Behind the wall of words

Roger Clarke wants to hear from tweedy Scots as well as groovy ones

It's often said of the Irish that their greatest "revenge" on Britain was to requisition the English language and use it better than the English themselves. The Scots road, according to the school of thought promoted by the writer and editor Duncan McLean, is to reclaim forms of native "dialect" as a sign of rebellion, nationalism and literary transgression - all rolled into one tartan juggernaut. So are Scots writers now reduced to being the purveyors of mere oor Wullie speech, as quaint in its own way as anything produced by Walter Scott, except that it now happens to be about junkies?

Of course, Scots - a language as old as standard English - has every right not to be called a dialect. Furthermore, it has been a mainstream and acceptable literary tongue north of the Border for centuries. Even the colonial-style flunkies of the 18th-century Edinburgh literary scene who were then trying to remove Scots words from their local language had good things to say about Burns's muscular and drubbingly authentic verse.

Among more recent idioms, James Kelman has made his Gorbalssprach acceptable to Booker judges. Equally implausibly, Irvine Welsh has made the most impenetrable argot available to the masses all over Britain. And behind Welsh stands his editor at Jonathan Cape: Robin Robertson, the intriguing eminence grise of the Scots new wave.

The way that Robertson has brought his expertise with groovy Scots writing to the service of a metropolitan publisher shows how far a once-marginal phenomenon has come. Now, as if trying both to rebut the new Scots stereotype of urban decay and drugs, and to confirm it, Cape has published Lone Star Swing (pounds 9.99) and Ahead of Its Time (pounds 9.99). They are respectively written and edited by the Ezra Pound of the recent Scots literary efflorescence, Duncan McLean himself.

But what immediately strikes you about some of the figures in the anthology Ahead of Its Time (an aptly titled summing-up of McLean's cult imprint, The Clocktower Press) is that writers such as Alison Kermack often use what passes for dialect, when it is in fact a private idiolect. Their massaged spellings make individual linguistic quirks and accents look like pidgin.

It is worrying when, for instance, Robert Alan Jamieson has to resort to Scandinavian letters in his work to make himself feel authentic as a Shetland writer - as if a Dorset writer were to resurrect a Jutish vocabulary and then provide a glossary, as Jamieson does, to make himself understood. These things must be kept in perspective. It's a shame that the expressive Anglo-Saxon "thorn" letter has vanished from English - but that is that, even though its sound survives. Writers have to accept the ebb and flow of language.

Despite the references to rebellion (Clocktower's samizdat offshoot Rebel Inc. was snapped up by the Edinburgh publisher Canongate as a "happening" imprint), there's an innate conservatism to much of the writing in both Ahead of Its Time and the new Picador Book of Contemporary Scottish Fiction, edited by Peter Kravitz (Picador pounds 16.99). Some of Kravitz and McLean's pronouncements have a busy, ardent, folksy, half-cynical and Malcolm McLaren- ish quality. This is the sound of young Turks raging against the Establishment shortly before they take it over. Does anyone really care if the Scottish Arts Council was mean to them? Not really. The fight fuelled their cause. Arts bureaucrats have always been like that and always will be.

Even when McLean travels abroad to Texas, in amusing pursuit of his passion for the folk-roots of country-western music in Lone Star Swing, he can't forget he's a Scot. He corrects anti-British slurs not by saying these are vile stereotypes, but "no, they don't apply to me because I'm a Scot".

He also catches the virus of American racial specialisation (he's interested in culture of the Orkneys, where he lives, with its Scandinavian antecedents). McLean's identification with this backward-looking aspect of US culture is worrying, but it shows where his true allegiance lies: not with the experiments in craft and subject that more transgressive writers strive for, especially in the States. Rather, it's about fancy dress, kitsch and mawkish sentimentality. Nationalism has to be the least transgressive subject on the planet.

I'm sure many of the writers included in these anthologies would cringe at any notion of nationhood being hung about their shoulders. Welsh, for one, has always railed against the provincialism of Scots writing, but presumably this is a variety of provincialism from which he, Kravitz and McLean feel themselves quite safe. The success of Welsh (currently writing a novel "about a transvestite Edinburgh policeman", to be called Filth) has been so meteoric that any sensible discussion of his work has to be held on a cultural rather than a purely literary level. Put simply, he is a solitary phenomenon and a lot of his contemporaries are trying to haul themselves up on his coat-tails.

Comparing these two anthologies, it's important to distinguish Kravitz's serious attempt to analyse the shifting spectrum of contemporary Scots fiction - with modernists and traditionalists alike - from the self-aggrandising efforts of McLean's early ventures. Kravitz is happy to include distinctly ungroovy writers such as Jackie Kay and Allan Massie (though not Charles Palliser's successful pastiches). In this sense, he is more favourable to the tweedy conservatism deplored by Welsh, who no doubt would have a few choice words to say about the exclusion of his beloved Alexander Trocchi, whom he calls "the George Best of Scottish literature". The Picador anthology also uses little of the raw "dialect" so prized by McLean.

Kravitz's editorial faults lie mostly in his earnestness; McLean's, in his lack of discrimination. Between the twin poles of these books lies the truth of Scots writing - a culture with as many kingmakers and frauds as any other, but also with more than its fair share of potential genius.

Arts and Entertainment
Stewart Lee (Gavin Evans)


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