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
Kate Bush: 'I'm going to miss everyone so much'
Arts and Entertainment
Boy George performing with Culture Club at Heaven

musicReview: Culture Club performs live for first time in 12 years

Arts and Entertainment
Princess Olga in 'You Can't Get the Staff'
tvReview: The anachronistic aristocrats, it seemed, were just happy to have some attention
Arts and Entertainment
Laura Wood, winner of the Montegrappa Scholastic Prize for New Children’s Writing
books

Children's bookseller wins The Independent's new author search

Arts and Entertainment
Pulling the strings: Spira Mirabilis

music
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment
Tim Minchin portrait
For a no-holds-barred performer who is scathing about woolly thinking and oppressive religiosity, Tim Minchin is surprisingly gentle
Arts and Entertainment
Clara takes the lead in 'Flatline' while the Doctor remains in the Tardis
tvReview: The 'Impossible Girl' earns some companion stripes... but she’s still annoying in 'Dr Who, Flatline'
Arts and Entertainment
Joy Division photographed around Waterloo Road, Stockport, near Strawberry Studios. The band are Bernard Sumner (guitar and keyboards), Stephen Morris (drums and percussion), Ian Curtis (vocals and occasional guitar), Peter Hook (bass guitar and backing vocals).
books
Arts and Entertainment
Sean Harris in 'The Goob' film photocall, at the Venice International Film Festival 2014
filmThe Bafta-winner talks Hollywood, being branded a psycho, and how Streisand is his true inspiration
Arts and Entertainment
X Factor contestant Fleur East
tvReview: Some lacklustre performances - but the usual frontrunners continue to excel
Arts and Entertainment
Richard Tuttle's installation in the Turbine Hall at the Tate Modern
artAs two major London galleries put textiles in the spotlight, the poor relation of the creative world is getting recognition it deserves
Arts and Entertainment
Hunger Games actress Jena Malone has been rumoured to be playing a female Robin in Batman v Superman
film
Arts and Entertainment
On top of the world: Actress Cate Blanchett and author Richard Flanagan
artsRichard Flanagan's Man Booker win has put paid to the myth that antipodean artists lack culture
Arts and Entertainment
The Everyman, revamped by Haworth Tompkins
architectureIt beats strong shortlist that included the Shard, the Library of Birmingham, and the London Aquatics Centre
Arts and Entertainment
Justice is served: Robert Downey Jr, Vincent D’Onofrio, Jeremy Strong and Robert Duvall in ‘The Judge’

Film

Arts and Entertainment
Clive Owen (centre) in 'The Knick'

TV

Arts and Entertainment
J.K. Simmons , left, and Miles Teller in a scene from

Film

Arts and Entertainment
Team Tenacity pitch their fetching solar powered, mobile phone charging, heated, flashy jacket
tvReview: No one was safe as Lord Sugar shook things up
News
Owen said he finds films boring but Tom Hanks managed to hold his attention in Forrest Gump
arts
Arts and Entertainment
Bono and Apple CEO Tim Cook announced U2's surprise new album at the iPhone 6 launch
Music Album is set to enter UK top 40 at lowest chart position in 30 years
Arts and Entertainment
The Michael McIntyre Chat Show airs its first episode on Monday 10 March 2014
Comedy
Arts and Entertainment

Review

These heroes in a half shell should have been left in hibernation
Arts and Entertainment
Richard Flanagan with his novel, The Narrow Road to the Deep North
books'The Narrow Road to the Deep North' sees the writer become the third Australian to win the accolade
Arts and Entertainment
New diva of drama: Kristin Scott Thomas as Electra
theatre
Arts and Entertainment
TV
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Indiana serial killer? Man arrested for murdering teenage prostitute confesses to six other murders - and police fear there could be many more

    A new American serial killer?

    Police fear man arrested for murder of teen prostitute could be responsible for killing spree dating back 20 years
    Sweetie, the fake 10-year-old girl designed to catch online predators, claims her first scalp

    Sting to trap paedophiles may not carry weight in UK courts

    Computer image of ‘Sweetie’ represented entrapment, experts say
    Fukushima nuclear crisis: Evacuees still stuck in cramped emergency housing three years on - and may never return home

    Return to Fukushima – a land they will never call home again

    Evacuees still stuck in cramped emergency housing three years on from nuclear disaster
    Wildlife Photographer of the Year: Intimate image of resting lions claims top prize

    Wildlife Photographer of the Year

    Intimate image of resting lions claims top prize
    Online petitions: Sign here to change the world

    Want to change the world? Just sign here

    The proliferation of online petitions allows us to register our protests at the touch of a button. But do they change anything?
    Ed Sheeran hits back after being labelled too boring to headline festivals

    'You need me, I don’t need you'

    Ed Sheeran hits back after being labelled too boring to headline festivals
    How to Get Away with Murder: Shonda Rhimes reinvents the legal drama

    How to Get Away with Murder

    Shonda Rhimes reinvents the legal drama
    A cup of tea is every worker's right

    Hard to swallow

    Three hospitals in Leicester have banned their staff from drinking tea and coffee in public areas. Christopher Hirst explains why he thinks that a cuppa is every worker's right
    Which animals are nearly extinct?

    Which animals are nearly extinct?

    Conservationists in Kenya are in mourning after the death of a white northern rhino, which has left the species with a single male. These are the other species on the brink
    12 best children's shoes

    Perfect for leaf-kicking: 12 best children's shoes

    Find footwear perfect to keep kids' feet protected this autumn
    Anderlecht vs Arsenal: Gunners' ray of light Aaron Ramsey shines again

    Arsenal’s ray of light ready to shine again

    Aaron Ramsey’s injury record has prompted a club investigation. For now, the midfielder is just happy to be fit to face Anderlecht in the Champions League
    Comment: David Moyes' show of sensitivity thrown back in his face by former Manchester United manager Sir Alex Ferguson

    Moyes’ show of sensitivity thrown back in his face... by Ferguson

    Manchester United legend tramples on successor who resisted criticising his inheritance
    Two super-sized ships have cruised into British waters, but how big can these behemoths get?

    Super-sized ships: How big can they get?

    Two of the largest vessels in the world cruised into UK waters last week
    British doctors on brink of 'cure' for paralysis with spinal cord treatment

    British doctors on brink of cure for paralysis

    Sufferers can now be offered the possibility of cure thanks to a revolutionary implant of regenerative cells
    Ranked seventh in world’s best tourist cities - not London, or Edinburgh, but Salisbury

    Lonely Planet’s Best in Travel 2015

    UK city beats Vienna, Paris and New York to be ranked seventh in world’s best tourist destinations - but it's not London