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