I WON a Burns prize, once upon a time.
It was not my finest hour. Challenging a child with a stammer to commit verse to memory and recite publicly might warm the cockles of social conservatives, but it did nothing for these cockles. What fails to kill you doesn't make you strong. It just leaves you with a head full of bard.
That, though, was the last I heard of our national poet. Afterwards, I went on reading him, for my own sake. In time I inherited a little hand-bound edition that had once been the joy of a 19th-century forebear (when he got time off the loom). But in school, at all ages, and through university, at all stages, I got – to be a bit Burnsian – nane.
The same was true of Stevenson, of Scott, of Galt, Grassic Gibbon and the rest. The closest I ever got in formal terms to Scotland's literature was a university reading of the Makars because – said a paid idiot – they were "post-Chaucerian". My little patch of Eng Lit was the Renaissance. Apparently they had to jemmy the Jocks in somewhere.
All of the above is a cliché, of course. It runs in parallel with the tale told by millions of Scots who travelled through the entire system without hearing a whisper about their country's history. It follows in train with our taste for tartanry, our invincible couthiness, our manufactured patriotism with no visible means of cultural support. Thick but proud: that would be us.
Where literature was concerned every story can be substantiated. The business was canonical, therefore hierarchical. Scotland's writers occupied a branch economy within an Eng Lit multi-national enterprise. A few might have been counted interesting enough to have persuaded some east European to build theories around Scott's historical novel, but they were not "central". And some Jocks wrote in a dialect-thingy.
If you were of a certain age and stage you noticed one thing: the Irish were not treated in this manner. Despite the odd attempt to misallocate their literature to an English scoresheet, the Irish were not subsumed. At one age and stage in Scotland you thought, how come? Something to do with that Post Office business in which another of the forebears got topped? It might have had more to do with Ireland asserting its nationhood and identity.
True enough, but not the whole truth. Part of the rest is that, sitting here now, I'm glad they didn't bother with Burns when I went through school. I'm glad he lives in my mind and not in the memory of some classroom. I'm glad I wrote a life of Robert Louis Balfour Stevenson out of a journalistic interest in a man's existence, not because RL was on someone's Important Authors list. I fear what I call the Shakespeare effect.
It hardly needs explaining. Who didn't "do" him at school? Who struggled to recover, and how many never recovered? Most of the mostly-literate inhabitants of these islands cling to three myths about old Bill Shakespeare. He's obscure, difficult, and – above all – boring. This is mis-education on a vast scale. It counts as cultural vandalism.
But flip the coin. Imagine telling a blustering Tory from the shires that Shakespeare need not matter to a country, or to its children. Imagine telling Michael Gove, England's interventionist education secretary (from Aberdeen), that a culture cannot be formed around reading lists. Gove would fulminate. But in Scotland, in my childhood, no-one thought it essential that I should know the first thing about Burns.
Two problems run together. One says that a country cannot forever be held in ignorance of its own culture. There are words for that kind of thing. A second issue arises when teachers and politicians claim the right to shape how culture is made. Then your children doze; then they rebel. The fastest way to kill love for a nation's literature is to put it on a reading list.
Such would be the story being told, as I understand it, by the Educational Institute of Scotland. Michael Russell, Education Secretary, has ordered that, come 2014-15, anyone sitting a Higher in English must be ready to answer a question – just one – on a Scottish novel, play or poem, or risk failure.
The EIS asserts, in several voices, that this is poor educational practice, "teaching to the test", an infringement on pedagogic liberty, bad news for "deep learning and critical thinking", pretty stupid, or – as certain educators have asserted – a case of nationalism gone mad. Accusations of "political fervour" have been heard from various bodies. One strand of the criticism seems to be that the SNP is trying to manipulate young Scotland by forcing teenagers – whatever next? – to read Scottish writers.
Teachers add, rightly, that the old days are gone. We no longer blindfold the young to their written culture. It requires no brains, either, to work out that once a list emerges students and their teachers will do their best to beat the Devil. It used to be simple: read (most of) Grapes Of Wrath or Animal Farm and you got the O-Grade. On this, the chalk-duster pushers are right.
The problems go deeper, however. For one, we have a country in which the night designated for Burns is both a big piss-up and a reminder that most Scots couldn't summon an accurate word of "wir national bard". It's like watching the Tartan Army pretend that loyalty makes a team play better football. If culture matters, we should, finally, pay attention.
Is it therefore illegitimate for a nationalist party to seek to promote a national culture? Michael Gove would give you one unequivocal answer, with Bill from Stratford at its heart. But should Mike Russell, a man with a heritage in the creative industries, be prescribing kinds of Scottishness to your children? Teachers dispute the idea as a matter of principle. If the teachers are literate, each and all, it will be a big help.
But we know where we are. This country has turned national identity into a kind of psycho-sexual problem. We are never done examining our parts. The search for some kind of understanding of what Scots want, think, feel, imagine and need has become almost puerile. In an auto-erotic sort of way, too. Is it truly so complicated?
We should teach our children about books written by the woman who once lived up the road. We should tell politicians to keep their fingers and their prose out of education. We should remind ourselves, then the world, that our culture is neither minor nor a folklore curiosity. We shouldn't fixate on every dot, comma and dangling participle. If someone ensures that the young actually read the books at issue, we can call it a win for "culture".
The spine of that little hand-bound Burns holds together with old glue and what looks like boot leather. The Bell who owned that book, as best as I can tell, went south for a few years to follow the weaving. He took his Scottishness with him, in his coat pocket and in his mind, and brought it home again.
No-one ever told him why he had to care about a poem.
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