Some years back, there was one of those "whither" conferences in Edinburgh.
On this occasion, on a long afternoon, the topic for fruitless debate was Scottish literature, and the eternal whither. John Byrne was asked what he, as a writer in a Caledonian vein, “needed”. Byrne replied: “A piece of paper and a pencil.”
Which is true, of course. As art goes, writing travels light. You can do the movie in your head, and on your page, without six executive producers. You don’t need to worry whether the mezzo soprano wants more money. You needn’t lose sleep over the patron’s willingness to cough for half a ton of bronze. In a novel, the corps de ballet is never weary.
Writing is Scotland’s art because, in brutal simplicity, it costs nothing but peasant sweat and genius.
That’s only partly true, though, and mostly false.
Anyone can write a play with a bit of paper and a pencil. To animate drama you need actors, a director, a theatre, any number of willing horses behind the scenes, a writer of some sort and, above all, an audience.
To write for the page you need a publishing industry, supportive media, and readers. Without those, you talk to yourself.
At the Edinburgh Book Festival this week, Byrne was arguing that Scotland does not love its theatrical arts.
William McIlvanney had already occupied the same stage to explain why these days he can’t get a book published south of the Border.
Either claim should be a cause for concern, you might think. If this is a new and devolved and pre-independence Scotland, why should two of its senior figures feel so alienated?
I used to know one of them slightly, one better: so much is worth declaring. Both count, in the usual media language, as “difficult”. The better Scots word is thrawn. Each would say, probably, that they have earned that much, having done the nation some service, in their fashions.
If you had to pick, they are the closest Scotland has, in French style, to public intellectuals. And both would run a measured mile before accepting the description. Thrawn is a habit of mind.
Are they right, however? Some argue that we are living through a near-golden age in Scottish theatre.
We have a national company, finally, that has failed and succeeded, turn by turn: that’s how it should be. Whether Scotland’s National Theatre needs a home, ein Theater fur Zeitgenossen, a Brechtian base, is another argument.
I happen to agree with Byrne: a home is good, for writers and actors. But Scotland’s playwrights have not been deterred, even slightly, by the fact that Scotland lacks a theatre habit.
The experiment would be interesting: publish the fact that a new John Byrne play is available. How many takers would you find, in Scotland and beyond?
When every other TV crit was expressing semi-polite befuddlement, I once wrote a review in praise of a greaser who knew about funny shoes, a “man in the Bacofoil Suit”, expressing the hope – I think – that the dialogue would keep up with the music. Just getting Tutti Frutti made was Byrne’s triumph.
You could say the same of McIlvanney.
Docherty, Laidlaw, The Kiln, and all the overlooked poetry, reordered the landscape for those of us who emerged from the comprehensives and history’s big, suffocating blanket.
Suddenly we could speak. We could remember. We could use all the big words, if required. And our place in thehierarchy of art was no longer pre-determined by a voice on the BBC.
At the book festival, John mentioned – for we always do – Ireland. Scotland measures itself, as usual, against its cousin, and against Hugh MacDiarmid’s old assertion that the cultural independence of the other island made all its political revolutions possible.
They “love their artists in Ireland”, said Byrne, “and they don’t love them as much here”. With 14% of the labour force out of work in the Republic, how much love is going into Irish art just now?
It is absurd to think that a book by William McIlvanney could wait long for a publisher. This is a writer temperamentally incapable – and he would fix that phrase – of bad prose. But he arises, like John Byrne, from a circumstance and a time “to speak as you are found”.
And what was found? Paisley, Kilmarnock, working class types talking out of turn, in the voices they were given? They learned a lot, I think, but not enough.
Oxbridge is back: so much is self-evidently true in each corner of this British life. Turn on your radio, flick on your TV, watch what emerges from the houses of the media and parliamentary power: proles are out of fashion. Looting proles would be fit only for transportation had the colonies not discovered the franchise.
Not much, if anything, unites McIlvanney and Byrne save that they didn’t follow the usual routes of British power. Neither did PPE. And those routes have been closed, in any case.
Scotland was supposed to offer a different case. Alasdair Gray, another aged book festival star this year, wrote once of living as though in the first days of something new, and other. The author of Lanark, and much else besides, has sometimes tried to ask why we had a need to do so. This land is our land, supposedly. The act of collective re-invention is a peculiar impulse.
It’s what we do, though. I can think of no other national entity on the globe that has laboured so hard, or so often, or with such a neurotic urgency, over its own reality. Does John Byrne feel like a Scottish writer, a Scottish painter, a citizen of the arts in his own land? Can Willie McIlvanney even get published in the modern country that he, if any poet, helped to make?
The fact the questions arise is – for I got my education too – galling. It’s a pain, somewhere. I could write about a couple of men who are not as young as once they were. I could talk about the queue of young writers, artists, musicians and theatre workers just waiting for the residue of old farts to clear. It doesn’t settle matters.
John Byrne is right: Scotland doesn’t love theatre. It doesn’t care much for mad scribblers, or daft painters, or those who lift their head to the horizon.
This new Scotland pays a lightly-bruised lip service to what was, and might have been, and still can’t even spell its own name. A head stuck through a wringer would produce better poetry, or pictures, or plays.
And here’s the trick: it was ever (because I paid attention at school) thus. It is a fine thing to become a new nation. To remain a barbarian nation, forever waiting for the London reviews to arrive, is a pitiful thing.
The next thing you know, someone will say we didn’t even invent the English language.
I can offer explication and precis, chapter and verse, to the contrary. I get a wee star.
When a Byrne or a McIlvanney yields to a tantrum – as the London media would have it – those of us on the other side of the invisible wall should pay attention.
These are senior figures in our culture. They’ve been there. They bring reports from Britain, far way. A strange place, apparently.
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