Len Northfield: An Outsider’s View of the Inside


I love the arts. Perhaps a redundant statement for a supporter of National Collective, but I felt it was important to underline my credentials for writing about the subject. I love the arts. Is that enough? I love the wild, intense and beautiful creativity I see in every single attempt by any artist to communicate something, by bringing a vision, an emotion, a sense of the sublime or the ridiculous, into being; by the exercise of whichever part of a person’s brain it is that controls such things.

I’m an outsider, not being actively involved in the promotion, politics or oversight of the arts, but I’m an insider in the sense that I create. I write. I imagine things and give separate life to my thoughts as words on a page. I see today’s arts scene from the viewpoint of a long-term observer of how the possible is transmuted into the actual, and I have a visceral response to the creative act as well as to the end result.

Oscar Wilde once said, “What is true about art is true about life.” In my internalisation of that worthy aphorism, I understood that what is true about life is therefore true about art. All art is created within the artist’s own experience and so the creation reflects the creator. Therefore society appears in art, synthesised, disarranged, bent, buckled, shaped and rebuilt by the artist into something that has value simply because it exists.

Scotland has always had a vibrant and engaged arts scene. We have always had internationally recognised writers, musicians, actors and artists but, in the past, it seems our creatives have had to dilute their Scottishness, at least a little bit, in order to achieve wider recognition. Or they have had to caricature it ever so slightly, to make it more broadly palatable. I’m not sure if this was because the non-Scottish audience required us to homogenise or if it was simply a creative version of the Scottish cringe. It seemed as though the Scottish arts community felt any art that was Scottish at its core was, in some mysterious way, inferior, narrower in vision, parochial in content or inaccessible to a wider audience. The art that did celebrate its Scottishness, even that which would be termed ‘serious’ art, often bordered on the parodic, and it seemed that Scottish writing, film, music, art, was Scottish first and art second. To be art first, our creatives had to almost deny their Scottishness.

Of course we had Byrne, Morgan, MacCaig, Howson, Bellany, McIlvanney, and others, who transcended this self imposed nationalistic limitation, but my view, as an outsider, was that Scottishness in art had somehow been constrained. Perhaps the view was different from the inside, I don’t know.

I am something of a nomad, geographically, intellectually and spiritually. I grew up in the Central Belt in the period when Scotland was being systematically dismantled, when we went from being the beating industrial heart of empire, to an economic and spiritual wasteland. I felt the desolation that Thatcherism inflicted on my home, and I participated in its slow recovery into something more than just a rat warren from which the gifted, the intelligent and the lucky, escaped to seek fortune and fame elsewhere. I have travelled widely, experiencing places and cultures at a time when there were still major cultural differences; before McDonalds and the Gap, Starbucks and Holiday Inn. I feel very lucky that I saw so much of the world while there were still distinct differences. But I have always felt, always been, Scottish, and so, as I was exposed to art of different cultures I viewed it through the lens of my personal blood choice. I have had the opportunity to experience art that was both magnificent in its spirit and base in its execution, all of it firmly rooted in its own geographical sense of place.

I lived in Europe from the year the Holyrood Parliament opened until mid 2006 and continued commuting to work in Brussels until 2011. Absence really does make the heart grow fonder and, when a person is away from a place for an extended period of time, even small changes appear very obvious when you return. When I moved home in 2006 I was genuinely amazed at the personality change that seemed to have come over Scotland, people acted differently than they had prior to devolution. In the six and a half years I was absent, Scotland seemed to have grown in confidence. The downcast, beaten, chippie attitude that had become ingrained since the Thatcher years was, if not completely eradicated, certainly greatly reduced. There was an obvious confidence in the way people spoke, acted, engaged with society. There was a new and palpable sense of pride in our country, and not just about faded glories. It wasn’t a Braveheart façade; there was a real sense of engagement and responsibility that just had not been there in the ’90s and earlier.

These days our artists seem happy, delighted even, to be recognised not only within Scotland, but on the global stage as being of Scotland. They are assertive, belligerent, there’s an edge, a confidence, a cocky swagger about our creatives today that I haven’t seen before, and this is no longer based on them finding success outwith our borders, but on their confidence and comfort with their Scottish identity.

Writers and poets are often agitators in their own distinct way. The godfaither of the Scottish literary scene, Alasdair Gray, has always hoed his own row, and we’re not short of exceptional literary talent, Alan Spence, James Kelman, James Robertson, AL Kennedy, Agnes Owens, Matthew Fitt. Some write in Scots, some in English, some switch between the two, but the point is, their writing is art first, but also distinctively Scottish. A newer wave of poet provocateurs, including Alan Bissett, Roddy Lumsden, Robert Alan Jamieson, are carrying on the great traditions of Hugh Macdiarmid and Norman MacCaig and taking the form further.

There have always been big Scottish acts in popular music, but today’s artists are finding success by ‘being’ artists, and not by conforming to any historical pigeonholing. The Scottish accent is commonly heard in pop music, not just ‘Scottish’ pop music, and bands like Biffy Clyro, CHVRCHES, The Twilight Sad, Django Django, have created music that’s both international and Scottish. They wear their national identity easily and the fact that they are Scottish merely adds flavour to good rock and pop music.

I remember saying to someone the other day that I felt as though Scottish art was in a period of renaissance. As soon as I said it I realised that this very pronouncement had been made, by some commentator or other, every year or two for the last… I don’t know how long. Perhaps culture does that, perhaps we are in a perpetual state of renaissance, but this time it feels different to me. This time, after fourteen years of devolution and the confidence and hope that has undoubtedly brought, there seems to be a greater belief in our own creative personality. I sense a vision of Scottish art that is first and foremost simply art, but is Scottish because it’s in its DNA, not because there has been a volitional choice to make it more or less Scottish.

The political excitement that has been introduced to society by the referendum debate, an excitement that will continue to grow and bubble between now and September 2014, seems to have sharpened our artistic sensibilities. Artists and creatives on both sides of the debate cannot help but be impassioned by the importance of the times we live in, and the heat and fervor of the debate can only be good for artists, and the arts.

Today is a wonderful, magical time to be alive. It’s truly epochal and this is clearly reflected in the passion of everyone involved in the arts. It’s also a glorious time to be a lover of the arts, to feel the vibrancy and to be touched and enthused by the results of the work of our creatives. Passion abounds, and our new found confidence encourages us to stand tall and step out with pride and a real sense of place.

Len Northfield
National Collective


About Len Northfield

Len Northfield is a writer, poet and former blogger, who grew up in darkest Lanarkshire and, despite many years of travelling and working in various parts of the globe, finds himself comfortably ensconced back in his home county. Starting his career as a deck officer in the merchant navy, he eventually ran away from the sea to become an accountant. Ultimately ending up as a self employed business consultant working mainly in continental Europe. Len is long time advocate of independence, if only because he believes we should have no one else to blame when things go wrong. You can find some of his writing at www.hingwy.com