So what is a Scots writer? What, for that matter, does it even mean to be Scottish. Apparently, it’s a vexed question. Indeed, I’ve recently heard it said that in the context of literature it is not even a possible question.
When I came up with the title for this piece I thought I would be writing something about my belief that it is fundamentally unScottish (conceptually) to believe in or promote the notion of a ‘Scots canon’ of literature. But between then and now, things change and instead I find that I’m firing a canon of another kind – a shot across the bows of those ‘canon creators’ who suggest that it is nonsensical to suggest that a writer can indeed ‘be’ Scots.
What follows is heavily edited (with names but not national identities changed to ‘protect’ both innocent and guilty) response piece that came my way as a result of a literary gathering I recently took part in. The context, a discussion about The First World War and Scots fiction, and the tone, it has to be said, attritional.
Scotland No More
His words hit me with the impact of a holocaust denial. I couldn’t believe it. In that comfortable, historic room, with a view of leafy trees which had probably been similar a century ago when the men we had come to celebrate were ‘recuperating’ here before being sent back to be killed in the War that did not end all wars, here he was, a professor no less, telling a mostly English audience on a weekend trip to ‘Scotland’ that there was no such thing as Scottish literature.
With a not so deft flick of the thumb and the dubious aid of Powerpoint, he proceeded to show that because writers beyond Scotland also wrote of their essential experience of being at one with their landscape, this could not be considered a trait of Scottish writing – ergo – there was no Scottish writer, ergo- but unsaid – that there was no such thing as a Scot. (I appreciate I was three steps ahead of his statements but I am good at reading between the lines and into the margins.)
They sat meekly and took it. I might say they lapped it up but really the biggest crime was that he whom I took for a fellow Scot* was lying like Menteith+ – a respected academic who should, no must, know better.
And all of this a few days before an election which, while not all about Indy Ref 2 (unless you are a Tory, Lib Dem or Scottish Labour activist/politician) has at its heart the very question of national identity – here was a man who would not have gone amiss in declaiming ‘pro patria mori’ though he claimed to be seeing the pity in the poetry. In a single breath denying his own identity*
(* - and yes it is the same asterix twice - I can wait no longer… I subsequently found out he is an Ulsterman by self-definition and I thus understood his creed. It doesn’t make it any better, more palatable or true though!)
(+ also note that Menteith breaks the i before e except after c rule and therefore may well be said to come from ‘the Scots.’)
What came next had to be challenged. He said – clear as a passing bell – that Barrie could hold no more claim to be a Scottish writer than J.K.Rowling. He said it with what I have to call a sleekit, pan face. I’m sure he did it for effect, as he couldn’t possibly believe this, but he stood there, in his position of unassailable power, a general well behind the lines commanding the troops up the line, as in the context his academic authority was unchallengeable. Apart from one. Aye, there’s always one. And thank goodness there is. Or it might have had to be me.
She took him on. He said ‘oh, there were the Thrums stories of course,’ (dismissing in what wasn’t even a gallus sweep of an arm) ‘but then, Peter Pan…’ he drifted off at that point as if the point was made simply by mentioning the ju ju word. His plain implication that the writing of Peter Pan meant JMB could not, in any way, be considered Scottish. She muttered to herself ‘there are few more impressive sights than a Scotsman on the make’ a talisman to myself on so many occasions through my life and my constant reminder of the skill of ‘Scots humour’ in writing for the Englishy audience.
While in the background someone else suggested that JKR was in fact Welsh, she said she didn’t care for or about JKR, didn’t know anything about her, but was speaking up for Barrie, and that, with the greatest respect (which is always a sign that no respect is either given or due) he was just plain wrong.
I wanted to say pure, dead ignorant, but it wasn’t an audience who would ‘get this.’
There were a few rumblings amidst the crowd and another of the audience challenged him – he’d said Neil Gunn had been instrumental in the SNP, so surely he could be defined as a Scottish writer? The genie was partly out of the bottle.
She pressed the case that the J.M.Barrie Society existed primarily to stand against such erroneous thinking. I didn’t say though I wanted to, that she was underestimating herself and was in fact standing against such deliberately perpetrated lies and untruths, designed to promote a ‘strong and stable’ vision of a united kingdom in which we are all better together little Britishers. The fear is they would have liked that. They might have cheered and waved Union Jacks. And she didn’t need my help.
