Monthly Archives: September 2014

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Alex Salmond

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THREE days ago, as afternoon ebbed into evening, Alex Salmond announced that he would not be standing for re-election as leader of the Scottish National Party and, as a consequence, would not be Scotland’s First Minister.

If not entirely a shock it was nonetheless surprising. For the past several months, Salmond has been ubiquitous as he endeavoured to achieve what has long been his dream, namely the rebirth of Scotland as an independent nation.

Defeat in the early hours of Friday morning put an end, at least for now, to that ambition. Salmond, who is as much of a pragmatist as he is an optimist, surely felt that he had given it his best shot, and that he had done everything he could do.

The annals will show that he faced enormous pressure and a level of personal opprobrium and abuse that would have tested the mettle of many lesser individuals. Yet throughout a campaign that was at once draining and inspiring,  energising and exhausting, he remained ebullient. Like the generals of old, he did not ask anyone to do anything he would not do himself.

Salmond believed – as did many others in the Yes camp – that despite the polls victory would be secured. He was convinced that, as they hovered over their ballot papers in the polling booths, Scots would opt to break away from the rest of the United Kingdom and run their own affairs.

That they did not was undoubtedly a terrible blow. To have spent the best part of four decades pursing those aims and to have them seized from his grasp at the last minute was hard to take. He of all people, however, will have appreciated that, in politics as in chess, it is the player who checkmates his opponent who wins the game.

The eleventh-hour move by David Cameron, Nick Clegg and Ed Miliband to promise extensive new powers to the Scottish parliament may have been the one that finally scuppered the nationalists’ cause.

We can well imagine Salmond’s reaction to that. He does not like to lose. Once, when he was at St Andrews University, he was runner-up in a student election. It is something he has never forgotten. At the time he stormed angrily ly out of the count. When this was pointed out to him, he quoted the racing driver, Jackie Stewart: “Show me a gracious loser, and I’ll show you a loser.”

Losing is not in Salmond’s DNA. But, as he demonstrated when he let it be known he was standing aside, he has learned to show magnanimity in defeat. Inwardly, he may have been seething but utwardly he exuded statesmanship. The arguments had been made, the fight had been fought, and the people had decisively decided which side had won.

Though no knockout blow was delivered, Salmond realised that the moment has come for him to step aside. On the last day of this momentous year, he will be 60. His wife Moira is seventeen years his senior and they both deserve a break.

Throughout the campaign she has been by his side, offering advice, chivvying him to get to meetings near – if not at – the appointed time, ensuring that he does not appear at official functions with a Hearts scarf draped round his neck.

Like her husband, Moira Salmond was dismayed by his performance in the first televised debate with Alistair Darling, leader of Better Together. During that, it was apparent that the First Minister was not in his element, as he usually is when a camera is pointed in his direction. He looked tired, distracted, unfocussed. Normally quick-thinking, he looked like an under-rehearsed actor who has mislaid his script.

Faced with relentless questioning on the currency issue from a finger-pointing Darling, Salmond groped for answers. And, then, when it was his turn to interrogate, he played Ernie Wise to Eric Morecambe, giving his opponent the heaven-sent opportunity to make him look a fool.

It was a bad omen and one which deflated the Yes cause. What was Salmond playing at? Who was advising him? What on earth possessed him to talk about aliens and cars driving on the other side of the road? Broadcast live on Scottish Television, the only good news was that the programme crashed moments before viewers logged on to watch it online.

In the second debate, staged by BBC Scotland, Salmond had to redeem himself and, more importantly, give much needed impetus to Yes side which was flagging in the polls and showing signs of running of steam.

This was a quite different Salmond. From the get-go he looked ready to deal with anything that was thrown at him. He looked slimmer, fitter, faster on his feet, a credit to the diet which he and Beyonce have been following. Darling came at him snarling and babbling, like Joe Frazier in pursuit of Muhammad Ali.

It was not a contest of equals. You could tell immediately that this was Salmond of old; comfortable in his own skin, confident of his argument, and assured that his adversary was there for the taking. For the former Chancellor of the Exchequer, it must have an awfully long two hours.

His humiliation was complete when Salmond, by now purring like a Rolls Royce, offered him, in the event of a Yes majority, a job with “Team Scotland”. Darling’s smile was that of man who knows he’s down and had better stay there lest he be given further punishment.

In the end, however, it was all to no avail. In the years ahead, the record will show that Better Together managed to convince more than two million people that the status quo was preferable to independence. Having come so close to achieving his goal, Salmond must find that hard to accept. The consolation is that 1.6 million people voted for independence.

Among the SNP, he has long been a gradualist rather than a fundamentalist. Though he is often portrayed as a risk-taker, he is also cautious. He moves forward one step at  a time. First, the SNP had to be modernised. Then came devolution, followed in 2007 by the first SNP-led administration at Holyrood which had to negotiate with its rivals to pass legislation. Four years later came the remarkable victory, unforeseen by all psephologists and every political insider, which not only returned the SNP to power but gave it a majority over all the other parties and the mandate to call the referendum.

Let there be no mistake; this was Alex Salmond’s doing. Now he knew the moment of truth could not be avoided. Where Gordon Brown might have hummed and hawed, Salmond leapt. No one was more aware than him that the chance was unlikely to come again in his lifetime. There was no option but to grasp it. It was a gamble he could not avoid.

There have been many such in his career. In 2007, for instance, he set himself the task of winning the Gordon seat in the north-east, which was held by the Liberal Democrats. If he could take it, then the SNP might prevail. Some, including the incumbent MSP, felt Salmond had finally bitten off more than he could chew.

Gordon was number 18 on the SNP’s wish list. He was standing for it, he told me, because it was necessary for him to lead by example, rather than take a safe seat. “I’m told it’s incredibly difficult to  do,” he said late one night. He was nursing a dram, a smirk rather than a smile creasing his face. Then he added with utmost seriousness:  “I think we’ll win this seat and I think I’ll win it well. At the end of the day, people will vote for an idea and a vision.” He won with a majority of over 2,000.

This is not to suggest he enjoys universal popularity. On the contrary some people, many of  whom favour independence, find him unsympathetic and antipathetic. While some see his pugnaciousness as arrogance, others interpret it as archetypically  Scottish. In person, he is affable, engaged, witty, feisty, occasionally peppery, always eager to offer an anecdote. Had he not been a politician he may well have become a journalist, for he has an unerring ability to sum things up in a sentence and can write headlines as others can wish-you-were-here postcards.

What cannot be gainsaid, however, is that he has been, as much as any political leader in a western democracy, the unchallenged and acknowledged star of his  bailiwick. Moreover, he has, wherever one stands on the question of independence, retained the support of the party and the public. After seven years as First Minister, opinion polls show that if there were an election tomorrow the SNP would still be in government, though not perhaps with the majority they have at present.

Of course, Salmond has resigned before. In 2000, he declared that after ten years as leader of the SNP, he was quitting. At the time it was a decision viewed with scepticism and nourished by rumours, which he revelled in recounting. He was – he delighted in relating on the day he announced his resignation – supposed to be terminally ill or have accumulated mountainous gambling debts or be having an affair with Nicola Sturgeon.

All were the stuff of fantasy. The reality is he had always vowed to spend ten years as leader and having done that he was going to address the problem of his golf handicap. In 2004, however, he was back and determined to make the SNP the party of government.

Who’s to say that – pace Sinatra – there will not be another comeback. Already the ‘promises’ made by Cameron, Clegg and Miliband are beginning to test the credibility of the Trades Description Act. Their pledge, like Clegg’s on university tuition fees, looks increasingly suspicious and susceptible to attack from disaffected MPs on all sides of the house.

Salmond, who later this week will enjoy the respite of the Ryder Cup at Gleneagles, is not about to disappear. He will still be an MSP and, significantly, an MP. Few know their way better around the nooks and crannies of the Palace of Westminster than he. After all, this is a man who as a rookie had the courage to interrupt Nigel Lawson’s Budget speech. “This Budget,” Salmond said from the backbenches as Winnie Ewing tried to restrain him, “is an obscenity.”

In the weeks ahead, he may need to use similar language if there is any hint of Scotland being shortchanged. But what can be safely said  is that love him or loathe him, we have not seen the last of him.

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The James Trilogy

THE cry ‘Whaur’s yer Wullie Shakespeare noo?’ first uttered at the 1756 premiere of John Home’s play, Douglas, has echoed down the years in the legends associated with Scottish theatre. It is not sober to reissue it now, not even after watching Rona Munro’s magnificent trilogy, and not only because the author begged critics to avoid facile comparisons with the Bard. However, it is wholly sane to respond with joy and admiration to the exhilarating theatrical experience which is the James Plays.

Let us get Shakespeare out of the way first. As the Bard had done with the Plantagenets, Munro takes as her subject the reigns of the first three Stewart monarchs when the dynasty ruled only in Scotland. As with his history plays, the country is seen from the perspective of the royal court, with its attendant ambitions, treacheries, conspiracies and sly malice. There is a touch of Lady Macbeth in Isabella Stewart, wife of the ousted Regent of Scotland during the minority of James I, there is a Banquo-type ghost scene at a dinner organised by James II who is haunted by recollections of his childhood past, there are moments when the same James resembles Prince Hal with William Douglas as the roisterer whom he outgrows, and there are occasional, presumably deliberate, echoes of languages, as the reference to James’s children as ‘little chicks,’ the term used by MacDuff when told of the slaughter of his family.

But then forget Shakespeare or any other writer and focus on the breadth, depth, music, drama, pathos, humour and occasional touches of poetry in the midst of humdrum prose that mark Munro’s writing. Nothing could be further from the standard depiction of bourgeois virtues and vices. Munro takes as her subject the prime appetites, the lusts, jealousies, miseries, inadequacies and innate violence of the human animal, and implies, not in rhetoric but in dramatic action, that these forces are not equal in men and women. That is not to say that the women are bloodless maternal figures, for they are as prone to nastiness as the male of the species. 

