Burns Night is nearly here, and as always at this time of year the poet's icon is dusted off and given a twirl - if only in the bottom of a whisky glass. But what of his real heirs, the new-style Scottish writers: no longer dismissed as `regional', they are conquering high- profile literary territory
Sunday 19 January 1997
Is this true? Up to a point, Lord Copper. The important thing is that it seems still to be quite widely believed. When Kate Atkinson won last year's Whitbread Prize it was blithely repeated in one article after another that she had been snubbed by London literati, because she was a woman, a Northerner, and a first-timer. Being awarded one of the country's most prestigious prizes seems a strange definition of being snubbed, but no one commented on this.
What's more, it is surprisingly hard to find anyone who owns up to being a part of this quasi-mythical cabal. The world is full of wannabes, but the Establishment is other people. And the accusation of metrocentric bias among London-based editors and publishers is hardly borne out by the passionate enthusiasm with which they embrace not only the Irish but, increasingly, Scottish writers in all fields. Everywhere you look - in poetry, memoir and fiction, as well as on the big and little screens - there seems to be a Scottish voice of one kind or another. And the fact that this Caledonian New Wave is washing over the whole of our cultural life was reinforced by last year's Turner Prizewinner, Douglas Gordon, whose brief acceptance speech acknowledged his debt to his contemporaries, fellow young Scottish artists, the members of "Scotia Nostra - they know who they are".
In the world of words, too, they know who they are. It is a very long time since James Boswell reputedly said: "Yes, I'm Scottish. I can't help it", but a similar remark might as well have been made, by someone aspiring to literary success in the south, not 200 years ago but a mere 20. One fairly recent arrival in London from Glasgow is Andrew O'Hagan, a highly successful journalist and author who landed a job as a young unknown in the very lair of the literati, the London Review of Books. He was taken on by Karl Miller, who is Scottish, and Mary Kaye Wilmers, who is not. Did his background make any difference, one way or another?
"When I came to the LRB everyone was Oxbridge," says O'Hagan, "and it might have been a very hostile environment but it wasn't. Everyone seemed open to a different point of view. It certainly helps to have Scottish editors, academics and writers who are interested in hearing voices they maybe hadn't heard for some time, and in seeing them on the page - voices that wouldn't have been acceptable in the Fifties."
Most notable among the voices that would have been unacceptable a couple of decades ago is of course that of the current Scottish superstar Irvine Welsh. There's a danger that Trainspotting, as well as James Kelman's much criticised Booker winner, How Late It Was, How Late, might lead to a general view that the swirling currents of new Scottish writing draw it inexorably towards expletives, blocked lavatories and substance abuse. Not so. The distinct and uncompromising idiom of fiction writers like A L Kennedy, Alan Warner, Agnes Owens, Duncan Maclean, Janice Galloway needs no recourse to shock tactics, although it is always and deliberately adventurous. Quieter, more "literary" voices like those of Candia McWilliam or Elspeth Barker add another dimension, and a whole host of Scottish poets - Robert Crawford, W N Herbert, John Burnside, Kathleen Jamie, Don Paterson, to name only a few - have staked out a rich claim to poetic territory. The list could go on and on.
The Scottish renaissance is identified by Jonathan Cape editor Robin
Robertson, himself a Scot and probably the most influential publisher of the Scottish new wave, as "the most vigorous thing that's been happening in the last five years - and the most exciting aspect of it is its variety." But he, like all the Scots who gave their opinion on the phenomenon, was quick to emphasise that there has been a continuous, rich literary culture north of the border, with a full canon of eminent writers. In recent years the work of poets like Douglas Dunn has been consistently fine, and 1996 was a year when the obituaries of three grand old men of Scottish writing, Sorley Maclean, Norman McCaig and George Mackay Brown, reminded us of what we'd all lost with their deaths.
So what has changed? For one thing, the general acceptance of a Scottish idiom that comes from the street; for another, a new sense of freedom and adventure. Robin Robertson modestly takes no credit, despite the fact that he has nurtured and published much Scottish talent, but just one well-placed and energetic publisher with a particular taste can influence literary trends very markedly - just as Bill Buford's reign at Granta had a powerful effect on the epiphany of the New Lads and the spirit of masculism. It is not only that such an editor accepts more existing work; by providing the real prospect of a sympathetic audience, he or she can actually cause the work to be created.