And then the Cavalry arrived. An American in the room waded into the fray – as they have a habit of doing when the worst of the fighting has been done - all Omaha Beach and ‘we won the war’ . The debate, if such it was, had now shifted ground to the very nature of Scottish identity in fiction, and the Yank suggested that it was a bizarre debate to be having. Yankee Doodle Dandy noted that across the United States there would be no such division between writers in say Wisconsin and California or Pittsburgh (I wondered idly to myself what the Texans might say to that). His claim was that in the Land of the Free and the Home of the Brave where America is First and the Trumpet of the Apocalyse has been firmly blown, there is no such division in diversity among writers. Polite, but firm, my Scottish companion pointed out that a better analogy might be reframing the ‘group’ into an American, a Canadian and a Mexican writer.
The Moderator of the event, our President indeed, in an attempt to be presidential, and witty (both of which she achieved) suggested that this sounded like the start of a joke – An American, A Canadian, A Mexican and A Scots writer walk into a bar – and I agreed, except that this would be a sick kind of a joke in my humble opinion. My opinion was not, of course humble – there’s no room for humility when your identity is under attack. It was not even too wee, too poor and too stupid. Tight-fisted thrawn, dour Scot that I am, I do not see the funny part of denying one’s own national identity – such identity for me is tied up with my personal identity – and that’s no joke to please any kind of crowd.
It’s no joke that the perpetrator of this ‘crime’ against humanity, or at least against identity, is a gatekeeper. He is a man charged with representing the world of literature to mere mortals. And here we have the Acts of Union all over again. Betrayed by our own (remember I have since learned he’s an Ulsterman, and thus not strictly speaking on of ‘our own’ at all so this part of my invective is perhaps unfounded. I am more than capable of critiquing my own diatribes thank you. But feel free…)
Believe me when I say that as the War Poets (whatever their national identity) stood up against war and the pity of war (which was ostensibly the topic under discussion – though most of the talk seemed to be rooted in the 1930s) so we need to stand up for our Scottish identity in writing and in writers. All I can say for my brave compatriot is ‘weel done Cutty Sark’ and ‘lang may yer lum reek, hen.’
From where I’m standing it’s a load easier to find Scottish identity in fiction than than it is to deny it. If it looks, tastes, sounds etc Scottish then… but you do have to acknowledge that a ‘Scottishness’ actually exists.
An argument which claims that despite being born, bred, educated, 20+ years residency, writing (at least partly) in the language and dialects of the people, writing about the people and the concerns of Scotland, setting some work there and using it to show the difference between the ‘home nations’ in some very profound ways, employing Scots humour to devastating effect on the stage and in prose – despite all this that because he did not do this ‘exclusively’ Barrie could not be counted as a Scottish writer, well, such an argument is beyond all fuzzy logic known to man. And it does beg the question, if not Barrie then who is a Scottish writer? Certainly not me. Thus, in a moment, gunned down by the powerpoint of a publishing professor, I (and most possibly you) cease to exist on an essential level – my corpse behind me left as ‘a writer known only to God.’ Aye, and Barrie even had something to say about existence in his Edinburgh Eleven – was he no’ a Scot as he wrote that?
They make attacks on Scots from all angles, and yes, those of the Renaissance have even attacked their fellow countrymen. Thus, even in the 21st century we still have ringing in our ears the argument that if one writes exclusively in and of the concerns of Scotland, and happens to have done this before the First World War (and sometimes after) one is parochial and thus damned forever. Unless, of course you are writing from the point of the urban Scot. They seem to have requisitioned the tartan bullet proof vests, leaving the older generation ill-equipped for the fight.