The work has the complexity and range not of an overture but of a symphony, with characters coming together to discuss the selfhood of Scotland and the looming presence of England before transcending local borders to consider the demands of power, the see-saw of love, the morals of kingship and the impact of personality, weak or strong, in politics. These matters are not only debated in chambers but brought alive in vivid scenes of ambition, rivalry between fathers and sons, shifting power between spouses, hatred between families, the pull of rank, the desire for status and the hunger for possession. 

As a rule of thumb, a history play or historical novel is one that features ways of thought and styles of action arising from events or a culture specific to one precise period of history. Without ever being history lessons these plays conform to that notion, but while they succeed in creating a plausible, engaging view of Scotland and its monarchs in the fifteenth century, they subtly invite consideration of this world as a metaphor for today’s. They are strong in questioning and indifferent to banal didacticism. Perhaps they are never more strongly plays for today than in their portrayal of the power and personality of women. Munro, author of Bold Girls, will not shy away from describing herself as feminist, so it should come as no surprise if the queens here emerge not only as carefully drawn personalities in themselves but as balanced, forceful counterweights to the inadequacies of their kingly spouses. At one point, it occurred to me that the trilogy could have been entitled, Two Jameses and One Margaret, the last one being the Danish consort of James III, or even Three Queens, for the women, not only Margaret, invariably emerge not so much as the powers behind the throne but as the ones who ought to be its occupants. 

It is expected that in a trilogy some unity in development should be fashioned. The court of James I, in The Key Shall Keep the Lock, is peopled by hairy, uncouth noblemen, who toss bones over their shoulders as they eat at table, while the court of James II, in Day of the Innocents, is a more advanced but scary and fearful place, still totally inward looking and uninterested in foreign enterprises, but the court of James III, in The True Mirror, is a sophisticated Renaissance environment, as is clear from the delicate, floral decoration which embellishes what had previously been bare wall, as well as from the refined speculations of the Danish queen. At the same time, Munro was willing to disturb the expectations of her audience, even those formed as the trilogy unfolds. 

The first play is essentially dynastic and political, with clashes and battles on stage and the emergence to real power of the king after eighteen year’s captivity in England.  But the audience took their seats for the second play to see a disconcertingly different approach, in which the psychology of a broken man was at its core. Most critics have viewed this play as the weakest, and perhaps it was, but it was essentially an inner drama with real depth of psychological insight. The movement from the male to the female exercise of power is evident throughout and is completed in The True Mirror, where the core of the action concerns the relations between the royal couple, reaching a climax when Margaret emerges regally from her husband’s shadow to offer her help to challenge Scotland’s ingrained view of herself. It is in the focus on Scotland’s unsteady, uncertain willingness to assume responsibility for herself that the real unity of the trilogy lies. 

For the whole production, the cooperative endeavour which is the heart of theatre is effortlessly successful and complete. Jon Bausor’s splendidly imagined set is essentially unchanging throughout yet seems flexible and adaptable. At the centre is a giant sword plunged deep into the ground as a reminder, presumably, of Scotland’s potential for civil violence, although it also resembles a cross. The circular walls around the performing area create an arena either for public action or domestic peace, or sometimes the two simultaneously. People seated in rows on the stage behind the action can be pressed into business as members of the Scottish Parliament, while the corridors between their seats extend the stage and allow space for midnight action. At the raised centre between these spectators stands the throne, often unoccupied as the centre of action moves elsewhere. Laurie Sansom’s direction is masterly. He pushes the action forward with fluent panache, and if he never misses an opportunity for the pageantry of processions with sumptuous ecclesiastical or courtly costume and the beating of drums, he also skilfully slows the rhythms to allow the emotions of the domestic scenes to emerge in all their clarity.

The power of the opening scene arises from the spectacle of defeat on a battlefield in France, where James I, Scotland’s poet-king, had fought alongside Henry V of England, the protagonist of Shakespeare’s most stridently patriotic work. Here Henry is a swaggering bully, who torments both James and the captured Scottish lords who had fought on the French side. Those who wish to construct sub-plots could follow from this the vicissitudes of Peter Forbes’ multi-faceted portrayal of Balvenie, who develops across two plays from a snivelling wretch in chains to landed lord and then to psychopathic father and a threat to the realm. James is subsequently offered his freedom and the hand of Joan, whom he had never met, and the encounter and burgeoning relationship between the couple is conveyed with delicate flair by James McArdle and Stephanie Hyam. The Scots lords are unaccustomed to submitting to any man, even one who would be king, so the episodes in Scotland portray personal animosities, scuffles, duels and rage by loutish patricians fearful of loss of land and prestige. Blythe Duff gives a mighty performance as the matriarchal Isabella Stewart, resentful of any encroachment by the new monarchs on her family’s power, and prepared to show the young queen a drawn dagger. When the inevitable armed encounter between the king who is attempting to create a stable state and the Stewart family who had exercised Regent’s power arrives, Munro shows a touch of brilliant acuity and inventiveness in bringing onto the battlefield not only the rebel Stewarts but the ghostly Henry V himself. James simultaneously faces his own past as downtrodden, derided captive and his future as ruler.

In the critical opening scene of Day of the Innocents, the giant sword bursts into flames over a puppet, designating the infant king, brought out of a box, which could be his refuge or his life. Perhaps he always remains the child the tragic circumstances of his upbringing had made him, in spite of the promptings of his queen (again Stephanie Hyam, in a different tone) who tells him that he has no need to be afraid of his courtiers and advisers, since  he is king. Andrew Rothney switches mood with devastating swiftness in his portrayal of this unstable monarch, forced unwillingly to confront Livingston, who had held power during his minority, and later his boyhood mate, William Douglas. The two cavort like football hooligans, until William overreaches himself, and James turns on him, but he reverts to being, in the presence of the aghast women who surround him, no more than a ‘messy wee bairn,’ neither intellectually nor emotionally whole. Perhaps the psychological insight of this work would have been better appreciated had it not been part of a trilogy grappling with grand political themes.

And these are to the forefront in The True Mirror, which opens with a ceilidh featuring a modern jeunesse dorée, bibbing vintage wine. James III is already married to his Danish queen, played magnificently by Sophie Gabrol with a calm command and control which are the qualities her puerile, petulant and paranoiac husband lacks. Jamie Sives has the most demanding part in this gallery of memorable characters, but rises to the task of incarnating a man in breakdown, fooling in public when he should be majestic, falling short of what is needed for the rule of a still wobbly state. When he finally creates his own fiasco in front of the Three Estates, preferring to romp senselessly and offensively with his male lover, it is Margaret who steps forward to address the lords of the kingdom, and the people in the stalls, with the words ‘Who would want to rule Scotland?’ Her answer comes in the most debated and least poetical line of all three plays, ‘You know the problem with you lot? You’ve got fuck-all except attitude.’

That is an assertion, however ironically phrased, that will be put to the question in a few days on 18 September. In Ireland, Yeats, Synge and O’Casey used the stage to express divergent views which accompanied the nation’s move towards self-government. Rona Munro’s trilogy performs the same function. It is not loudspeaker theatre, any more than the Irish plays were, but it enhances Scotland’s theatre and provides a provocative platform for discussion of the choices facing the country.


The James Plays, 

Rona Munro, National Theatre of Scotland and National Theatre of Great Britain. 

Edinburgh International Festival run ended.
Currently playing at the Olivier Theatre, London.

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Talent Spotting

MY favourite part of anthologies of new writing is often the author biographies. That’s not necessarily a criticism of the contents. And it’s not because I’m nosey – although I am. Parked at the rear of the book, the biographies let slip hints of the writers’ hopes and vanities. I’ve often thought, while thumbing through these sections, that an enterprising spirit could spin a short story out of a mock version, something in the order of Pale Fire-era Nabokov.

Connoisseurs might find New Writing Scotland’s author biographies disappointingly straight-ahead, at least when compared with its more youthful rival Gutter’s back pages. New Writing Scotland favours dutiful recitals of awards gathered and writing courses attended, garnished with a list of publications. Still, it would be untrue to say you can’t get a sense of the men and women behind the words in Songs of Other Places, as the latest volume of the New Writing Scotland series, number 32, is titled. ‘He never has enough time to do any writing…, one frustration of a career in teacher education,’ writes one contributor, not entirely successful in tugging the heartstrings. ‘Dedicated cyclist, avid reader, but never at the same time,’ another sums himself up, revealing a strain of ingratiating humour. Not for the first time it strikes me that these miniaturised autobiographies are reminiscent of dating profiles. Would you go for a drink with any of these guys?

New Writing Scotland is an annual collection published by the Association for Scottish Literary Studies (ASLS), penned by ‘writers resident in Scotland or Scots by birth, upbringing or inclination.’ The boilerplate submission guidelines state from year to year that they are after ‘autobiography and memoirs; creative responses to events and experiences; drama; graphic artwork (monochrome only); poetry; political and cultural commentary and satire; short fiction; travel writing or any other creative prose.’ In practice, the overwhelming number of submissions published have been poems and short stories. This has been the case since the first edition appeared in 1983, edited by Alexander Scott and James Aitchison. Subsequent editors have included Edwin Morgan, Janice Galloway, James McGonigal, AL Kennedy and Alan Bissett. The latest NWS is edited by Zoe Strachan, on her third and final volume, and Gerry Cambridge, for whom this is his debut. A novelist paired with a poet, as has often been the case with NWS. Given the wide range of styles of writing it would like to feature, perhaps in the future the ASLS might experiment with asking a journalist or historian or comic book writer.

In her opening remarks, Strachan comments, ‘This year writers were far more inspired by situations around the globe than by the very big questions that will be asked at home, shortly after the volume appears.’ It’s true: no one addresses the issue of Scottish independence directly. Instead, there are poems and short stories set in Canada, Australia, America, and Indochina. As an example, Gillian Mayes’ ‘Tell Me the Price of a Dollar’ isn’t bad, although the world doesn’t lack stories about the crassness of western tourists in exotic climes. Others impress less. Raymond Soltysek’s ‘Songs of Other Places’ (which gives NWS 32 its title), a tale of a testosterone-drunk cop and his put-upon wife in Texas, reads as if entirely inspired by American indie movies, the language it’s couched in (a stew of ‘ems’ and ‘aints’) distractingly ersatz.

