Tomorrow’s fair game
Do we need to campaign for separation from England? Not when we have privatised rail, and Whitehall to mismanage it: ‘Bing-bong! Virgin regret the late running of the …’ Yet the crew phoned ahead, the Gala bus waited at Carlisle and half an hour later we were hurtling through MacDiarmid’s Langholm and the dark glens Scott and Hogg had combed for ballads limpid with grief.
Nae living man I’ll love again,
Since that my lovely knight is slain;
With ae lock of his yellow hair
I’ll chain my heart for ever mair.
But not too limpid. This was a political ballad on James V’s 1530 gibbeting of the Armstrong clan, strange fruit of the debateable land post-Flodden. It brought memories of John Arden’s Armstrong’s Last Goodnight, 1964, a great political play; before he died he could, with his friend Fintan O’Toole, draw the line under the second coming of the ‘Anglo-Irish’ financiers who ruined Ireland.
Arden studied at the old Edinburgh Art School, like another radical, the novelist Joyce Cary, a friend of JD Fergusson. If any general discourse serves Hames’s lively ensemble, it’s a return to fricative Victorian values - those of the Carlyles, John Stuart Mill, ‘Meg Dods’ (Christine Johnstone), Walt Whitman, which would have scared Margaret Thatcher, not to speak of a metropolitan literati more beset with existential angst: to ghost or not to ghost? These days they’re pensioners of the Wall Street Journal or Bertelsbird AG.
The blatts and the ‘unco guid’ of Holyrood have turned on Alasdair Gray for nationalist deviance. That ought to help sales of a valuable, many-voiced book. He could perhaps have chosen his words better. In J A Hobson’s classic Imperialism (1901) ‘colonialist’ meant Gray’s benign ‘settler’; ‘colonial administrator’ or ‘proconsul’ would have fitted better. But Unstated partly explains an occlusion its writers have remedied. The flags had gone down on Empire scarcely a dozen years before Gordon Brown’s Red Paper in 1975 came out. It had only men on its pages, even though its clout had come from Margo MacDonald’s Govan coup in November 1973.
Eddie Morgan put his million down and aimed carefully. The members of his craft are, more than the MSPs, capable of argument. ‘Open the Doors!’ (a bow to Catherine Carswell) must ensure the rule of law and threaten those who defy it: upholding sense and worth against the cruel, alienated flippancies of wealth, state or private. Decent folk these days scramble to find a bit of oatmeal to live on, while the catering budget of Scottish Enterprise, recently published, ran to £ 750,000. We have too much of the overused and now banal ‘iconic’ – to which ‘tartan noir’ has been coupled, masking the winnings of ‘moral hazard’. The content here is so lively that I’ll not pre-empt it but suggest why these intellos are going to prove an awkward bunch, rejecting, as Jo Clifford puts it
“a failing state governed in the interest of the City of London with its tiny coterie of obscenely wealthy bullies, thieves and robbers. A state hopelessly stuck in dreams of past glory, forever trying to ‘punch above its weight’, humiliatingly stuck in a self-deluding ‘special relationship’ with its colonial master.”
If their stories remain stories, then the capacity to mould our own life-system will stay torn from us by the collapse of democratic adaptivity that came as manufacturing shrivelled. Echoing the grief of that Border ballad, ‘life will be horror’, Kelman once said of the poor. Gray repeated it on a John Martin-apocalyptic-scale in Lanark, ‘first the fire, then the flood’: terrifying but all too possible after Katrina and Fukushima. Observed from the bankers’ reserves in outlying villages; stare and turnaway from the 4x4s.
There is very good argument here ‘tween you tway’, as Kathleen Jamie’s ancestor might have put it. Her riff on George Wylie’s ‘Destiny Bag’ is typically witty and sensible. It averages most of the essays around, I’d guess, the mind of one of those Border countrywomen in Walter Scott who rear their bairns, bury their men, garden, cook and read, think and organise. Gudewives, so no wonder Jo Clifford has joined them. Losing Venice and the lesson she draws from it was John Ruskin’s prophecy as Shaw put it: ‘Rome fell, Venice fell, Hindhead’s time shall come.’ The Welsh managed this with the prolific Jan Morris; they had Taliesin the shape-changer as a model, as well as the empowerment of a second language. Without the linguistic energy seen here, can we be optimistic?
A masculinity problem? I don’t imagine this new Scotland would agree with Trainspotting or view with enthusiasm some writers fumbling in their tills: all-boys-together stuff, pretty nasty in Marabou Stork Nightmares, then on to the US college circuit and the Financial Times, prize bastion of Union Scotties. Much missed? Remember that popcult courtier Sir Simon Jenkins, editor of the Times under Murdoch, gobbing at James Kelman in 1994 – and see the Ukanian establishment for what it is: John Bull defending his pudding.
Earlier, things had seemed frailer, small tragedies as aftershocks: what comedy would there have been in Bill Forsyth’s Local Hero (1983) if Felix Happer had touched down an hour later, and the Ferness folk had burned beachcomber Ben in his shack? Or Forsyth’s later film Housekeeping (1987) about the odd aunt who sorts out the problems of two isolated American sisters from a harmed family, and gets run out of town. Set these against the spectacular of 1914-18: the overstrain of the foundries and yards of the Clyde: then the plunge from workshop of the world to distressed area in a decade.
A Disaffection? Think of Kelman’s Patrick Doyle: Glasgow schoolteacher, sensing unease, entrapment, but never getting further away than ‘fucking Ecclefechan’. Every Kelman expletive bears its didactic burden. Ecclefechan (‘the little tabernacle’) is Big C, glowering down from his bronze seat above the dorf; his like lasted until 1978, when MacDiarmid last troubled the Scotsman: ‘Living in Scotland resembles what Kierkegaard wrote of Denmark: being trampled to death by geese’.
For the women who powered Clyde munitions? A purely formal reward: only 24 Scotswomen were elected MPs in the next eighty years: four times that number have passed through Holyrood since. Retrospects change: we know about John MacLean because his daughter repossessed him. Same goes for Grieve’s Valda and Muir’s Willa, Tessa Ransford and Joy Hendry and setting-up of the Scottish Poetry Library in the pit of early Thatcherland, keeping Chapbook on the road. Anyone who read Muriel Spark’s The Abbess of Crewe (1974) would also recognise our Unstate as ‘overlooked’. The challenge is here: political systems suddenly crystallise: but also the ‘raucle tung’.
Angus Calder furiously found only one woman on the BBC’s Scotland 2000 line-up in 1987, and not even that in my ‘Grasping the Thistle’ bit on politics. Unstated shows – perhaps with some relief to Angus’s unquiet shade – we have become at last, and swiftly, Yeats’s ‘country the poets have imagined’. Terrible still … a tithe of the geld lavished on sporting mediocrity would stop Everypoet’s pantry, yet gay in every sense of the term – not least le gai savoir. It has required this chaotic juncture in UK politics to bring the catch-up. Will it persist?
Consider the 2014 timetable, for such concatenations fall rarely. A fixed-date UK general election, 7 May 2015, is quite new. European elections, 5 June; Bannockburn 700, 24 June; Scott’s Waverley 200, 7 July; Glasgow Commonwealth Games, 23 July-3 August; World War I declared, 4 August; Referendum: ‘Do you agree that Scotland should be an independent country?’ September 2014: date to be arranged …
Unstated: Scottish Writers on Independence, published by Word-Power Books
21 December 2012
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