Books: Chance to say `I told you so'
THE PICADOR BOOK OF CONTEMPORARY SCOTTISH FICTION ed Peter Kravitz, pounds 16.99 AHEAD OF ITS TIME ed Duncan McLean Cape pounds 9.99
Sunday 31 August 1997
On the frontispiece of Lanark (1981), the first great book of trendy late-20th century Scotland, Alasdair Gray wrote this: "Let Glasgow flourish by telling the truth." "The truth" about Glasgow, as Peter Kravitz drily states, is that it has the highest density of lung cancer, heart problems, suicides and alcohol use in western Europe. "The truth" about 1980s Edinburgh, as readers should have learnt from Irvine Welsh, is that it was a city awash with cheap heroin and dirty needles: another expression of the Scottish drive to self-destruct.
Peter Kravitz started working voluntarily for the small Edinburgh publisher Polygon in 1980, while studying at Edinburgh University. Still an undergraduate, he published Not not while the giro, The Busconductor Hines and A Chancer, the first three books of James Kelman. He went on to publish early works of A L Kennedy, Agnes Owens and Janice Galloway, Jeff Torrington, Duncan McLean and Tibor Fischer in the late 1980s, and he unstintingly encouraged the work of many less famous writers. He understates this role in his introduction, but it always helps to know where the editorial line of an anthology is coming from. This one, I can guarantee you, comes straight from the horse's mouth.
"In 1979," Kravitz explains, "the people of Scotland were asked whether they wanted their own parliament separate from England. The majority said yes. However, a last-minute clause added to the bill stated that 40 per cent of the total electorate had to be in favour. This took non- voters to be saying no. Governments get elected on less."
"That hangover of `79" - as Neal Ascherson was then calling it - infected the air of Eighties Scotland in an all-pervasive way. It was time to work out a way of making things happen for Scotland without the politicians' help.
"I wanted to help ordinary people become aware that books and writers are not sacred and unapproachable," Kravitz quotes Kelman as saying in 1979. One thing Kravitz makes plain is that the Scottish renaissance of the Eighties was never conceived by its key protagonists as careerist or even narrowly "artistic". Kelman always saw the Glasgow accent of his written English as a political action. It stated that working-class people had just as much intellectual capacity as the suits who like to patronise them, and, in most cases, a rather better grasp of what is really what. As genuine good sense usually tends to do, this statement cut through much silted crap; it released, in Kelman and in those who followed him, great waves of intellectual and emotional energy: a fierce anger, often, but equally, an infectious joy.
In the Picador introduction, Kravitz quotes Duncan McLean, the editor of Ahead of its Time, on the experience of first reading Kelman's The Busconductor Hines. "For the first time," he says, "I was reading a book about the world I lived in. I didn't know literature could do that." In 1990, McLean started publishing his own work in pamphlet form, under the aegis of The Clocktower Press. Then he started publishing other people's work also. "Our slowest seller," he writes in the introduction to this anthology of Clocktower material, "was undoubtedly Past Tense: four slides from a novel by Irvine Welsh (the novel being Trainspotting)." That's one of the great things about having been Scottish in the early 1990s. A new chance to say "I told you so" with every passing day.
If you were to construct a Venn diagram of these two books, you'd get a telling visual representation of how a country's literature may be made. The Kravitz spreads from a core of usual suspects to writers you may not automatically think of as Scottish - Candia McWilliam, Iain Banks, Martin Millar - and out to quieter writers still not much known outside their own country, like Stanley Robertson and Robert Alan Jamieson, Sian Haton and Robert Frame. McLean's selection, on the other hand, is militantly Nineties Scottish samizdat. If you think Welsh took street Scots as far as it could go, try Clocktower's Alison Kermack or John Aberdein.
Both books contain pieces by Kelman and Welsh, Janice Galloway and Alan Warner, James Meek, Gordon Legge and Ali Smith. In the Clocktower anthology, these writers are represented by experimental work- in-progress. In the Picador, each appears fully fledged, part of a history which is already a matter of record and yet already being remade. From photocopied pamphlet to trendy name-to-conjure-with: in Welsh's case, the change came about in less than two years.
Yet contemporary Scottish fiction, to judge by these anthologies, is not a pretty thing. It's about social deprivation and emotional deprivation, and having a rotten job, like Kelman's Hines does, and then losing even that. Its characters have asthma and eczema, like Duncan Thaw in the mighty Lanark; on top of that, usually, they smoke. The men escape into drugs, drunkenness and random violence. The women collapse excruciatingly inwards on their way to breaking down. What kind of a culture is it that wants to read this sort of stuff? A culture, surely, in which such unhappiness is endemic. As Scotland knew it was in the 1980s. As the rest of the UK, it seems, is beginning to face up to being now. A "trendy" nation? Fiddlesticks. We have been serving as the emotional pit-canaries of Britain.
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