It would be a mistake to think, however, that the apparent reluctance of the writers who made NWS 32’s cut to cover the big issue of the day is unusual. Looking back over thirty years of back issues, politics rarely takes centre stage, and when it does, it isn’t often sustained. The high-water mark for engagé authors came in 1989 in NWS 7, when the editors flagged up its recurring theme was ‘the matter of Scotland’: ‘The present ruthless, half-hopeful, half-angry state of Scottish national affairs, whether political or economic or cultural is now again finding literary…expression’. Fine, but can it be true that the poll tax got Scottish writers more exercised than the prospect of independence? What might that say about Scots? On the whole, NWS tends to favour contributors too wayward and individual to maintain a political focus. ‘We find that the main concern this year as in previous years is the integrity of the individual,’ this year’s editors proclaim. And what is true of previous years is true of subsequent ones too.

A different variety of political narrative takes place quietly over the years, waged not in the content, but in the contents page. Looking back at the first edition in 1983, one sees that of twenty-five contributors, four were women. The advisory board, while impressive – Donald Campbell, John Herdman, Norman MacCaig, Edwin Morgan, Roderick Watson, and Iain Crichton Smith – is equally bereft of female input. NWS 2 has 27 contributors of whom eight are women, including a 22-year-old Kathleen Jamie. A year later, the tally is nine women contributors out of a total of 23. Slowly but steadily, the number of women has crept up until today, when 17 of the 45 writers are female.

NWS’s method, as it has been since its inception, has been to mix fresh talent with experienced writers. An expression of Scotland’s innate democratic tendencies? Perhaps. Track the appearance and re-appearance of names over the course of  NWS’s history and you can see several writers journey from apprentice to master. Janice Galloway’s short story ‘Fearless’ appeared in NWS 6, a year before the publication of her first novel, The Trick is to Keep Breathing. Two years later, she was co-editing NWS, the first woman to do so. In a show of continuity, NWS 32 has poems by Hamish Whyte and David Kinloch, who also contributed to the first NWS. In that inaugural edition, both of them appeared alongside Maurice Lindsay, Carl MacDougall and Brian McCabe. The most remarkable contributor to the first NWS, however, is Iain Banks, who appears a year before his first novel The Wasp Factory was published, not with prose but with a poem, ‘041’, named after the former dialling code for Glasgow.

NWS has a reasonable record for featuring authors on the verge of greater things. While there are notable absences (Ali Smith, Alan Warner, Don Paterson), it can boast some significant finds. NWS 2 features a story by Ian Rankin, ‘a postgraduate student at Edinburgh University… His first novel is now seeking a publisher.’ For those looking for the roots of Rebus, the tale is of a policeman, ‘Big Rab’, although he is a bobby rather than a detective, and he is assigned to crowd control at a football match, not a murder investigation. The next year he was back as ‘Ian J. Rankin’, before the J receded again for NWS 4. Robert Crawford  offered poems annually in the first decade of NWS, appearing in it a good seven years before the publication of his debut collection A Scottish Assembly in 1990. He was something of a spearhead for friends in the imminent Informationist movement, most of whom – Richard Price, Donnie O’Rourke, W.N. Herbert, Peter McCarey, Alan Riach and David Kinloch – would make appearances in NWS over the course of the 1980s and early 1990s.

In 1991, NWS 9 published ‘The First Day of the Edinburgh Festival’ by Irvine Welsh, ‘who lives in Leith, [and] is currently completing a brightly optimistic novel full of sympathetic, generously spirited characters.’ Moviegoers will remember this gifting the world the ‘Worst Toilet in Scotland’ scene in the adaptation of Trainspotting. ‘The First Day…’ chapter appeared in NWS two years before Trainspotting came out, and a year before Kevin Williamson’s Rebel Inc fanzine, which tends to be flagged up as the magazine the young, pre-fame Welsh was chiefly associated with. Arguably, given the impact Trainspotting was to have on young Scottish authors, it is the most important piece published by NWS. That’s debatable, of course, but what was undeniable, reading the story again, is how assured it is. You read it knowing the author is confident of his material – a feeling not always present when reading the current edition of NWS.

Of the pieces that do impress, I put ticks next to poems by two of Scotland’s promising young poets, Claire Askew and Richie McCaffery. The most memorable contribution to Songs of Other Places is another poem, a long one in Gaelic by Christopher Whyte, translated into English by Niall O’Gallagher. ‘A Face that won’t be Etched Along the Crest of the Cuillin’ deals with Whyte’s memories of Sorley MacLean. While Whyte praises MacLean’s work, or at least his early work, it expresses doubts about the man himself. Remembering a talk he gave about MacLean, at which the older poet was present and over which he embarrassed Whyte in public, Whyte strikes a peevish note: ‘I wasn’t the only one in the hall / who felt surprise and embarrassment / along with indignation since there was / no link between your charge and what I’d said.’

Whyte theorises MacLean didn’t like him because of his sexuality, Catholicism, and because he was mentored by someone MacLean despised. Whyte’s criticism doesn’t stop at MacLean. He is invigoratingly vitriolic about MacLean’s poetic descendants, ‘that unpleasant brood of conceited imposters’. He continues, ‘the stupidest fool was he who said / you were just as valuable a poet in English / as you were in Gaelic, or daftness of that sort’. Whoever can he mean?

Whyte’s anger and hurt, undimmed by the years, remind one of what is too often missing from this and NWS’s rivals. Powerful emotion coupled with the skill to pull off its depiction. If the line-up is a little wobbly in parts, you can’t blame the editors. Being an editor of an anthology must be a little like being the Scotland football manager. Blame him all you like for wavering results, but the man can only field the players he has available to him at the time.


Songs of Other Places – 

New Writing Scotland 32

Eds. Gerry Cambridge and Zoe Strachan

ASLS, £9.95, ISBN 978-1-906841-19-5, PP181

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For Peat’s Sake

IAN Stephen was born and brought up on Lewis and still lives there. He worked for many years as a coastguard and from his previous books it is evident that he is a skilled fisherman and sailor; his passion for and knowledge of the sea, tides, winds, fish and boats are manifest in his writing. Though he has published short stories and has written plays, he has mainly been known as a poet, and despite this doorstopper of a prose work, I think that will continue to be the case. 

At their best his poems are refreshingly lucid, exact in their language and expressive of a real engagement with the environment, especially where the natural world and the human world meet. He does not allow himself to be overly lyrical or use poetic vocabulary, but chooses his words economically and with precision. He often uses the technical or scientific names for their expressive power as well as their accuracy. In that respect, his poetry leans towards that of Ian Hamilton Finlay. Like Finlay, Stephen is not so much interested in the picturesque qualities of a landscape, but is more intent on reading it to reveal its character and history and human significance, as in ‘Skyline’:

I like living with our skyline

broken sometimes by the tractors

taking a breather of agricultural 

neutral at the aluminium gate.

Given his economy of language in poetry, it comes as a surprise to find that this book runs to more than 550 pages, as if he felt compelled to compete with the Bible. To be fair, he is working on a broad canvas which takes in three generations of a family living on Lewis. Peter MacAulay, the protagonist, writes his will, and in the process takes us back through his life, from early childhood, through adolescence to maturity and his marriage to a German woman Gabrielle, and the subsequent birth and growing up of their daughter Anna. The relationship with Gabrielle looks as if it might become central to the story after he meets her; then, curiously, it is allowed to fade away. When eventually they come to separate, the separation is more or less glossed over.

Peter’s mother and father also tell something of their lives in the form of journals they have written, and in sustained speeches. The story of his best friend Kenny’s descent into alcoholism is another narrative thread we are told about but are never really shown. So there are fictional elements here, but I referred to A Book of Fish and Death as a ‘prose work’ because it shies away from being a fully-fledged novel. Characters and relationships are not developed and the narrator’s account of his own life reads more like memoir. Other parts of the book offer a chronicle of everyday life on Lewis. A good deal of the island’s history is covered, including the well-known story of the Iolaire disaster, a ship that was carrying sailors who had fought in the First World War back to Lewis and which hit rocks and sank a few yards offshore and only a mile from Stornoway harbour. 

There are also many long discursive passages about other historical events such as the Cold War, the cod wars and especially the Second World War, in which Stephen attempts to view them from a Lewis perspective. These ponderous passages slow what little narrative momentum the story builds and should have been severely edited, jettisoned like so much unnecessary ballast from a fishing boat once it has landed its catch. At times, too, the rather casual, conversational narrative tone becomes chattily over-familiar or jocose: ‘But since I really am preaching now, ladies and gentlemen, I exhort you. Go thee now. Go and perform the latter-day action which is known unto the multitude as a google. Do a google on blitzkrieg.’

In compensation, there is a wealth of anecdote, creating a kind of patchwork quilt of narrative. The chronicle and the memoir elements combine quite well to realize a gritty portrayal of life on Lewis, and sometimes Stephen’s poet’s eye for detail and his linguistic precision make for a strong sense of authenticity: ‘The fry was taken from the spillage from the crans, swung ashore in creels filled from the hold. We’d go back to the terraces with handfuls, held out ahead. We’d leave behind, drying on the concrete, the cuddies we’d caught. These were small fry of lythe, saithe cod and whiting.’

 Even when the activity described is as everyday as cutting peat, Stephen uses the names for peat for their expressive qualities – ‘fad’, ‘cep’, ‘cruach’  – as well as accuracy, and describes the whole activity in great detail. Such tasks are part of the fabric of island life, and the book offers a convincing account of survival in a harsh, even hostile environment. Stephen’s picture of Lewis life is less dour than the stereotypical Wee Free, Bible-thumping one we have come to expect. The influence and activities of the kirk certainly come into the picture but by no means dominate it. And the older generation, Peter’s ‘olaid’ and ‘olman’, seem very easy-going and tolerant, even when as a teenager he grows his hair long and starts to dabble in exotic, Eastern religions.