I was only relieved that our ‘speaker’ didn’t start on ‘Kailyard’ (though he had a sideswipe at sentimentality via the movie version of Sunset Song – which argument I think was used more to encourage the precedence of written over visual text - ) He dodged that particular bullet – or should I say Howitzer. If he had started in on Kailyard I would have given up a lifetime of avowed pacifism and either blown him or myself up. But the ‘K’ word is an argument inappropriate to an English audience, they wouldn’t understand it. They struggled to see the significance of the ‘sentimentality’ jibe. I struggled in a different way as it didn’t seem to help his argument regarding Grassic Gibbon. In fact, if I reflect on the whole, I find that he was much like a soldier shooting himself deliberately in the foot to get an easy billet back to Blighty. But he was not shell-shocked and he deserved a dishonourable discharge for his actions. However, I am not judge or jury, simple an innocent bystander – if such there be in life. So let me try and lay my argument (if such it can be called) for the existence of Scottish identity in writing. Let me fire a Scots canon. Note I say ‘a’ not ‘the’.
If you a) are born or live in Scotland and/ or self-define as Scottish and you b) write using partial or total Scots or and/or c) set your work in Scotland and/or d you write of the concerns of the Scottish people or look at the world from a Scottish perspective* and/or e) write Scottish characters (particularly if they are drawn clearly from life) it can be said you are a Scottish writer. And you remain a Scottish writer even and when you are writing in the language and setting of the Empire and include things not exclusively Scottish in your writing. Then you become a Scottish writer writing in the context of English (or other) fiction. There are reasons one might want to do this. Remember ‘there are few more impressive sights than a Scotsman on the make.’ National identity * does not change with the physical location or the textual output of the writer.
I am frequently a Scottish writer writing in English. I am never an English writer writing in Scots or Scotland or about Scotland. There’s flexibility of text and unreliability of narrators and there is just plain stupidity in terms of an argument +
(* yes, you do in this case have to admit that such a thing exists, which the ‘clever general’ argument denies but which I dismiss as poor philosophy – you don’t prove something doesn’t exist by stating it doesn’t exist)
(+ I subsequently discover that my adversary – as Barrie might term him – apart from being Better Dead, written I contend by a Scottish writer writing from a Scottish perspective in the heart of the English establishment - my adversary ‘jumped ship’ from classics to English at my own Alma Mater. I have him on the ropes.(as Barrie would also say – Scots humour anyone?) All knowledge is a form of power and I know all about the Scots education system and how one ‘works’ it. But that’s away from the point.
[feel free to have a wee dance in the margins while I regain my ‘flow’]
Identity is a deep thing, deeper even than a yearning for the land, or lost community. I know a bit about identity. I daily deal with temporal and spatial identity and its relation to what I’ll call ‘pure’ or theoretical narrative. It’s something that has consumed me, shaped me, and dare I say, is part of my identity. Barrie also was consumed by the flexibility and mutability of identity. It’s part (I like to think) of what we have in common. Apart from our being Scots. But that may be presumption on my part. I create Barrie as a fellow-traveller for my own issues of identity, I admit. We all do such things. If you can see that identity is a part of who you are and how you see and respond to the world then, to parody Kipling, you are a Scot my son.
My advice to those who consider themselves Scottish writers? (and readers no less, let’s not forget our readers) is fight back against the modern day Mentieth’s and those who hold the crown or the hand of he who wears the crown and whisper to that Emperor that national identity is not real. (It will be the holocaust next - ^) The line is that because they do not look on it, so it cannot be. Stand up against the wee sleekit, cowering timorous beastie in all his Renaissance glory too – against those who smile and smile and are still villains and should and do know better but have let the personal prize outweigh the fate of a nation.
(^First they came for the Socialists, and I did not speak out
Because I was not a Socialist.
Then they came for the Trade Unionists, and I did not speak out
Because I was not a Trade Unionist.
Then they came for the Jews, and I did not speak out-
Because I was not a Jew.
Then they came for me—and there was no one left to speak for me.)
And I was only a Scot.
(The identity of the writer of that poem is perhaps less significant than his sentiment – and I have of course added the last line but surely there is no argument against Martin Niemöller being a German writer?)
What then, to quote Tolstoy (a Russian writer) must we do? When I say we must fight back, I mean, of course write back. Wars are waged on many fronts and in many ways. The war to end all wars is now the war against ignorance and mis-information and ‘false facts.’ You have been warned. But as you pull on your tin helmet, wait for the whistle and prepare to go over the top; bagpipes skirling if you must; remember that your country needs you to live, not to die. Before you cry out that they will never take our freedom, be sure you are not handing it to them willingly on a plate via the ballot box. The rest, as they say, is history.
I may take on 'the' Scots Canon next month.
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