Alan Bissett: Who Carries The Carriers?

‘There is no place more revolutionary and no time more exciting than right here and right now in Scotland,’ writes Andrew Redmond Barr of the National Collective, a congregation of artists in favour of Scottish independence.  The finest minds of our generation, to borrow from Allen Ginsberg’s Howl, are poised to reimagine Scotland from top to bottom: politically, economically, socially and culturally. The summer of 2014 – dare we call it the Summer of Independence? – could be to Scotland what 1967 was to London and San Francisco, its artists and radicals conjuring songs, essays, poems, speeches and plays which offer fresh vistas and challenge a hideously conservative status quo.  This process was spurred at the end of 2012 with the book Unstated: Scottish Writers on Independence, edited by Scott Hames, which featured essays by 27 writers, almost all of whom are in favour of Home Rule.

But no revolution comes without conflict.  An essay from one of the writers, Alasdair Gray, caused a furore in the Scottish arts not seen since Hugh MacDiarmid denounced Alexander Trocchi as ‘cosmopolitan scum’.  Gray described English people who come to Scotland to take a top arts job, as a springboard to a bigger one elsewhere, as ‘colonists’, naming the outgoing Creative Director of the National Theatre of Scotland, Vicky Featherstone, as one of them.  Gray was denounced in the media as a racist and anti-English bigot.  Featherstone, in an interview with The Scotsman that week, admitted to having felt ‘bullied’ in post because she was English.  This came a mere fortnight after Andrew Dixon, CEO of Creative Scotland, resigned following an onslaught of protest from artists about the perceived failure of the organisation.  Dixon, an Englishman, had admitted on taking the post that he knew very little about Scottish culture but was ‘willing to learn’.  This was not felt to be intrinsic to his failure, but was possibly what a lawyer might call circumstantial evidence.

This perfect storm of events has created an ongoing period of self-examination in the Scottish arts – who runs them and for what purpose – which has spilled into a broader discussion about Scottish identity, its inclusivity or otherwise, and the referendum itself.  One of Gray’s staunchest defenders, the novelist James Kelman, recently interpreted the attack on Gray in the light of the political and cultural subjugation of Scotland.  He begins his essay ‘Keeping Scotland British, and Britain English’, in the online journal From Glasgow To Saturn, by observing:

The British establishment is opposed to Scottish independence. Its campaign, developed over many years, identifies an area of conflict as ‘anti-Englishness’ and portrays as ‘anti-English’ numbers of people from Scotland, Ireland and Wales…My experience of this area of ‘conflict’ begins from the reaction to my early short stories published as a collection forty years ago.”

Kelman’s point is borne out by the fact that Unstated, in which prominent Scottish writers discuss the biggest constitutional crisis the United Kingdom has ever known, received absolutely no review coverage anywhere in the UK.  ‘Anti-English’ remarks from one essay in the collection, on the other hand, were inflated into a massive news story on both sides of the border.  Kelman concludes:

The contempt for art revealed by the attack on Alasdair Gray is typical.  If nothing else, controversies such as this allow us to settle the matter of the distinctiveness of the Scottish tradition in literature, and our existence as a veriable community of communities, in other words, a country.”

Some would beg to differ.  Former director of the Edinburgh International Film Festival, Hannah McGill, is vexed by the fetishising of ‘Scottishness’ in the arts, especially in determining who should or should not be appointed to chief posts.  She is quoted in a Scotsman article, entitled ‘Creative Scotland Chief Nationality “Not An Issue”’, as saying,

You have to trust the interviewing panels to appoint for the jobs that they are interviewing for.  I am not sure if I am regarded as being from Scotland or not, you would have to check my birth certificate.  If you did you’d find that I was born in Lerwick.  If you researched further you’d see that my Mum’s from Orkney and my Dad’s from Glasgow.  Even if we decided we wanted our panels to be run solely by people with qualifications in Scottishness, how would we enforce that?  Are we talking about an exam in Scottishness or actively barring people from taking jobs?  There is no word for that which doesn’t involve racist, to me.”

Each of their positions are, in different ways, defensible and questionable.  The title of Kelman’s essay would be, to many, an accurate description of the Unionist agenda, and it’s possible to argue that the attack on Gray was co-ordinated by a media who seemed partisan, doing whatever it could to smear the Yes campaign.  However, many of Gray’s critics were not part of ‘the British establishment’, such as the playwright John Byrne, known for making theatre about the Scottish working-class.  The actor Tam Dean Burn, who has featured in adverts for the Scottish Socialist Party, tweeted that Gray’s comments were ‘idiotic’.  Film critic Mark Cousins tweeted that, ‘As a N Irish person who has lived in Scotland for 30 years I have always felt so welcome.  Until, that is, Alasdair Gray’s recent remarks.’  What makes things difficult for Kelman is the fact that not only were journalists who have nailed their Union Jack to the mast (predictably) appalled by Gray’s essay but so were many supporters of independence, such as playwright David Greig, who tweeted that, ‘Alasdair Gray’s got it so wrong…what people contribute to Scottish culture has nothing to do with birthplace or length of residency’.  Even the Scottish government, long-prone to quoting from Gray, said they ‘disagreed’ with him on this occasion.  It perhaps speaks well of them, and the Scottish arts, and Scotland in general, that the first concern of many was for English migrants who may have felt slighted or unwelcome.