A Book of Fish and Death is a strange read. It is by turns novel, memoir, chronicle and rambling discourse, and we must negotiate our own way through it without much guidance from the author. Towards its end, Stephen himself acknowledges the ‘organic’ nature of the enterprise: ‘I don’t know what this collection of writings was meant to be. It’s just happened. Made without any plan. So it might indeed be like boatbuilding by eye. But there’s a big danger in that. The possible gain is fluency of line. The risk is that you come up with a shape that’s not quite there yet. It only suggests what you should make next time.’ That sounds like a poet trying to find his way into fiction using only poetic ideas and imagery. Unfortunately the ‘fluency of line’ applies to only some parts, and ‘not quite there yet’ is about right as a description of the overall shape which results.


A Book of Fish and Death

Ian Stephen

Saraband, £20, ISBN 978 1908643667, PP576

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SRB Diary III

THE INDEPENDENCE referendum, it seems, has divided my family yet, despite the hysterical noises coming from the No camp about all the beastliness that’s around, I won’t be calling in the social services just yet. My oldest son Brendan has become a fervent No man and has been moved occasionally to espouse some of the rhetoric of the free market economists. On my next visit to his grandfather’s grave I should not be surprised to see evidence of turbulence in the earth above his tomb. Brendan is a scratch golfer, having been messing about with clubs since his early teens now. I put his rightwards lurch down to having spent far too much time in the lounges of some of the country’s best golf courses. 

While supporting him and his younger brother Martin in assorted tournaments over the years visiting these places is unavoidable and when I do I experience the same feeling that Texan transsexuals must when they choose to come out. My oldest daughter Clare, though, is as fervent a Yes supporter as it’s possible to be and will often call me to ask me to accompany her to a political meeting, which of course, I can’t do as I am still officially ‘undecided’ and have to write about this as objectively as I can. Last week she and her friend attended a Yes meeting in Rutherglen where Tommy Sheridan was holding court. ‘He was just terrific,’ she said and texted  a photograph taken afterwards showing the two of them with the Arden Aristotle.

Last year she and the same friend also experienced one of George Galloway’s ‘Just Say Naw’ events at the City Halls in Glasgow. She insisted on attending, even though she thinks Gorgeous George is ‘mistaken’ on Scottish independence. Doesn’t she realise that George is never mistaken? If Arthur Scargill has more memoirs to sell any time soon then he ought to ensure that Glasgow figures prominently on his publicity tour for a small quorum at least is waiting for him here. Red Ken too, for that matter.

* * *

OF COURSE the attempts by No to suggest that the referendum is in danger of being swamped by aggression and violent aggravation is quite laughable and follows the two-year pattern of their dismal campaign and depressing campaign. I awake this morning to be greeted by the Herald’s splash which quotes an un-named source from the No campaign saying that there will be ‘utter carnage’ at polling stations if Yes chiefs don’t rein in their bully boys. This incredible claim came in the wake of Jim Murphy feeling forced to suspend his ‘100 towns in 100 days’ soapbox tour to defend the Union in the face of an egg and some heckling. 

There is a sinister aspect to such desperate propaganda by the No campaign (and I have a good idea who at Better Together HQ is responsible). If the police are minded to take any of this seriously then I would suggest that, instead of wasting resources by policing Murphy’s tour, they ought instead merely to warn Blair McDougall, head of the No campaign, and his team of inciting unrest by deploying such intemperate and incendiary language (not that I’m suggesting for a minute that the estimable Mr McDougall is in any way responsible).

The independence campaign has been conducted in a mature, dignified and good-humoured fashion and Scotland’s citizens and public figures, on both sides of the debate, can be proud of this. Observers from other countries have already noted all this with approbation and to attempt to smear the Scottish by talking irresponsibly of violence does neither the No campaign nor the country any favours at all.

Indeed I detect, in such tactics, proof of some desperation in the Better Together camp. These claims have surfaced within a few days of Alex Salmond’s humiliation of Alistair Darling during the pair’s second live television debate, screened by BBC Scotland, and the latest opinion poll showing the two sides neck and neck. It’s thought that a high turn-out (a figure of more than 80% is expected) would benefit Yes, as it would include many from those housing estates and schemes who normally feel alienated from Westminster and Holyrood politics and who, it is predicted, would most favour a change in the constitutional status quo. Surely though, the No camp would not stoop to the point where they are actively trying to dissuade people from voting by scaring them?

* * *

LAST WEEK I was caught up in a rather embarrassing situation involving a good friend and the board of a Business Gateway Exchange on which he sits. My friend had asked me to chair the last in a series of independence debates they have been  hosting among their clients and contacts. I was delighted because this organisation, like so many others in civic and business Scotland, has decided to engage in the debate by plugging into the surge of energy that has awoken those parts of Scotland that have lain politically and culturally dormant for too long. I am also honoured as it is an important task that deserves some care and good judgment.

However, the invitation to chair is soon rescinded and my friend calls to apologise for the misunderstanding. There are to be four speakers at the event – two from either side – and so they opted to seek candidates from the campaign HQs. It seems that Better Together, in an act of petulance that has become its characteristic, has threatened to withdraw their speakers if I am confirmed as chair.

Their suspicions and resentment, I suspect, stem from columns I have written in the Observer which have been highly critical of the negativity of the No campaign. I come from a family and community where old Labour roots run deep and I have campaigned for both Dennis Canavan and Tom Clarke when they were my local MPs. Unlike several of the placemen inside the No campaign, my family’s loyalty to Labour and trade unionism did not come with a six-figure price tag attached.

However, I suppose I ought to feel a little more distinguished that some of these people have deemed my presence at this debate to be so toxic. And of course no blame attaches to my friend or his organisation who acted with decorum throughout.

* * *

DAVID Torrance has emerged as one of the campaign’s most important commentators. And I’m sure he’ll forgive me if I describe him as one of the superior Unionist voices to have emerged. Torrance’s unauthorised biography of Alex Salmond, Against The Odds, has become the prescribed text for the flying columns of English-based and overseas journalists converging on Scotland in this our hour of destiny.  

In one of his most recent columns Torrance discussed the almost complete absence of real social mobility in Britain and suggested that this state of cultural stasis exists in Scotland too. Turning to our own shared profession he noted that 70% of newspaper columnists in the UK went to independent, fee-paying or selective secondary grammar schools.

Like me, he attended an ordinary urban comprehensive (as I suspect most of our colleagues north of the border did) but includes himself and probably me too in what might be considered the Scottish establishment. Now I have no problem with him averring that a Scottish establishment exists which is as red in tooth and claw as its sister in England. But I draw a line that such an establishment must include those of us who chronicle and analyse its workings.

For how can any establishment that might include me and some other similarly scrofulous members of the press ever be deemed to be an establishment at all?

I suspect though, that Torrance is as spooked as I am at the prospect of being part of anyone’s establishment. I have shared more than a few television and radio studios with him over the last year or so and how else can I explain his choice of light evening apparel which normally consists of a tee-shirt bearing an obscure motif of uncertain vintage… and jeans of course. Either that or Better Together have got to him and insisted that he don such unruly raiment to put me off my stride.

* * *

I WONDER if, in years to come, those of us who have been given ring-side seats on which to view the referendum campaign will have cause to consider what a privilege we have been accorded? Of all those generations that have come and gone since the Treaty of Union in 1707 this is the one which has been chosen to decide if it ought to remain or instead perform the obsequies at its passing. We who now find ourselves chronicling its beat and cadence for newspapers and the broadcast media, bear a heavy responsibility to report it properly and with due grace and humour. By and large I feel that this has been achieved, though there have been a few troughs. 

During a recent broadcast for Radio 4, live from BBC Scotland’s headquarters at Pacific Quay in Glasgow, I suggested that it was no surprise that the most earnest and enthusiastic proponents of the Union were those who had the most to lose in terms of salary and expenses: Westminster MPs such as Douglas Alexander, Alistair Darling and Jim Murphy. This though, was unfair of me.

Alexander’s arguments for maintaining the Union have been easily the most persuasive on the No side and it’s probably fair to say that he would be able to command a salary and expenses package far higher than that which he currently commands in his role as Westminster Labour’s Shadow Foreign Secretary and the MP for Paisley and Renfrewshire South. His assertion that those of us on the left have a moral duty to maintain unity and common cause with the left in England to overturn the politics of greed, unearned privilege and reprisals against the poor which are embedded in the policies of the Tory/LibDem coalition is compelling. It borrows from the old sense of internationalism and common purpose which underpin proper ideas of socialism and are what brought many of us who spring from Christian-Democrat households to the Labour Party initially.

It won’t be Scottish nationalists who will determine the outcome of the referendum; there are simply not enough of them to do so. It will be determined by the number of Labour voters who think that Alexander’s message of internationalism and solidarity with England’s socially isolated communities remains worth fighting for in the modern UK Labour Party.

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Rock of Ages

THAT the name of the protagonist of Michel Faber’s spellbinding, heartbreaking and mind-bending new novel, The Book Of Strange New Things, is Peter is hardly coincidental. The book opens with Peter and his wife, Beatrice, having impassioned but melancholic sex in the back of their car before Peter departs to take up a new job. Indeed, it is more than a mere employment opportunity: it is a mission. Just beforehand, Peter had confessed to loving the man-made lighting on the way to Heathrow, and was musing on how the idea that ‘unspoiled nature is supposed to be the ultimate in perfection’ buckles when one considers what travelling in the ‘total darkness’ of the ‘natural state of the world’ might actually be like. That conversation will haunt the reader, as will the neat foreshadowing in the ‘vaguely humanoid shape’ of a hitchhiker the couple pass before their elegiac tryst. This is very much a book that rewards re-reading; its subtle echoes and wisps of allusion reverberate across the text like the minimalist music of Philip Glass.