"I took on Jim Kelman 10 or 12 years ago when I worked at Secker & Warburg," Robertson says, "and once the younger writers saw someone like that coming to be published by a London company [Kelman was previously published by the Scottish house, Polygon] it definitely had an effect on them. They felt empowered; they felt they could do it too. So other writers just seemed to come my way; it's not too hard, really ..."
Alistair Gray was another pivotal figure, in some ways a bridge between the old culture and the new, published in London by Cape (Liz Calder took him with her when she moved to Bloomsbury). Alistair Gray is a one-off; Robertson identifies James Kelman as a more of a figurehead "because through his work young Scots realised that it was possible to write without compromise, in your own words, and become an international success."
The possibility of international acclaim, and the whole relationship to the outside world, has perhaps changed also. Scotland has always been far more European, in cultural matters, than England, having direct links with Continental thought and letters in a tradition that stretches back to the Enlightenment and far beyond. Educated Scots were polymath and often multilingual; the great majority of poets also produced translations, sometimes in obscure and learned languages; during the Scots-language revival of the 1920s, they looked abroad as well as to the native tradition to re-invent Scots as a literary language.
Many of the "new" Scottish writers are distinct from this tradition. They are concerned with writing from the street, not from the library or the salon, and with putting the vernacular on to the page, however coarse it might sound; in this way they are in revolt, perhaps, just as much against a home-based high-cultural tradition as against the English. There is also a strong political strand in this revolt. Three-quarters of all Scots have voted against the Conservatives for the last 20 years; pride in cultural success heightens national pride in general, and makes for what Robertson describes as a "very, very interesting" atmosphere. "It's national all right, but it's open to a wider world."
The new-style author, if she or he has any degree of success, goes on the road to talk up their book at publicity events - not only around the British Isles but also abroad. This is a phenomenon only of the last 15 years or so. Before that, the reclusive writer - especially the reclusive poet - was an animal not yet extinct, and the degree of fierce parochialism among some of the Scots can be measured by a memorable row at the Edinburgh Writers Conference organised by John Calder in 1962.
There was a prestigious gathering of writers from America - Norman Mailer, William Burroughs, Mary McCarthy - and around the world, as well as an impressive home team - Stephen Spender, Angus Wilson, Richard Hughes, Lawrence Durrell, Rebecca West and Alexander Trocchi, an exuberant Scottish writer who had introduced the Beat sensibility to his homeland. The poet Hugh MacDiarmid, during the course of the conference, harangued this astonished assembly, calling them decadent cosmopolitans. Neal Ascherson remembers the Conference, and in particular the Scottish Writers' Day when, he says, the colour of the liquid in the water jugs was mysteriously altered from clear to amber, and the speakers' behaviour began, predictably, to deteriorate. William Burroughs also described the event: "I remember Hugh McDermott [sic], a frosty old Scots poet, quite a local celebrity, said that people like us ... belonged in jail instead of on the lecture platform."
The condescension of "frosty old Scots poet, quite a local celebrity" contrasts vividly with the reception Andrew O'Hagan describes on his recent visit to America to publicise The Missing. "Ten years ago," he says, "someone like me would have been lucky to get a bookshop reading, but I got a great turn-out for my launch party. In the States everyone seemed to relate directly to Scotland - not to me as a Scottish writer via London - I was astonished. And when I've been talking to translators working on my book in other European countries, they know all about Scotland - not as a distant province of England but as itself.
"They all seem to be congratulating me for not being English, which makes me uncomfortable in a way. I'm very happy being Scottish, but London has been much kinder to me as a writer than Glasgow ever was."
So he might not be heading home just yet. A large proportion of the others live in Scotland, though they may be published from London, and some, like the poet John Burnside, have returned north after living for some years in the south; others admit to feeling restless in England.
However we might try to account for a rich new vein in Scottish writing, the tribute, ultimately, must go to Scottish readers. For all the international plaudits, it is the local book-buyers who provide the power-base. Londoners, for instance, show little or no preference for buying books by other Londoners (perhaps even the opposite); Scots certainly buy books by Scottish writers, and in quantity. This means that writers with a loyal home market (the Irish have the same; the Welsh too, to a lesser extent) have a potential sale that is almost doubled: they can sell just as many copies down south as a southern author, and then have a whole new market in their own country.
"They don't know how lucky they are," remarked one unfashionably English writer, just a little bitterly. "There's some pretty lively anglophobia around among the Scots. Some still feel they're being kept waiting at the gate, but that's way out of date now: in fact they're feasting at the table."
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