EDWIN Morgan was Scotland's first Makar.
He died only two years ago, but have you tried to buy a volume of his poetry in Edinburgh? I attempted it last week; here's how I got on.
I was in the Museum of Scotland which has a small book section, so I looked there. No joy. Further down the street I went into the National Library of Scotland. Its shop had a biography of Morgan but not his work. Finally I tried a big branch of Waterstones. There I found one slim copy of his translation of Beowulf. There was no anthology of his verse.
I didn't exhaust the city and maybe I was looking in the wrong places but I was surprised. I thought a poet of his stature would be ubiquitous in his capital city. I think I'd have found Seamus Heaney readily in Dublin or Belfast.
Is this symptomatic of what Alasdair Gray is talking about in his essay, Settlers and Colonists?
Does he see indigenous artists sidelined in a country which – in his view – has since 1918 been managed by folk "who increasingly thought of their homeland as a province"?
These people "had no confidence in any local who was Scottish, unconventional, and proposed or wrote things London might not appreciate". This led, according to Gray, to English people being appointed to the highest positions in Scottish universities, local civil services and art galleries.
Nowadays I think we call this cultural cringe. But in Gray's hands the argument against "colonists" – English people who regard running Scottish institutions as a good career move before going south again – has a sting. Is he really saying that only "settlers" who become as Scottish as the Scots, or Scots themselves, can run culture here? Can that be justified?
Gray seems to like settlers. For example, he mentions the late Frank Newbery from Devon who became director of Glasgow School of Art and praises a couple who have become crofters on Lewis and who run Two Ravens Press (which has published his work). Equally he dismisses as a colonist a BBC executive who had one of Gray's stories read on air by an actor with an English accent when Bill Paterson could have done a better job. Gray complains about a want of Scottish productions when "English administrators" were brought in to run Glasgow's stint as European City of Culture. But, in my view, it is thin stuff with too much generalising from the particular to make the argument convincing.
For all that he suggests otherwise, it would be easy to find similar gripes amongst literary writers in Dublin and, I'm sure, in Cornwall and the northern reaches of England. But surely the state of indigenous Scottish art has more to do with commercialism and fashion than with the identity of arts administrators. That is unless we are to believe there is a Westminster conspiracy to quell the native culture.
Trainspotting took the world by storm. The casual shopper will have no problem finding the works of Fife-born writer Ian Rankin or of that "settler" J K Rowling.
Vicky Featherstone, founder director of Scottish National Theatre and an Englishwoman, staged Black Watch by Gregory Burke in 2006. It is still touring the world. I saw her wonderful production of Men Should Weep by Ena Lamont Stewart (set in a Glasgow tenement during the depression) at the National Theatre in London.
Certainly the arts in Scotland are and have been administered by many non-Scots. But isn't it to their credit that the institutions they run attract international talent?
Yet I can understand where Gray is coming from. He will have grown up – as I did in Northern Ireland – with large sections of the map of the world coloured in red. The British Empire stretched from India across Africa and threw its blanket over his birthplace and mine. We were part of the United Kingdom but there were moments when it felt like we lived in the Colonies.
But we only have to look at the recent census to understand that the old Britain is in its death throes.
Gray's complaint that Scotland has imported highly qualified arts administrators pales into cultural insignificance when measured against the demographic revolution in London. Its white English-born citizenry have become a minority and never has the city been more culturally vibrant.
Which country is ring-fenced in the way Gray seems to favour? North Korea? America will soon have a majority of Spanish speakers. The future is about change and development – it's competitive. It's unstoppable and it should be welcomed.
Could anyone have watched the Sports Personality of the Year coverage and still think cultural filtering is a good idea? Mo Farah was there with his wife and daughter. Bradley Wiggins, the Belgian-born Brit, took the title. Jessica Ennis (whose father was Jamaican) was second with Scot Andy Murray in third place.
Narrow exclusivity is dying, if not dead. Why would we want to breathe fresh life into it in Scotland?
Gray quotes the French in the middle ages saying "rats, mice and Scots can be found everywhere". They were soldiers and administrators for the British Empire.
And just as the English are now finding the empire has come to colonise their small island and to change their culture, so Scotland attracts talent to work here. Meanwhile many Scots are forging careers in other countries in the hope of returning to settle here one day. They are pursuing opportunity in London, Europe, America and China. If Gray would stop the English coming here in any meaningful capacity, must we recall Scots who are trying to make it elsewhere?
For all her success Vicky Featherstone (who is going to the Royal Court in London) found her English background becoming an issue three years ago. She told The Herald how hard she found it. "It really upset me ... if people had criticised the programme, I could have defended it, but when people are criticising the programme because I am English, that is indefensible. What it did, for a short period of time, was paralyse me from being able to be make artistic decisions." Her English-born successor has also attracted negative comments. Is that the reputation we want here?
Even Alasdair Gray must admit it's a poor look-out if closed minds and protectionism are the only way to grow Scotland's artistic talent.
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