The first reveal: Peter and Beatrice are committed Christians, who use the word ‘crisis’ whenever an unbearable urge to break the third commandment and take the Lord’s name in vain steals upon them. Peter goes to the airport’s Prayer Room and reads the plaintive, angry, tender and sarcastic comments in the visitors’ book. The two of them worry about the divine sanction of his decision to accept the position: ‘You don’t feel God’s hand in this?… Do you think He would send me all the way to – ’. So far this novel could be social realism until we reach the second reveal. We already know that Peter’s career change is being funded by the shadowy acronym USIC (I can’t help hearing ‘you sick’ when leafing back through the book in order to write this review) and that the transport alone is costing millions of dollars. Peter is being sent to Oasis, humanity’s first extra-terrestrial colony,  because, we later learn, the indigenous aliens – a lovely paradox – have demanded a man of the cloth. Peter, of course, was the first earthly apostle, originally named Simon and renamed by Jesus as a pun on petrus, stone, the rock on which the Church is founded.

Before Peter can meet the Oasans, we have a beautiful sequence of scenes: the nausea-inducing and eerily vague descriptions of the actual journey to Oasis, with its horrendous version of interplanetary jet-lag; the Vonnegut-esque evocation of the stultifyingly boring, bureaucratically repressive and devil-may-care cynicism of the human colony – sorry, community. It’s a place of Patsy Cline and outdated pornography, heavy engineering and light fizzy drinks deducted from your wage, where Peter has been told that ‘food is provided whenever we need it’ and a new colleague informs him ‘you just gotta make sure you don’t need it at the wrong time’.  Then there is Peter’s encounter with the planet itself, its three-day long nights and its green water, its aquamarine sky and its lack of a moon, its humidity and its barrenness. He also meets Grainger, a smart-mouthed, snarky woman from the American South, who becomes a foil-y kind of friend. She takes him to the Oasan settlement, on a regular drop-off of the pharmaceuticals they crave as much as the Gospel.

 Then we meet the Oasans. Like China Miéville or Jeff  VanderMeer rather than H P Lovecraft, who nearly always gave us almost precise height, weight and number of tentacles statistics for his ‘weird’, Faber leaves a glorious smudge of ambiguity. ‘Here was a face that was nothing like a face. Instead, it was a massive whitish-pink walnut kernel. Or no: even more, it resembled a placenta with two foetuses – maybe three-months-old twins, hairless and blind – nestled head to head, knee to forehead. Their swollen heads constituted the Oasan’s clefted cheeks, their spindly arms and webbed feet merged into a tangle of translucent flesh that might contain – in some form unrecognisable to him – a mouth, nose, eyes’.

There’s a phrase in fan discussions about Star Trek – ‘Forehead Of The Week’ – meaning why do other life-forms so often look like badly disguised humans. Faber resists this with elegance: your mind can’t visualise an Oasan. Nor can your tongue imitate one. The book drops in alternate graphemes to convey the Oasan’s inability, with their alien tongues or teeth or lips, to say ‘t’ or ‘s’.  The use of different typographies and fonts can often be a sign of lazy writing. When an author just clicks up the font size box to represent shouting, it is because they can’t convey shouting in words alone. Faber is ingenious in this respect: the reader has to decode the Oasan’s approximation of the sounds of English. It ramps up the extent of our ability to decipher. The reader has, by the end, to become alien and alienated.

 Across this narrative there are Peter’s letters to Beatrice, full of confusion, optimism and the reveals of why he became a Christian. We have Beatrice’s letters, ‘shot’ into the void, describing a world that Peter thought he was leaving but was in fact escaping. As she sends letters from a Ballardian future, he becomes a variant on Dostoevsky’s The Idiot, the man undone by innocence. Beatrice is a sly reference to Dante, for as Peter inches towards Heaven, she spirals into a wholly man-made Hell.

 Each of Faber’s chapters is headed by a phrase, with which the chapter itself concludes. When one realises this game of predestination, there is a visceral shiver across your brain. You start re-reading before you have finished the book. It extends and deepens Faber’s obvious interest in the relationship between damage and identity: like the tiger-striped heroine of The Crimson Petal And The White, desperately trying to have a life of plenty, or the uncomfortably human-ised A9 alien murderer of Under The Skin, the Oasans are about harm and hope. Faber’s central concern has been about bodies and how they let us down, and how the metaphysics that cocoon our fears let us down even more.

 There are narrative hooks which propel the reader through the story. When Peter meets the Oasans for the first time, they touchingly sing ‘How Great Thou Art’ to the best of their physiologies. How do they know about religion? Why has it become embedded in their culture to the extent that they rename themselves ‘Jesus Lover Fifty-Four’ or ‘Jesus Lover Seventy-Eight’? I thought immediately of MacDiarmid’s ‘The Innumerable Christ’ – ‘An’ when the earth’s as cauld’s the mune / An’ a’ its folk are lang syne deid, / On countless stars the Babe maun cry / An’ the Crucified maun bleed’. Likewise, there is an element reminiscent of Conrad: will Peter ‘go native’, become a Kurtz of the cosmos? The human understanding of the ecosystem of Oasis is patchy at best – and a swarm of things is on the horizon (‘What are we gonna call these critters?’ someone asked. ‘Chickadees’. ‘Duckaboos’. ‘How about fatsos?’ ‘Woglets.’ ‘Xenomammals.’ ‘Flabbits.’ ‘Lunch!’)

 Then there is a very Scottish dimension to The Book Of Strange New Things. The idealist minister, confronted with something utterly different and often attracted to someone despite themselves, forms a spine in our literary history through such novels as John Gibson Lockhart’s Adam Blair, John Buchan’s Witch Wood, JM Barrie’s Farewell Miss Julie Logan and James Robertson’s The Testament Of Gideon Mack and Ken MacLeod’s The Night Sessions. Peter is cut from the same cloth, though the resulting vestments are somewhat different.

 The Book Of Strange New Things is Faber’s strongest, most plangent and most intellectually gleeful novel. It is affecting as much as it is challenging. It not only made me want to read his next book, but re-read his backlist immediately. Faber takes religion and religiosity seriously, and this is to be highly commended in these days of milquetoast secularism and horrendous extremism (and, one might add, a Christian church more concerned with its fissures than its fishers). The other novel which kept coming back to me was David Lindsay’s under-rated A Voyage To Arcturus, a significant influence on CS Lewis. The titular planet reshapes the body of the hero as he goes in search of the ultimate meaning, Crystalman, who, on the final pages, reveals his name on earth is Pain. There was once a school of critics who thought Knox’s Calvinism was the withered hand throttling the throat of creative endeavour in Scotland. We can now, I think, better appreciate the positive aspects of that legacy as well – rigour, self-examination, the individual voice over the collective call-and-response, the sense that we are transitory in this world – ‘for here we have no continuing city’. Faber’s bold, brave, brilliant novel weaves these themes seamlessly. It’s also, by the way, the most wonderful love story.


The Book Of Strange New Things

Michel Faber

Canongate, £18.99, ISBN 978 1 78211 406 2, PP550

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Quintessentially British?

Born Under a Union Flag is an interesting title. It may derive from the song ‘I was born under a Union Jack’ which was adapted by Rangers fans from Lee Marvin’s hit record ‘Wanderin’ Star’. The words of the adaptation, according to Rangers historian Graham Walker in one of thirteen essays contained here, promoted ‘a Britishness that was edgy, insecure, suspicious of betrayal and requiring, in the old Orange catch phrase “eternal vigilance”.’ However, there is also an echo of Albert King’s ‘Born Under a Bad Sign’. ‘If it wasn’t for bad luck, I wouldn’t have no luck at all’ may not echo around Ibrox as ‘Union Jack’ once did, but it is closer to the spirit of the times. 

The overall purpose of the book is also not entirely clear. In the foreword, Professor Adam Tompkins states that ‘the argument is not about ‘Scottish or British’, as if we can be only one of these things, but ‘how do we best realise our mixed and complex identities: together in Union or together simply as neighbours who share the same island?’ This promises some form of Linda Colley/Christopher Smout multiple identity approach to the relationship between Rangers, Britain and Scottish independence which sounds interesting if a bit old-fashioned.  The first paragraph of the editors’ introduction, however, asks ‘where does Scottishness end and Britishness begin?’ There is no place there for Tompkins’ ‘complex identities’.

The editors, Alan Bissett and Alasdair McKillop, go on to make a case for Rangers being stereotyped as ‘quintessentially British’ even though its fans disagree on a number of things including how to vote in the Scottish referendum.  They offer themselves as proof: one is a Unionist, the other a Yes activist. In addition, their contributors bring ‘a unique perspective on the independence issue – whether Scottish or British – on what Rangers F.C. represent.’  The repeated insistence on Scottish or British doesn’t inspire confidence nor does an ever-narrowing remit which is eventually reduced to: ‘In short we wanted to ask: what do Rangers mean to Scotland and what does Scotland mean to Rangers? What do Rangers mean to Britain and what does Britain mean to Rangers?’

Fortunately, whatever direction came from the editors it was ignored by the best essayists. Gail Richardson, a socialist and feminist blogger, shows little interest in what Rangers mean to Scotland or any of the other permutations. Instead she embarks on a fascinating exploration of what Rangers mean to her while picking up bonus points for best essay title with ‘A Hand-Wringers Tale’. Richardson is an atheist and a republican who believes ‘the best interests of Scotland will be served by self-determination’. She is particularly good on fan ownership which she links to a proposed amendment by the Green Party to the Community Power and Renewal Bill. Rangers’ fans, she says, are resistant to ownership either because they are used to ‘sugar daddies’ or see fan ownership ‘as a form of socialism’.