In this spirit McGill advocates ‘trust’.  By warning about ‘entrance exams’ she guards against essentialist notions of what constitutes ‘Scottish’ and such appeals are, of course, necessary to a vibrant, inclusive and healthy nation.  It is not unreasonable to assert that appointments to the higher levels of the Scottish arts need not be Scottish, but is it really racist to suggest that they should demonstrate a deep understanding of the nation whose culture they will oversee?  This is rather like claiming that it’s sexist to ask a male applicant, who hopes to run the Glasgow Women’s Library, which female writers he enjoys.

Each side believes the other to be reactionary.  One makes the accusation of imperialism; the other of parochialism.  Yet somehow every Scottish artist, critic or commentator, especially those who call themselves progressive – which is almost everyone involved – must find a place within this debate.  Is there a ‘distinctive Scottish tradition’, as Kelman claims, or is indigenous art so vague a concept that anyone can create and curate it, regardless of their background?  Is Scottish art marginalised, and if so, by whom?  Is Scotland a colonised country?  The factionalism generated by these questions may be harmful to the independence movement and the country at large.  But equally problematic are the severe limitations placed on the discourse, in which the accusation of racism is levelled at anyone who asks why Scots are invisible at the top level of their own culture.  The ferocity of this censure may do more to prove that the Scottish arts have been colonised than disprove it.

I am a Scottish artist.  Autobiography is not evidence, but nor is it avoidable when discussing identity.  It is identity.  The stories we tell ourselves about ourselves become the stories we tell ourselves about our nation.  Both Kelman and McGill apply autobiography to bolster their points: Kelman mentions the reaction to his early work, McGill divulges the birthplace of herself and her parents.  In place of my autobiography, or theirs, insert your own, which may disprove mine, or theirs, but in this way we arrive at a composite national identity: a mosaic, sure, but with discernible patterns.

At the age of four I asked my father if he could take me to Scotland.  He explained to me that we lived in Scotland.  ‘No,’ I said, ‘I want to go to the real one.’  After some inquiry he managed to get out of me that by the ‘real’ Scotland I meant the one in cartoons and comics, where everyone played the bagpipes and where the Loch Ness Monster lived.  Around the same time, I came home from school and asked him why my teacher had told me to speak ‘proper English’, even though I wasn’t from England.

(Those who deny that Scotland is a colonised country ignore this most basic of points: we once spoke and wrote in Scots and Gaelic.  We now speak and write primarily in English.  English is also spoken in Ireland, America, Canada and Australia, and no-one bothers to suggest that these are not former colonies.)

Out of the mouths of babes.  In my small way, I was questioning my own social construction, seeing a disconnect between what the culture was telling me about Scotland and the reality around me.  Scots digest an ersatz identity, based on sporran and heather clichés, the ‘real’ Scotland to my four-year old self.  Later I would learn that these are variations on the Romantic tartanry which Walter Scott assembled for King George IV’s visit in 1822, and which, having been given Royal assent, has come to represent actual Scottish identity.  In the same way, Scottish football supporters wear ginger wigs and tartan tammies: they have absorbed the English comedian Russ Abbot’s demeaning stereotype ‘C U Jimmy’, a barely-intelligible comedy drunk in a kilt, and reproduced it as identity.  Yes, we repeat, we are comedy drunks!  Aren’t Scots daft!  Hic.

Many of Scotland’s writers, though, have long sought to preserve a deeper tradition.  It is what the novelist James Robertson refers to when he observed in a recent issue of Perspectives that Scottish literature represents what might be called a history of articulation, a continuity of narrative – something akin to – indeed, connected to – the “carrying stream” of the folk tradition described by Hamish Henderson.  This is as true today as it was true of the great writers of the 20th Century Scottish Renaissance – MacDiarmid, Gunn, Gibbon, Muir, Mitchison, MacLean and others. Politically and culturally these figures both revived, continued and broke an inherited tradition.  To break tradition, understanding what it is you break, is the means of preserving it.

As Robertson suggests, inheriting tradition and innovating can be one and the same thing.  For each Scottish writer the question is: are you inherting a tradition that comes from above or below?  Those named by Robertson, for example, form a ‘carrying stream’, an ongoing folk consciousness, the preserved history and language of the working or peasant class for whom the ‘higher’ voice of the establishment does not speak.  Robert Burns, perhaps aware of his celebrity, made a project of unearthing the songs of his forebears, which is why we are still aware of them to this day.  So it goes with the defiant imagination of the second Scottish Renaissance of the Eighties and Nineties, reacting to Thatcherism: William McIlvanney, Tom Leonard, Janice Galloway, Liz Lochhead, Irvine Welsh, Agnes Owens, Jeff Torrington, Alan Warner, Des Dillon, Duncan McLean, Jackie Kay, Kathleen Jamie, Alan Spence, Andrew Greig, Don Paterson, John Burnside and, of course, Gray and Kelman.  They preserve the ‘carrying stream’ and innovate within it, each of them uncompromising with the forces of literary authority or the market, unearthing with their language a full Scottish humanity and consciousness.  This tradition is being continued by the current generation, influenced by the previous one, including such writers as Jenni Fagan, Allan Wilson, Kerry Hudson, William Letford, Eleanor Thom, Mark McNay, Suhayl Saadi, Anne Donovan, Nick Brooks and Alison Miller.

