Planet Hollyrood

Pat Kane
Monday 26 April 1999 23:02

Sean Connery is doing his bit in the run-up to the Scottish elections. But where are his fellow artists: the writers and rockers, the movers and moguls who helped create the Scotgeist? They're too busy making deals with Hollywood studios or London publishers to play politics with Holyrood or Westminster. They're staying a step ahead of the game, and they're making it pay. Pat Kane introduces a major series on the cultural life of New Scotland

It takes only a few words to sum up the relationship between arts and politics in a self-governing Scotland: culture brought about the parliament. And, now that it's here, culture is scattering to the four winds. The job, in essence, has been done. Scots voters know quite keenly why they want a polity - because thousands of creative types over the last three decades have kept telling them how distinctive their country is. Not necessarily better or worse, but at least distinctive - thus worth exerting sovereignty over. Now, just a few days before the elections and a few months before a new century, the troops of the Scottish cultural front are demobbing. Who wants to link arms, write prose poems and celebrate the new dawn? It's time to party, make deals and hustle like crazy.

Let me freeze-frame a few scenes from the current whirl, all of them in Glasgow, that will hopefully make the giddy intoxication of this moment obvious. First, the UK premiere of Orphans, Peter Mullan's multi-award- winning first movie, at the Atlantic Quay cinema in Glasgow last week. They were all there, the complete firmament of modern Scottish culture - the junkie novelists and the podgy stadium rockers; the local TV moguls and the sitcom matriarchs; the brand-new auteurs and the bland old chancers, all crammed into a brain-frazzling multiplex foyer and networking like it's 1999.

But this is New Scotland networking - and you have to establish that correct mix of prolier-than-thou with insane ambition. The director's big in Cannes, dealing with Hollywood - but he's also a member of the Scottish Socialist Party. You watch these astonishing performers on screen and remind yourself that, a decade ago, half of them used to plead with you to come and see their sub-Brechtian sketches on a wet Monday night.

All night, the talk is of projects and contracts, advances and collaborations - but delivered with that awright-pal-aye-keepin'-busy nonchalance which disguises the fact that they're now cosmopolitan luvvies, through and through. And even though the movie is about pathological working-class Catholics - come on, tell me a "new" Scottish story - it really feels, and looks, like some kind of lost Fellini-Cassavetes collaboration. That is, it's a real movie, a movie-movie, not just some community theatre performance captured on film.

Despite the frantic glugging of cheap champagne, everyone knows the game has been raised a notch or two tonight. The same people have swapped their megaphones for mobile phones, their agit-prop for product pitching. And you know what? They're not the slightest bit guilty about it. Most of them feel they've earned a little schmooze-time.

But this is the movies, after all - and whether in the shadow of Holyrood or of Hollywood, its bullshit always walks tall. For a richer consideration of national character, how about a meeting of five of the best Scottish writers, at a basement do in a Glasgow bookshop, for World Books Day? Surely here you'd expect a degree of forensic soul-searching, some ponderous divinations of the Scotgeist?

Nah. What exercises these writers - Andrew O'Hagan, Janice Galloway, Des Dillon, Don Paterson and Meg Henderson: a real power panel from the Scottish modern canon - is what exercises every other writer in the Western world. That is, distributors, percentages, marketing strategies, the perfidy of agents, whether to fear or love the Internet, whether to recommend or discourage creative writing courses...

Each one of them writes out of a deep well of Scottish culture and tradition - but all five are on London publishers, branch offices of the big conglomerates. And selling their properties very widely, thank you; most of them have had their stories optioned by other media. Now, where is the wine?

One last scene: a meeting with John McGrath, the eminence of Scottish political theatre, at a press conference to promote the latest movie he's producing. He's as urbane and articulate as ever, with a shock of white hair flying off his head to the left. But his language becomes most focused when he's talking the language of The Player: "The male star's just done a romantic lead to Demi Moore... the female star's alongside Liv Tyler and Ralph Fiennes in their new movie... the US distributor's pre-sales are good, we aim to get worldwide sales at next year's Cannes..."

This is the man who founded the 7:84 theatre company in the radical Seventies, based on the proposition that seven per cent of the population owned 84 per cent of the wealth. McGrath catches me looking a little stunned. "They say all the best capitalists are ex-Communists," he quips.

I could mention many, many more instances like this. In fact, working on the new Sunday Herald broadsheet in Glasgow, I am one. The paper exists partly because we know that there's a market opportunity in selling new media to the Scottish bourgeoisie - and the talent is around to make it a good product. But we're also hearing stories about a "creative Scotland" - an enterprising generation of dodgers, divers, duckers and weavers, symbolic analysts in every field - which seems a million miles away from the fist-wavers and folk-warriors of the Seventies and Eighties. The song has changed from nationalism to commercialism in Scottish culture, from "what are we?" to "here we are - buy us".

Are Scots artists such hucksters now because they're secretly admitting their debt to Thatcher? From 1979 to 1997, from the first shrill tones of Thatcher to the last mumblings of Major, Scottish culture reinvented itself as a defensive moral identity. Her "values" were not our "values" - and on that moral ground, between social democracy and neo-liberalism, a cohesive cultural tradition was built.

Writers such as James Kelman, Alasdair Gray and William MacIlvanney stood there - as did hundreds of other actors, pop singers, TV scriptwriters, poets and celebrity presenters. These people often found themselves literally standing together, too: these were 18 years of shivering on platforms, sharing drum- kits at protest gigs, granting politicians and trade unionists their requested photo opportunities.

Whether declared or not, this was in the classic sense a cultural front: the close association of Scottish arts with anti-Tory politics gave the resistance a lot more poetry and humanity than it otherwise would have had. So when Scots voted in two separate elections for their own parliament in 1997, they were voting for something that was wreathed in word, image and song - something more resonant, that is, than just another level of national administration.

But the thing about words, images and songs in a globalising, informational age - whether they're Scottish or otherwise - is that they often mutate and change; the signs come loose from their referents, the celebrity machine can anoint them at any time. Who wants to keep on grimly defending Scottish identity, when the pager just won't stop buzzing? And who wants to keep hearing about it, when everybody enjoys our local heroes when they go global?

To wit: young Scots actor-chancer becomes the biggest star in the biggest movie of all time; it takes only four years from Trainspotting to Star Wars: The Phantom Menace. How the hell did that happen? And what kind of "values" - other than the kind of be-kilted cheekiness he displayed on the cover of Vanity Fair - does Ewan McGregor take with him into the global firmament?

Probably no other value than a relaxed, mutable Scottishness; and, for most people, creators or consumers, that's quite enough to be going on with in the new Scotland. The bards helped put the bricks in place at Holyrood by building the foundation stones for a modern, confident national identity. But now that the construction cranes are swinging, the time for introspection is over.

Once again, the artists in Scotland are ahead of the politicians, currently enmired in a grim battle of fiscal pennies and geopolitics. The creative types are now interested in Scottish routes, rather than Scottish roots. How do we take these distinctive structures of feeling into the world, is their agenda; what audiences, what markets, what collaborators, what money-men do we need to make good work happen here?

If this sounds as though Scottish culture is already shooting beyond the confines of the British state, implicitly presuming that it may have a global impact, then you're hearing correctly. In that sense, independence has already been declared in this country. But, as is usual in Scotland, the imagination always anticipates the political nation.

The writer is associate editor of the `Sunday Herald' and one half of the group Hue and Cry

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