This attitude fits Graham Walker’s general thesis that Rangers are a club with a ‘thrawn refusal to conform to the mood or the times’ as indicated by parts of the Ibrox song repertoire and its failure to sign a Catholic until 1989. Former Herald editor Harry Reid, an Aberdeen fan who doesn’t like Rangers and ‘never will’, also believes that the club is out of step with history. Unionist identity, he argues, is ‘neither helpful nor relevant in the current political, cultural and sociological climate’. Instead ‘when Scotland is contending for its independence, Rangers FC can surely discover in its rich history and its deep roots a truly Scottish identity that is inclusive and progressive’.

In his own essay McKillop argues that Rangers needs a written constitution. This would enshrine ‘Rangers values’ and make it clear why they are ‘unique’. McKillop’s faith is immediately countered by ex-head teacher and iconoclast Alex Wood. Wood doesn’t believe in ‘unique values’ or, indeed, any positive spin around Rangers: ‘This former Rangers fan will be voting Yes. Although undermining traditional Rangers culture will not be the purpose of that vote it would…be a happy bi-product.’

Up to this point, the absence of a grand vision isn’t detrimental as contributors take the argument in interesting directions. However, the essay ‘Two Rangers Fans Debate National Identity’, which pits Alan Bissett against John DC Gow, signals the start of a prolonged slump. Their ‘debate’ generates more heat than light with Bissett taking a line on Union Jacks, militarism and imperialism and Gow finding innumerable ways to accuse him of stereotyping. Pamela Thornton’s argument in the following essay that Rangers ‘are a football team and nothing else’ would have put a stop to the whole thing, if only it were true.

The second half of the book is driven primarily by males with personal agendas. A particular low point is the juxtaposition of essays by Labour MP John Robertson and Will McLeish, former special adviser to Alex Salmond. Robertson’s is a tiresome paean to Labour which is ‘a much more inclusive party than some others’. McLeish regurgitates the familiar details of HMRC’s actions against Rangers in order to show how much better things would be under ‘a more transparent, efficient and fairer [tax] system’ in an independent Scotland.

By now the early promise of the book is a fading memory but fortunately (the editors may deserve credit here) the best has been kept for last. In ‘Jimmy Reid’s Govan’ his daughter Eileen eschews tribalism, celebrates mixed-marriage and has interesting things to say about growing up in Govan and her family’s relationship with the local team, Rangers.  She invokes Ernest Gellner in support of her claim that ‘Scots need to develop a better nose for distinguishing traditions worth preserving from those that should never have been allowed to take root in the first place.’ Reid has both halves of the Old Firm in mind and, uniquely among the essayists here, is prepared to defend the Offensive Behaviour and Offensive Communications (Scotland) Act. She is as brave as she is eloquent. Like football and the independence debate in general, Born Under a Union Flag would be better if it had more women in it.


Born Under a Union Flag: Rangers, Britain and Scottish Independence

Alan Bissett and Alasdair McKillop (eds)

Luath Press, £8.99, ISBN 978 191002115, PP160

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Everything is Collapsed

It was only relatively recently and with great delight that I learned the V in DVD referred not to ‘video’, as I’d assumed, but to ‘versatile’. We use it to mean adaptable, or merely useful, but it has the appealing and suggestive original sense of having the quality of turning easily. There has never been any mistaking Ali Smith’s adaptability as a novelist and storyteller (though I suspect she resists adaptation in the usual current sense) but in How to be both, which is both novel and tract on fiction writing, she takes the idea of versatility as her subject matter, as well as demonstrating it in a double narrative of playful sophistication.

The basic outline is easily enough described. Her primary character is a smart, picky teenager called George – for Georgia – living in Cambridge, grieving for her mother, watching her father grieve, watching a slow drip in her bedroom ceiling invest walls, posters, piles of books with a dripdripdrip that’s too briskly described to seem like any kind of intrusive symbol and too insistently not to be. This house of fiction has many windows, but it also has a slate off. At school, though she scarcely seems to need schooling, George runs verbal rings round the grief counsellor, a Mrs Rock  who’s been appointed to help her through. In an environment where anything one does is liable to end up on Facebook and YouTube, she’s protected and befriended by a tough, charismatic girl known as H, whose interest may be romantic and sexual as well as supportive and empathetic.

Before her last illness and disappearance into Addenbrooke’s, George’s mother has been an internet gadfly, posting discomfiting pop-up facts, or Subverts, on otherwise bland sites. It’s an activity that may have earned her the attention of the security services, and in particular a shadowy figure called Lisa Goliard, who may just as easily have been the mother’s lover, as H bids to be her own. As a child of the freeze, rewind, repeat generation George enjoys a digital versatility in narrative, constantly flashing back and forth between ‘is’ and ‘was’, ‘says’ and ‘said’ in her mother’s life. It’s a natural enough pre-adult response to recent loss, but also narratively unsettling. And this is where How to be both, which naturalises and humanises some of the ‘experimental’ urge of 1960s fiction – where character was deemed to be neither round nor flat but simply a node of linguistic energy – turns into an exploration of its own processes and means. Rarely has the continuous present tense been so sharply interrogated.

The strongest and most powerful memory George retains of her mother is a trip made before illness struck, an apparently spontaneous whim to see the frescoes of Francesco del Cossa at the Palazzo Schifanoia in Ferrara. Certain figures stand out, and Smith’s back cover image is the one of the decans who oversee the month of March in the Salone del Mesi, an ambiguously gendered youth holding an arrow and a gold ring, traditional Renaissance references to male and female. The front cover, just to note, reproduces a fresh and candid colour poster, given to George by her mother, of French singers Sylvie Vartain and Françoise Hardy, wearing strong Renaissance colours and offering two quite different paradigms of female sexuality.

After her mother’s death, George takes to bunking off school and, with a borrowed credit card, travelling to London to look at a del Cossa in the National Gallery, where she whiles away afternoons making a statistical study of how people look. Then one day Lisa Goliard walks into the room. George follows her and stakes her out. This is where the narrative abruptly changes, or where one narrative ends and another narrative (also numbered ‘1’) begins. Author and publisher would have us believe that the two halves of the book, which apparently exists in two printed forms, can be read independently and in either order.

I’m not so sure. Part one or the first part one might readily work as a stand-alone novella. It contains pretty much everything one needs to know about what follows, which comes to us through the mind of a Francesco del Cossa who is – to no one’s surprise, surely? – female and who observes George observing Lisa from the perspective of a purgatory the Catholic Church abandoned as a concept some time ago but which exists profoundly in modern fiction as the place where ‘character’ resides. Part two, the second part one, is a jeu d’esprit, a breezy account of court politics, courtly romance and art that obeys pre-modern, but also very modern, dictates. This is more obviously ‘experimental’, and more obviously versatile on Smith’s part. The text, reaching us from whatever limbo Francesco/Francesca  inhabits, often wanders down the page, like a George Herbert poem, or something from Lewis Carroll. These, oddly, are better comparisons than something more up to date such as B. S. Johnson’s infamous ‘loose-leaf’ novel, The Unfortunates, a book which was designed to be collected rather than read.

Smith’s demands to be read, but not with evenly distributed attention. For my money, the del Cossa narrative is an amusing diversion but one that merely continues and in some important respects softens the themes of the George narrative, which works very powerfully on its own. It won’t escape any reader that the novel poses as a kind of ‘how to’ book, the way Richard Brautigan’s Trout Fishing In America was both a satire on fascism and the pastoral, and a guide to landing steelheads. Smith sets out to demonstrate, as the 60s experimentalists did, that the novel can be anything it wants to be and that its versatility, its ability to turn in any direction, is the source of its great and lasting power.

Everything is collapsed here: past and present, present and absent, aliveness and deadness, ambisexuality and the uncertainly gendered attributions of art history. But over and above all that are the structural ambiguities Smith plays with: to do with the difference between seeing and surveillance, ‘point of view’ (a long-standing literary obsession) and omniscience, between character and situation on the one hand and the language in which they are expressed. Somewhere running around the back of this book is the cliché about the picture and the thousand words, and it’s odd how long one spends looking at the cover where Françoise Hardy brushes the hair off her face and looks at, or past, Sylvie Vartain, who is looking narrowly and maybe defensively at something out of shot. It’s an image that becomes more meaningful as the book advances because it sums up many of its thematic and structural quiddities. Just to underline this side of it, each of the book’s sections is fronted with a ‘seeing’ icon, a CCTV camera and a del Cossa eye, respectively.

Mrs Rock, who combines professional acumen and haplessness in the face of a younger and more versatile opponent, pounces on George’s apparent confusion of ‘monitor’ and ‘minotaur’. Watching and being watched, George is led into a labyrinth of memory in which pretty much any opposition, dichotomy, syzygy, dialectic, whatever, can be subsumed under the strangely troubling and even more strangely comforting condition of ‘both’. The last time I remember the word having such resonance in fiction was in the epigraph to Bernard Malamud’s short story collection-come-novel Pictures of Fidelman in which the fictional artist responds to the Yeats lines about perfection of the life or of the art by concluding that he wants the matching pair rather than having to make the choice. How interesting that pictures also figure centrally in Smith’s novel. There’s a tiny one of her on the back flap, underneath a street sign dedicated to del Cossa. It’s a timely reminder that in every page and line this feels like a very personal book, and that if its subject matter seems at times to turn inward that may well be a reflection of its author doing the same, with some pleasure and not a little pain, and not just dazzling us with virtuosic fiction.


How to be both

Ali Smith

Hamish Hamilton, £16.99, ISBN 978 0241145210, PP384

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Guilty Pleasure

THE lighting in Accident & Emergency is never less than brutal in its after-midnight reveal of stricken humanity. By way of introduction, Alan Warner catches Douglas Cunningham in its glare. For the off-the-rails young Scot in London, A & E waiting rooms meet his need for overnight refuge. They are places where he can sink into the anonymity of collective distress, at least temporarily. At Acton A & E, ‘There were no people with axes or knives embedded in blood-matted scalps. Several supplicants leaned into the palms of their hands with despair, as if this would give them priority’. Cunningham could hardly find anywhere less restful – or offering less peace for the ‘wicked’. Booted out of university, shamed and homeless, at the tender age of twenty-one he has blown his parents’ hopes by voiding his ticket into the middle classes. The potential upside is that failure cuts him loose from others’ expectations, free to make himself up as he goes along. So what will he do with this freedom, apart from keeping faith with his tandem addictions, literature and beer?

