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
Russell Tovey, Myanna Buring and Julian Rhind Tutt star in Banished
tvReview: The latest episode was a smidgen less depressing... but it’s hardly a bonza beach party
Arts and Entertainment
Crime watch: Cara Delevingne and Daniel Brühl in ‘The Face of an Angel’
film review
Arts and Entertainment
music Malik left the Asian leg of the band's world tour after being signed off with stress last week
News
Author J.K. Rowling attends photocall ahead of her reading from 'The Casual Vacancy' at the Queen Elizabeth Hall on September 27, 2012 in London, England.
peopleNot the first time the author has defended Dumbledore's sexuality
News
‘The Late Late Show’ presenter James Corden is joined by Mila Kunis and Tom Hanks for his first night as host
news
Arts and Entertainment
‘The Royals’ – a ‘twisted, soapy take on England’s first family’
tv Some of the characters appear to have clear real-life counterparts
News
Brooks is among a dozen show-business professionals ever to have achieved Egot status
people
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Arts and Entertainment
A cut above: Sean Penn is outclassed by Mark Rylance in The Gunman
film review
Arts and Entertainment
arts + ents
Arts and Entertainment
James Franco and Zachary Quinto in I Am Michael

Film review Michael Glatze biopic isn't about a self-hating gay man gone straight

Arts and Entertainment
A scene from the movie 'Get Hard'
tvWill Ferrell’s new film Get Hard receives its first reviews
Arts and Entertainment
Left to right: David Cameron (Mark Dexter), Nick Clegg (Bertie Carvel) and Gordon Brown (Ian Grieve)
tvReview: Ian Grieve gets another chance to play Gordon Brown... this is the kinder version
Arts and Entertainment
Benedict Cumberbatch and Martin Freeman in the first look picture from next year's Sherlock special

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Because it wouldn’t be Glastonbury without people kicking off about the headline acts, a petition has already been launched to stop Kanye West performing on the Saturday night

music
Arts and Entertainment
Molly Risker, Helen Monks, Caden-Ellis Wall, Rebekah Staton, Erin Freeman, Philip Jackson and Alexa Davies in ‘Raised by Wolves’

TV review
Arts and Entertainment

TV
Arts and Entertainment
James May, Jeremy Clarkson and Richard Hammond in the Top Gear Patagonia Special

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Game of Thrones will run for ten years if HBO gets its way but showrunners have mentioned ending it after seven

Game of Thrones
Arts and Entertainment
Mans Zelmerlow will perform 'Heroes' for Sweden at the Eurovision Song Contest 2015

music
Arts and Entertainment
Elizabeth (Heida Reed) and Ross Poldark (Aiden Turner) in the BBC's remake of their 1975 original Poldark

Poldark review
Arts and Entertainment
Daniel Craig as James Bond in Skyfall

Mexican government reportedly paying Bond producers for positive portrayal in new filmfilm
Arts and Entertainment
Disney’s flying baby elephant is set to return in live-action format
filmWith sequels, prequels and spin-offs, Disney plays it safe... and makes a pachyderm
Arts and Entertainment
Nazrin with Syf, Camden
photography
News
The QI Elves photographed at the Soho Theatre. They are part of a team of researchers who find facts for the television programme 'QI'.
people
Arts and Entertainment
‘The Royals’ – a ‘twisted, soapy take on England’s first family’
tv0-star review: Sean O'Grady gives it his best shot anyway
  • Get to the point
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.

    The saffron censorship that governs India: Why national pride and religious sentiment trump freedom of expression

    The saffron censorship that governs India

    Zareer Masani reveals why national pride and religious sentiment trump freedom of expression
    Prince Charles' 'black spider' letters to be published 'within weeks'

    Prince Charles' 'black spider' letters to be published 'within weeks'

    Supreme Court rules Dominic Grieve's ministerial veto was invalid
    Distressed Zayn Malik fans are cutting themselves - how did fandom get so dark?

    How did fandom get so dark?

    Grief over Zayn Malik's exit from One Direction seemed amusing until stories of mass 'cutting' emerged. Experts tell Gillian Orr the distress is real, and the girls need support
    The galaxy collisions that shed light on unseen parallel Universe

    The cosmic collisions that have shed light on unseen parallel Universe

    Dark matter study gives scientists insight into mystery of space
    The Swedes are adding a gender-neutral pronoun to their dictionary

    Swedes introduce gender-neutral pronoun

    Why, asks Simon Usborne, must English still struggle awkwardly with the likes of 's/he' and 'they'?
    Disney's mega money-making formula: 'Human' remakes of cartoon classics are part of a lucrative, long-term creative plan

    Disney's mega money-making formula

    'Human' remakes of cartoon classics are part of a lucrative, long-term creative plan
    Lobster has gone mainstream with supermarket bargains for £10 or less - but is it any good?

    Lobster has gone mainstream

    Anthea Gerrie, raised on meaty specimens from the waters around Maine, reveals how to cook up an affordable feast
    Easter 2015: 14 best decorations

    14 best Easter decorations

    Get into the Easter spirit with our pick of accessories, ornaments and tableware
    Paul Scholes column: Gareth Bale would be a perfect fit at Manchester United and could turn them into serious title contenders next season

    Paul Scholes column

    Gareth Bale would be a perfect fit at Manchester United and could turn them into serious title contenders next season
    Inside the Kansas greenhouses where Monsanto is 'playing God' with the future of the planet

    The future of GM

    The greenhouses where Monsanto 'plays God' with the future of the planet
    Britain's mild winters could be numbered: why global warming is leaving UK chillier

    Britain's mild winters could be numbered

    Gulf Stream is slowing down faster than ever, scientists say
    Government gives £250,000 to Independent appeal

    Government gives £250,000 to Independent appeal

    Donation brings total raised by Homeless Veterans campaign to at least £1.25m
    Oh dear, the most borrowed book at Bank of England library doesn't inspire confidence

    The most borrowed book at Bank of England library? Oh dear

    The book's fifth edition is used for Edexcel exams
    Cowslips vs honeysuckle: The hunt for the UK’s favourite wildflower

    Cowslips vs honeysuckle

    It's the hunt for UK’s favourite wildflower
    Child abuse scandal: Did a botched blackmail attempt by South African intelligence help Cyril Smith escape justice?

    Did a botched blackmail attempt help Cyril Smith escape justice?

    A fresh twist reveals the Liberal MP was targeted by the notorious South African intelligence agency Boss