Scots are drawn away from this consciousness by the invisible pull of power from the British state, a by-product of which is the reduction of it to something ‘parochial’ or ‘inward-looking’.  This is why – until an SNP government recently altered the situation – a Scottish child could go through their whole schooling and be guaranteed to encounter only one writer from their own country (Robert Burns).  This is why Scottish universities contain only one Department and one Professor of Scottish Literature, Glasgow University’s Alan Riach.

Another tactic is to pretend that Scottish literature barely exists, or that, where it does, it is ill-equipped to stand alongside the other literatures of the world.  Riach himself was once asked on the BBC’s Newsnight programme, by a straight-faced interviewer, ‘Is there such a thing as Scottish literature?’  That Riach was sitting next to the Scottish novelist A.L. Kennedy at the time makes this even more incongruous.  Either the interviewer sought to deny the fact of ‘such a thing’, or was simply unaware of it.  The question is revealing either way.  In August 2011, two of Scotland’s most internationally-visible literary critics, Andrew O’Hagan and Stuart Kelly, were asked in a podcast for The Guardian about new Scottish writers.  They were not able or willing to name a single one.  Kelly instead chose to dismiss the entire contemporary Scottish writing scene as ‘The Forsyte Saga on Buckfast’.  Here we see a highbrow variant on the C U Jimmy caricature.  Yet such voices speak for Scottish literature on the world stage.

For the British state the fear is that if Scots are exposed to too much of their own language, folk art and history, then they will become self-aware, and thus abandon their ‘duty’ in favour of autonomy.  British imperialism must thus work sleights-of-hand involving claims about Scottish culture.  Gray and Kelman have been making these arguments for decades, but it is only now – poised on the brink of a referendum – that reaction to them has become punitive.  Their assertions must be written-off as ‘anti-English’ and ‘bigoted’ rather than postcolonial, socialist or consciousness-raising.

There is a further, complex problem with their stance, however, which is simply that too many people in Scotland – both English and Scots – are deeply uncomfortable with it.  It is easy to dismiss everyone as the brainwashed foot-soldiers of British imperialism (even if some of them are).  Many are acting from a point of generosity and openness – McGill included – and a desire to keep Scotland welcoming and pluralistic.  We cannot ignore this sentiment.  Tam Dean Burn is not the enemy of James Kelman.  Hannah McGill is not the enemy of Alasdair Gray.  All, in their own ways, want a better country.  While it would be equally dangerous to the spirit of ‘openness’ to demand that post-colonial discourse be struck from the record, or that writers who ask such questions be pilloried as ‘racists’, it is not undue to ask that the many English people working in the Scottish arts be given welcome and respect.  The problem with the accusation of colonialism is that individuals – and their families, and their friends, and their colleagues – feel individually accused.  Naming names was perhaps Gray’s biggest mistake.  We must ask, then, if it was worth it and if it is fair.  A Scotland which is pulling together against the worst British government in living memory, in the direction of independence, is preferable to one where we are pointing at each other and asking: so what are you doing here?  A failed referendum vote on such terms, and a bitterly divided arts world, would be no kind of victory.

So if the new CEO of Creative Scotland is English, like the last one, so be it.  If the next director of the National Theatre of Scotland is English, like the last two, so be it.  If no Scot is ever appointed to a chief position in the Scottish arts again, so be it.  This might still be preferable to divisive talk of ethnicity, and enmity erupting where there was none.  Where I disagree with McGill is that non-Scots appointments surely must be able to demonstrate an appreciation for Scottish culture – especially, vitally, its ‘carrying stream’ – or we really are throwing the Scottish baby out with the inclusive bathwater.  We risk erasing deep traditions, and ourselves, in the process.

As McGill counsels, let’s trust the interview panels to know who they’re looking for.  Let’s welcome visitors – however long they decide to stay – and help them develop an understanding of the history and richness of our culture.  They could, after all, find themsleves being part of a peaceful, democratic revolution.  Or they could be opposed to it.  We shall see.

Alan Bissett
Author, Performer & Playwright
National Collective 

Originally published in Perspectives Magazine
Painting of Alan Bissett by Alexander Moffat 

About Alan Bissett

Alan Bissett is a novelist, playwright and performer from Falkirk, who now lives in Glasgow. His plays, novels and short films have won numerous awards, including a Scottish BAFTA and the Glenfiddich Spirit of Scotland Writer of the Year 2012. His YouTube poem 'Vote Britain' has become one of the key texts in the Scottish independence movement.