Cunningham’s efforts to avoid the attention of the A & E receptionist involve staring at his feet and staving off the temptation to pull out a book – Ultima Thule, the first of many novels referenced in Their Lips Talk Of Mischief. For readers not already familiar with them, the flourish of book titles might seem inconsequential, and it might put off those who have an allergy to fiction that dwells on the writing process, so much of which now emanates from factories of further education. But don’t crack open the pack of anti-histamine just yet: Warner is doing something more interesting than writerly navel-gazing, and readers who allow themselves to be coaxed into his literary honey trap will be rewarded by far more than a ‘recommended’ list.

These book titles contour a hinterland of reading and thinking around the existential, religious and moral themes that supply the bass notes of  Their Lips Talk Of Mischief. Each invites investigation. Take the book that’s in Cunningham’s jacket pocket when we first meet him. Exile is a significant seasoning in Australian author Ethel Richardson’s portrait of the moral and physical collapse of Richard Mahony, as it is in Their Lips Talk Of Mischief. In her personal memoir, Richardson wrote: ‘How I do hate the ordinary sleek biography! I’d have every wart & pimple emphasised, every tricky trait or petty meanness brought out. The great writers are great enough to bear it’. They’re sentiments evidently shared by Warner’s narrator. Another example is Cunningham’s choice of best first line: ‘“Take my camel, dear,” said my aunt Dot, as she climbed down from this animal on her return from High Mass.’ This comes from Rose Macaulay’s The Towers Of Trebizond, in which, according to the original jacket blurb, the pull of hereditary Anglicanism on the central character causes ‘nostalgic and fitful aspirations… perpetually at odds with stronger forces that drag victoriously in quite other directions, causing unresolvable tension.’ Again a significant connection, both with the sentimental Catholicism of Llewellyn Smith and the desire for a cut of salvation that develops in Cunningham – and in both men, unresolvabe tensions.

Just as Warner uses book-mentions as embedded pointers to his subtext, he also scatters embedded visual pointers. The first of these happens as Cunningham claps eyes on Llewellyn, in casual pose, leaning against the wall outside Acton A & E: Llewellyn tosses a cigarette to the ground ‘like a dart so that it burst on the tarmac in orange sparks’. Well, yes: man is indeed born to trouble as the sparks fly upward. Warner uses a similar device in the brilliant scene that follows, where Llewellyn demands to be seen by a doctor, then opens his overcoat like a flasher in order to wind up the power-mad receptionist. Cunningham observes, ‘He wore no shirt; his pale torso was utterly hairless, slightly muscled – like that of a trained swimmer – but straight down, from six inches beneath his neck to just above his navel, was bright blood, coagulated around the black lips of a huge wound’. Everyone thinks he’s been stabbed and Llewellyn moves straight to the head of the queue.

Warner choreographs this sequence with Chaplinesque precision, and has Llewellyn take his exit for treatment with aplomb and a wink, leaving Cunningham in a waiting room ‘thrumming with ignited chatter’. Pure comedy? It certainly works as that; but the novel develops in such a way as to encourage a second look at this scene, and the impression is that Warner is ever so elegantly (and cunningly) using the comedy of the situation to efface an embedded visual reference to the stigmata that are considered marks of sainthood in the Catholic Church. Now, what sort of person would associate the stigmata of sainthood with Llewellyn, and why? Seeding the novel with unspoken questions such as these, Warner contributes a sense of what ‘happens’ after the tale completes its six-month trajectory.

London, 1984, provides the broader setting. In real life, Orwell’s iconic year saw the Thatcher government poised like a praying mantis over the National Union of Miners. The victory of selfish ‘no such thing as society’ Thatcherism and the trumpeted decay of socialist ideals form an unobtrusive but relevant backdrop. As Llewellyn puts it in his jaunty, chauvinistic way: ‘Acquiring beer. Acquiring women. They do say it’s an acquisitive society’. Or, in more serious vein: ‘Scargill’s right. Ten years, there’ll be no mining left in Britain. The strike’s bigger than fucking coal. This is the free market and MI5 versus human beings, and the market will win, mark my words.’

Guilt ‘darker than the swoon of sin’ – as James Joyce describes his Young Artist’s first sexual encounter – lies at the heart of  Their Lips Talk of Mischief. The title, from Proverbs – ‘For their heart studieth destruction, and their lips talk of mischief’ – alerts us to the self-loathing and remorse that underlies a narrative that is nevertheless studded with hilarious scenes. Warner’s word-play and sense of the absurd provide plenty surface pizazz, but it is submerged guilt that gives momentum and shape to this novel, in which not just one, but two would-be artists are provided with generous servings of sin.

For Cunningham and Llewellyn, life’s more about downing pints and losing the plot, but they instantly acknowledge in each other the nascent writer – or at least, the ambition to become a writer – and nothing less than a great one. Unfortunately for them, reading great work of itself does not turn anyone into a great writer, however intensely they have entered into the experience or embellish themselves with literature identity buttons as floridly as any Pearly King, supping a late-night pint or three in Llewellyn’s local, ‘The Five or Six Bells’. Months later, Cunningham does actually come up with a piece of writing, which Llewellyn takes care to damn with faint praise: ‘Touch of pompous diction, weird use of commas. I like the story. A sort of greasy café, egg and chips of Huysmans and Borges. You have that almost in your pocket. You need to be sure that you have a piece of writing, not a piece of publishing’. The only publisher to take an interest in their work is the ghastly Toby Hanson. Sporting ‘a diarrhoea-coloured cashmere overcoat’, all he wants is to exploit their caption-writing skills, for a flat fee.

Out of the blue, Llewellyn offers Cunningham a billet back at his ‘palace of sin’. Box room, camp bed, spare typewriter – there’s no saying no to that unholy trinity. Well matched in blokishness and bookishness, they wobble back to Almayer House bearing curry and cheap fizz to placate Llewellyn’s partner Aoife, ‘old ice knickers’. Llewellyn and Aiofe have issues, but also issue, the lovely baby Lily. They both feel trapped but they’re fast-tracking towards marriage. Predictably, legal sanction fails to make them any less disconsolate and confused.

In their run-down, high-rise flat, amid jaded furnishings and peeling wallpaper – ‘Look Back In Anger with digital watches’  – Cunningham’s whole being surges with ‘bizarre distress’ at the proximity of the ‘menacingly beautiful’ Aoife. It’s as if he’s ‘been waiting to deliver this woman a message which had been carried in my throat all of my life’. Yet when they are alone, a moment laden with all the fateful resonance a romantic heart might crave, his throat is dry, his words mundane.

Apart from sly darts of body language, communication between Cunningham and Aoife is far from eloquent and their conversations are on a very different register from the flights fired up between Cunningham and Llewellyn. Aoife comes over as so passive it could be a form of self-harm; she’s chronically self-effacing, likeable in a ‘what’s not to like’ sort of way, and ridiculously fond of emphasising, with infantile religiosity, that as a Catholic girl she must be careful to limit her sexual partners before marriage. In the throes of his solipsistic love-obsession, Cunningham hardly sees her at all. He watches, bemused, as she refreshes her lipstick at every given opportunity, but just like her, he’s putting on a face, although she’s the one who articulates just how insecure she, Llewellyn and Cunningham actually are.

Their Lips Talk Of Mischief is not framed as youth’s account of itself. Cunningham’s retrospective judgements on himself are punitive. He sees himself as a callow, self-centred, emotional vampire, wallowing in feelings of ardour in order to avoid confronting his personal truth. In a disclaimer, Warner insists that the characters are ‘of course’ fictional – anticipating the perception that this is an autobiographical novel. Certainly he was young and in London in 1984. He does go so far as to acknowledge that the books in Llewellyn’s bookcase were the ones he read in his early twenties, and that the madly funny wedding dinner – including legging it in his kilt from an Indian restaurant without paying – is based on something that really happened.

Alan Warner has been a passionate reader since childhood. He tells a lovely story of his dad sitting by his bed, whisky in hand, reading him Jaws right through the night; the wee boy’s appetite for a good story matched by the dad’s willingness to put story-telling before regulation bedtime dogma. His pleasure in words is contagious, as is his fascination with the potential transmutation of something read into something that becomes part of the DNA of the reader’s imagination, an awareness that is the guiding force of Their Lips Talk Of Mischief.


Their Lips Talk of Mischief

Alan Warner

Faber, £14.99, ISBN 9780571311279, PP341

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The Case for Culture

It has long been a commonplace that the protection of Scotland’s key institutions – religion, law, education – was the cause of the nation’s survival after 1707. Scotland, however, did not simply acquiesce in its new subsidiary status: it took the opportunity of the British Empire to create new Scotlands around the world. Wherever Scots migrated they set up presbyterian churches, but since protestantism required literacy the Scottish educational system also had to be imported, initially to what became the United States, where the earliest universities, like William and Mary and the College of New Jersey were founded by Scots, and then to the rest of the Empire. 

To sustain these Scotlands in their foreign environments, medical schools were needed – a person cured was also a person ready to believe. Scottish universities were producing far more trained doctors than could be employed at home (ten times more than Oxford and Cambridge from 1750 to 1850), so that Scots made up a huge proportion of the ship’s surgeons and army doctors in the Empire, with the result that the Scottish medical schools became the model for medical schools in all of the settler colonies.  Since medicine depended largely on the properties of herbs, a medical school required a botanic garden, and Scots founded botanic gardens throughout the Empire, from Robert Kyd in Calcutta in 1787, to Alan Cunningham in Sydney in 1816 and James Hector in Wellington, New Zealand in 1865.

