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Book Festival: Review

Alexander Moffat and Alan Riach

Alexander Moffat and Alan Riach

Robert Crawford & Paul Henderson Scott

George RR Martin

WHY has Scottish culture not played a greater part in the referendum debate? Now there is a loaded question, and one that made for two highly-charged events yesterday.

The absence of Walter Scott and other great Scottish writers from the school curriculum was a particular flashpoint for both artist Sandy Moffat and poet Alan Riach, and highlighted in Arts Of Independence (a sequel to their Arts Of Resistance, a manifesto that stated the case for the cultural argument "which will be here long after the oil has run out").

So far, both sides of the campaign have focused on economics rather than the rich seam of historic artistic endeavour. The book is written like a conversation between the two men, and indeed their event was like an inclusive chat round the table.

Why don't Scotland's National Galleries exhibit or promote the masters of great Scottish art, such as Raeburn and Ramsay? Such wilful omissions are "programmed ignorance" and the reason, said Moffat, the London-based media and even friends and colleagues "have no vision for Scotland". Subsequently, culture's absence from the debate has diminished it, and stymied voters' ability to "imagine without fear".

Now 94, Paul Henderson Scott, former vice-president of the SNP, was visibly indignant that Sir Walter Scott's Malachi Malagrowther letters of 1826, in which he complains about Westminster's intervention in Scottish affairs, were not reprinted until 1981. "For decades books about Walter Scott have been avoided. They (Westminster) still cling to the tradition of pretending that Walter Scott was a Unionist because he wrote about Britishness. Surely it is no longer tolerable to suppress the reality? It's time for the Walter Scott Association to tell the truth."

Asked what might become the myth of the current campaign, Robert Crawford, author of Bannockburns (sic), said it would be the sheer number of writers supporting a Yes vote. "Writers live by risk, so aren't frightened off by the idea of it," he said. "Compared to the torrent of words coming out of them, the Unionist side has no new songs to sing. I think that is very telling."

It is noticeable, he added, that there are no celebrations of Britishness in English literature; writers go on writing about England, and no great English novels are set in Scotland. The English literary imagination has never fallen in love with Britishness.

Did they think the argument for Scottish culture has come too late?

Sadly, we ran out of time before anyone could ask.

A new form of cultural identity appeared in the form of George RR Martin, author of the bestselling Game Of Thrones books, whose hit spin-off American series is the most expensive in the history of television. He wowed his sell-out audience with his own personal story from young reader of comic books to sci-fi fan to student journalist to professional storywriter to TV scriptwriter.

His job now, he says, is to keep writing the books because the HBO series is continuing.

"I like making my readers think and argue about governance or power," he said.

Plus ca change.

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