An English bandleader and a Welsh inspiration, but an utterly Scottish response, full of flyted romanticism and aery cunning.

The spirit of improvisation surfaces in Angela Bartie’s brilliantly edited, which is to say, very lightly edited, interview with Tom McGrath. Here’s his best-of-times, worst-of-times riff: ‘The girls started dancing solo. That’s what I always remember about that time, to me that time’s symbolised by the girls starting to dance on their own, to express themselves as a single thing. It was a really freaky time but it was very, very dark and self-destructive at the same time, it was all beat and no hope and a bit of violence in it, often violence against the self and unhealthiness and people didn’t wash.’ Only a jazz musician, and McGrath was an excellent, intuitive one, could come up with lines as freighted as those. The remembered violence and self-destruction lead one to wonder why R D Laing, one of the decade’s most representative and problematic exports, didn’t merit a chapter to himself rather than two isolated references.

If audio feedback was one of the newer aesthetic experiences of the decade, there’s a strong sense of overload in many testimonies about the 1960s and in the case of the poets a craven failure of conventional poetic language to capture that sense. MacDiarmid’s great ‘Renaissance’ experiment took a long time to play out, as Herdman shows, though the intervention of a second, massively destructive war further delayed its implementation. The pastoral/syndicalist thrust of MacDiarmid’s odd form of modernity was already clashing with yet another wave by the turn of the 1960s and it was again Morgan, inspired by Salvatore Quasimodo’s ability to place poetic language at the service of a new socio-political reality, who called for new approaches that would allow poets to take account of ‘new towns’, ‘overspill’, hydro-electric and nuclear power, and – unspoken, but present – American weapons of mass destruction in Scottish lochs.

* * *

Fifty years on, we’re coping with another level of future shock, this time driven by the information revolution. Writing social history has become deeply problematic in the age of Wikipedia. When anyone can with a few nudges of the keyboard come up with half a dozen events that occurred on the same day, or week, or month, it is easy to sustain the illusion that the mere accumulation of contiguous detail amounts to social and intellectual history. An anthology of papers is not the same as an argued analysis, and The Scottish Sixties does not attempt or claim anything of the sort. It offers, nonetheless, a mostly fair and rounded impression of the decade. Herdman’s memoir, with its strong hint of pensée d’escalier, does usefully put in layers of retrospective rationalisation about the course of debate on Scottish literature and its languages, and shows a clear sense of how aesthetics and politics hi-jacked one another to different and intermittently successful ends.

It’s always possible, though, to recover a period of time without an informing dialectic. One notes before beginning Graham Fulton’s poetic memoir Reclaimed Land: A Sixties Childhood that the author was born in 1959 and that we can presumably not expect much in the way of sex or politics in what follows. What comes instead is a set of relatively disconnected snapshots, fond, wry, ranging from the highly personal to the kind of popcult detail – Ricicles, Creamola Foam, Caramac, Nesquik, Tree Top squash, Noggin the Nog, Fireball XL5, Christopher Trace, Bleep and Booster – that anyone of that generation might be able to deliver off the cuff.

The effect is not so much like looking into Eduard Paolozzi’s studio, at mass-production detritus preserved as art-material, and more like a glimpse into a rich ‘case history’, fin-de-siècle Vienna transposed to post-bellum Paisley, Sigmund Freud to

R D Laing. The text is surrounded by uncaptioned photographs, which add a certain Sebaldian shimmer to the text, since the people described and the people depicted don’t always seem to be the same. The journalist Paul Routledge wrote recently about the difficulty of reading the kind of social history that merely piles up period detail (‘another country’ in which the ‘otherness’ is largely defined by brand names) as if at some point quantity flips into quality and delivers historical understanding.

It’s easy enough to demonstrate, as the better social commentators like Dominic Sandbrook do, that there is always a parallel narrative, whether working-class, black, female, homosexual, ‘provincial’, insular (in the strict sense – how did the 60s feel on Barra or Foula, if indeed they got there?), and that Proustian compilation of sensory data just delivers a pixilated blur. That’s a poet’s gift and Fulton is unmistakably a poet. He’s not concerned with pulling off the Malcolm Bradbury trick of assembling twenty consecutive cues that point to 1976 or, ah, 1969. Instead, he’s after the Ray Bradbury trick of inducing an air of cognitive estrangement (the term actually comes from Darko Suvin) that makes one nostalgic for a time not yet come. Fulton’s un-Wordsworthian, perhaps deliberately blasphemous conclusion is that ‘The Man is Son of the Child’. Page 112 of Reclaimed Land seems to show a reading list that consists almost entirely of science fiction: Bradbury, lots of Verne, Asimov, Bloch, Shelley. Even before Armstrong and Aldrin made fact of it, we all lived in sure and certain understanding that the future was different and that the imagination was not about the Other, but about the Elsewhere. If utopian dreaming and regular, harsh awakening had been a part of the Scottish psyche, it was never more so than in the 1960s.

* * *

Nostalgia is exactly what it used to be: bittersweet, consoling and painful by turns, misleading, an illusion of collective experience that turns out to conceal a subjectivity so absolute it’s frightening. Science fiction is invariably about loneliness and science fiction scenarios – as Edwin Morgan discovered for himself – are almost always the responses of very solitary individuals or citizens of a thoroughly alienated society. The term ‘nostalgia’ was famously coined in the seventeenth century to describe the reactions of Swiss mercenaries on campaign. The connection with war is not incidental and one of the things insufficiently registered in all these books is how close the war – and the present threat of war – was in 1960s Scotland. Bomb-sites were a reminder of warfare past. Polaris was a grim manifestation of the last war that was yet to come.

If the times were out of joint, that’s only a truism, because time is always out of joint. At the straightforward narrative level, it’s possible to argue that much of what these books describe had already begun, and in some cases was almost over, when the Sixties began. Haynes’s The Paperback opened in 1959, the year of that carefully slanted anthology Honour’d Shade, sponsored by the Arts Council of Great Britain and edited by Norman MacCaig who pointed out, challengingly, that ‘The absence of any notable name is not necessarily due to editorial negligence’. The same might be said of any synoptic anthology or cultural history. Perhaps the most singular omission or mis-emphasis in The Scottish Sixties (doubly so given the gender of the editors) is the degree to which the decade belonged to women: not to that incendiary Edinburgh lady on the cover, or Lulu and Wilhelmina Barns-Graham, or even Muriel Spark, who comes out of this as all the more representative for her apparent distance, but to the women, not yet published, recorded, hung in solo shows and retrospectives, who had come through the war or come of age in its aftermath and learned to dance on their own.


The Scottish Sixties: Reading, Rebellion, Revolution?

Edited by Eleanor Bell & Linda Gunn

Rodopi, £60.30, ISBN 9042037261

 

Another Country

by John Herdman

Thirsty Books, PP119, £7.99, ISBN 978 1 908931 35 1

 

Reclaimed Land: A Sixties Childhood

By Graham Fulton

The Grimsay Press, PP128, £10.95, ISBN 1845301382

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