Yesterday evening saw the launch of the Independent Radical Book Fair in Leith, which opened with a dialogue on literature and social change between James Kelman and Alasdair Gray.
The evening began with Kelman introducing the idea of the Scottish tradition in writing, historically focused on trying to “break down” literature to make it accessible to the broadest possible section of the population, namely the working class. Kelman’s vision of Scottish literature is one owned by the people, which doesn’t need to be translated or interpreted by specialists or intellectuals in order the understand it.
Both Kelman and Gray have written in Scots, although the issue of language is less prevalent for Gray, who also takes his influences from images. Gray remarked on how useful images were to the imagination, and how Walt Disney animations influenced the bold, colourful illustrations of his novels.
At this point, Gray unfurled a poster from his bag he designed for the Scottish independence campaign. The top line read: “Is Scotland a possible nation? Yes – make it!” Underneath was a dog, saying: “No – we love it like this.”
Gray mentions how he was asked to design a logo for the campaign, and how he refused, saying: “My symbols of Scotland are all thistles, Saltires, lion rampants, Highland ladies – backwards stuff! They wouldn’t want to push that – but I do anyway.”
Explaining his conversion to the Yes movement, Gray spoke about how he grew up in post-war Britain, where services were nationalised, where there was a strong Labour tradition and respect for the welfare state. He described how he turned away from being a Labour voter as these values disappeared, turning him towards the Scottish Nationalists.
Kelman’s vision of the independence process was perhaps less conventional, saying he was in solidarity with those voting Yes but explaining that he won’t be voting at all in the referendum. Kelman described himself as belonging to an “anti-parliamentarian left”, and said the ballot box was just another tool of the “elitist, hierarchical load of shite known as British democracy.” When challenged by an audience member, who suggested not voting would be “irresponsible”, Kelman insisted there were alternatives, although he didn’t specify what these alternatives might be, or how they would work in practical terms.
Another audience member asked a question about the literature of ex-colonies, and how native writing was essential to resisting the British Empire. Kelman remarked on how anti-colonial literature from Africa and elsewhere had been an influence to himself and many other Scottish writers, reiterating how the arts could engage with movements for self-determination and social change.
The evening ended with Alasdair Gray reading a passage of his yet unpublished translation of Dante’s Divine Comedy.
For more information of the Independent Radical Book Fair, running 23rd-27th of October, click here.
Andrew Redmond Barr