This Scottish migration was not a ‘diaspora’, with its implication of people driven out of their homeland and dreaming of return, but rather what in Greek is named xeniteia – people migrating in order to build a new version of their homeland. Scottish philosophy, whether Thomas Reid’s ‘Common Sense’ or Edward Caird’s Idealism, dominated a discipline fundamental to curricula based on the Scottish model; the Encyclopaedia Britannica, founded in Edinburgh in 1768, gave prominence to the Scottish contribution to universal knowledge, and the most influential magazines of the nineteenth century, the Edinburgh Review and Blackwood’s Magazine, promoted the literature of Burns, Scott and their successors as the standard by which all literature should be judged.

This vast international Scottish network allowed individual Scots to be globally mobile and produced huge economic benefits. William Roxburgh’s analysis of the properties of jute at the Calcutta Botanic Garden, for instance, made possible the jute industry in Dundee. But it was a network which also promoted Scotland as the spiritual core and justification of British imperialism. In 1819, Blackwood’s Magazine suggested that ‘while London is the Rome of the empire . . . Edinburgh might become another Athens in which the arts and sciences flourished, under the shade of her ancient fame, and established a dominion over the minds of men more permanent than even that which the Roman arms were able to effect’. By 1914 this expectation might easily have been judged valid: Scotland was the core of an intellectual, spiritual and literary empire of even vaster extent than the British Empire, since it still included the United States. It might be imaged in the figure of John Muir, Scottish environmentalist in California, visited by American presidents to learn from a Scot how to protect America’s natural environment.

This Scottish spiritual empire was destroyed by the First World War and its aftermath. It was displaced by the centralisation of cultural power in Britain – the BBC was founded in 1922 – and by the rise of American popular culture, as well as by the drive to cultural independence in its old territories. The Encyclopaedia Britannica moved to Chicago in 1920; In 1929,  the Edinburgh Review ceased publication.

The diminishment in Scotland’s sense of its global significance was catastrophic.  Hugh MacDiarmid’s ‘Scottish Renaissance’ movement of the 1920s required a ‘rebirth’ because Scotland was effectively dead. Neil Gunn, major novelist of the Renaissance, declared that ‘artistically in the modern world Scotland doesn’t exist. No music, no drama, no letters, of any international significance. Why is this all round sterility so complete, so without parallel in the life of any modern nation?’ This loss of world leadership initiated a period of ‘nostophobia’ – of revulsion from the nostos, from homecoming; a revulsion, too, from the nostalgia for that spiritual empire that was still purveyed by Burns clubs, St Andrew’s Societies and the debates of the Church of Scotland Assembly.

Nostophobia dominated Scotland’s cultural life in the twentieth century: MacDiarmid pilloried the country’s version of Robert Burns in A Drunk Man Looks at the Thistle; Edwin Muir dissected the failings of Walter Scott as symptomatic of the failings of the nation in Scott and Scotland; the major studies of Scottish culture from the 1930s to the  1960s – John Speirs’ Scots Literary Tradition: An Essay in Criticism and David Craig’s Scottish Literature and the Scottish People, 1680–1830  – underscored that Scottish literature was a story of relentless decline into irrelevance. 

Scotland was a failed culture. The announcement in 1945 of a possible festival in Edinburgh to which ‘every distinguished composer and executant might be attracted’ was greeted by Hugh MacDiarmid, in his journal The Voice of Scotland,as an occasion which would only ‘emphasise the absence of their peers in Scotland itself and the better the programmes the more ghastly would yawn the abyss between them and the utter inability of the Scottish people to assimilate and profit by anything of the sort, let alone be stimulated even to try to produce anything of comparable worth on their own part’. MacDiarmid set a nostophobic agenda which dominated Scottish culture in the 1960s and 70s, given artistic expression in films such as Bill Douglas’s My Childhood and reflected in the major journal of the period, Scottish International, which in its second issue in 1968 published Edwin Morgan’s ‘Flowers of Scotland’:

Yes, it is too cold in Scotland for flower
people; in any case who / would be handed a thistle? / What are our flowers? Locked swings and private rivers – / and the island of Staffa for sale in the open market, which no one  / questions or thinks strange – / and lads o’ pairts that run to London and Buffalo without a backward / look while their elders say Who’d blame them

Nostophobia peaked in Scotland in the years after the 1979 referendum: those who had been in favour needed an explanation of why the rest of the population had been so lacking in enthusiasm; those who were against needed to justify that the country was not up to governing itself. In 1981, the self-abasement was focused by Murray and Barbara Grigor’s Scotch Myths exhibition, which presented kitsch images of Scotland as farce, and then by Grigor’s film of the same name, parodying the ways in which Scotland’s national identity had been perverted by the romantic fictions of James Macpherson and Walter Scott. Scotland, according to Tom Nairn, represented a ‘freak by-product of European history’. Normal societies went through a ‘nationalist’ phase in the nineteenth century: because of Empire, Scotland did not, and as a result failed to produce a ‘real’ national culture, giving birth, instead, to a ‘tartan monster’.

This bleak account of the Scottish past was to be challenged at the second Edinburgh Festival in 1948 by a production of Sir David Lindsay’s The Thrie Estaites, a play last performed in 1554. Its director was Tyrone Guthrie, one of the most innovative of his generation, who used the fact that the play was being staged not in a traditional theatre but in the Assembly Hall of the Church of Scotland, to create an auditorium in which the stage was surrounded by the audience.  The combination of pre-Reformation Scots speech and a radically experimental theatrical practice was the sensation of the Festival.

Revived at regular intervals, The Thrie Estaites proved to be a continuous inspiration to literature in Scotland: many Scottish people might not think of themselves as speaking Scots but they heard it in their daily environment. The Thrie Estaites helped create an aural community of Scots listeners which underpinned the experiments in vernacular in the poetry of Edwin Morgan, Ian Hamilton Finlay, Tom Leonard and Liz Lochhead, and later in the prose of James Kelman, Irvine Welsh and Anne Donovan.  The vernacular, which had been taken as a sign of Scotland’s inadequacy in the world of modern English, had become the symbol of its distinction – both of its difference and its excellence.

James Kelman’s speech on winning of the Booker Prize in 1994 for How late it was, how late claimed that his work was part of an international movement committed to ‘the validity of indigenous culture’: ‘My culture and my language have the right to exist’. In the 1980s and 90s, writing in vernacular Scots became an assertion of resistance to the culture promoted by Mrs Thatcher’s and John Major’s governments, and in those decades of apparently suspended Scottish politics, Scottish writers and artists began to imagine alternative Scotlands, as Edwin Morgan did in his Sonnets from Scotland:

Scotland was found on Jupiter. That’s true. / We lost all track of time, but there it was. / No one told us its origins, its cause. / A simulacrum, a dissolving view? / It seemed as solid as a terrier / shaking itself dry from a brisk black swim / in the reservoir of Jupiter’s grim / crimson trustless eye

If politics couldn’t change Scotland, art could: from the publication of Alasdair Gray’s Lanark in 1981, Scottish writers created many alternatives to a Scotland trapped in an apparently unmoving history. This upsurge in contemporary Scottish creativity was matched by an equally radical transformation of Scotland’s past. No one in Scotland’s nineteenth-century imperium had heard of a Scottish Enlightenment. It came into existence in the 1960s because American scholars found the origins of their nation in the works of eighteenth-century Scots. Adam Smith had proved that free markets are the only basis of free societies; the drafters of the American constitution had infused it with Scottish Common Sense philosophy; the modern (and enlightened) United States was the fulfilment of eighteenth century (enlightened) Scottish thought.

That the very foundations of modernity, as now represented by the world’s only superpower, had been developed in Scotland, meant that Scotland was no longer the marginal, irrelevant extension to England that had been its apparent role since 1914. Scotland had become the lens through which modernisation and modernity were to be understood. The lost imperium of the nineteenth century was re-established: Scotland became again an Athens – this time to the modern Rome of the United States.

Having recovered the independence of its ‘voice’ and having recovered the sense of the significance of its own history, Scotland was ready to re-imagine its past: the four volume History of Scottish Literature published by Aberdeen University Press in 1987 was followed in the 1990s by Duncan Macmillan’s Scottish Art 1460–1990, John Purser’s Scotland’s Music, Charles Jones’s Edinburgh History of the Scots Language, Douglas Gifford’s and Dorothy McMillan’s History of Scottish Women’s Writing, Bill Findlay’s A History of Scottish Theatre. These re-readings of the Scottish past were accompanied by a huge number of texts recovered from near oblivion by the Canongate Classics series in the 1980s and 90s.

By the late 1990s, Scotland’s cultural past had been transformed from one of threadbare insignificance – Edwin Muir described it in the 1930s as a ‘temporal Nothing’ which was ‘dotted with a few disconnected figures arranged at abrupt intervals’ – into a cultural continuity overflowing with riches.

It was this tide of cultural regeneration rather than political urgency that gave impetus to Scottish devolution in the 1980s and 1990s. In fact, the SNP failed to advance in the general elections of 1992 and 1997 and Labour’s commitment to devolution, once it had a majority large enough after 1997 to govern without its Scottish votes, remained ambiguous, as witness the last minute introduction of another referendum to test whether there really was a ‘settled will’ for devolution among the Scottish people. The outcome was by no means certain. Andrew Neil, editor-in-chief of Scotsman Publications, thought ‘devolution was a preoccupation of the Scottish chattering classes – a body of about 1,000 people – and was not an issue that the Scottish public really cared about’.

The overwhelming vote in favour of devolution in 1997 was not produced by the political parties – they were small boats rising on a tide of cultural nationalism that went from the rediscovery of the art of the ‘Glasgow Boys’ and the ‘Scottish Colourists’ to the music of the Proclaimers and Runrig, from the writings of Nan Shepherd to Ian Rankin’s Rebus.

The building of the Scottish Parliament was preceded by that, nearby, of the Scottish Poetry Library, an institution founded to resist the threat of cultural extinction after the failure of devolution in 1979: where poetry leads, politics follows. The Parliament was not an achievement of Scottish politics and politicians but the product of a cultural revolution that had given Scotland a significant past, a creative present and a believable future, and made it a ‘nostos’ worth coming home to.

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