Culture Wars: 'What is so Scottish about that?'
Claire Fox discussed the dangers of a Scottish cultural policy with novelist AL Kennedy, playwright David Greig and poet Don Patterson
Everybody is talking about Scottishness and culture - to the point where novelist AL Kennedy says she doesn't 'know a Scottish writer who hasn't been fantastically bored by it'. During this year's international festival Cultural Reflections, a series of debates at the newly opened Hub building were specifically concerned with the question of national identity and the arts in Scotland. A similar theme ran throughout the Edinburgh International Book Festival. Playwright David Greig says, 'I have been asked to do more interviews on Scottish culture in the last year for the oddest things like the Economist - it's very newsy just now. I have a feeling it's because the parliament is about to start'.
Greig's 'feeling' is well-founded. The present debate about the impact of devolution on the arts has acquired a new edge, as it is about to be codified in a cultural strategy to be drawn up by the new Scottish parliament (see box). In Cool Caledonia, Scottish MPs want to rebrand Scotland through their commitment to the arts.
But will this attempt by politicians to hijack culture have any impact on the artists themselves? Most artists robustly dismiss the idea that a government-sponsored cultural strategy will lead to a prescriptive definition of Scottishness. AL Kennedy claims she does not know 'of any Scottish writer who wants to be identified as Scottish in that stupid, meaningless way', writing 'a nice package of nail-downable product'. What makers of art are really after is 'the expression of identity that is individual, but because it's human experience it's universal'.
The desire to produce art with universal appeal is still very strong among writers - even those who are self-consciously proud of their Scottish identity. Poet Don Patterson says, 'I have a thousand loyalties but the first one is to the English language and to the version I know. That doesn't mean there's not a political agenda or that I'm not extending the language base. But I'm a poet first - it's not an ideal of nationhood, not a political ideal - all that stuff happens later. If you start off with that idea, every decision you make is going to be so infected by that sentimental self-consciousness and you're never going to write a good thing'. David Greig, heralded as one of the great hopes for Scottish theatre, was commissioned by this year's Edinburgh International Festival to write a play dealing with 'the notion of devolved identities'. But he does not conform to type: he doesn't speak with a Scottish accent, often feels like an outsider in Scotland, and says that 'I have more in common with someone in New York than I do with an old lady born and bred a crofter'. The Speculator, the play he wrote for the festival, is set in Paris in the eighteenth century. 'I made an absolutely conscious effort that I was absolutely going to take what I felt to be an unexpected angle.' Indeed, when his play, which is universal in its themes, was performed in August, many theatre critics asked, 'what is so Scottish about that?'.
But the very fact that a piece of art can be met with the question 'what is so Scottish about that?' indicates a problem. It demonstrates that there is an attempt to judge art by different criteria than its artistic merit. The emphasis on 'authentic' Scottishness threatens to drag art down, as it is appreciated less for its quality than for the political views it puts across. This is particularly clear in the mistaken assumption that Scottishness is somehow associated with the working-class voice, and should be lauded for that reason.
There are various reasons why Scottishness has come to be associated with the working class. Kennedy and Greig suggest that everything from the highland clearances of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries to Thatcherism tends to be blamed entirely on the English ruling class, ignoring the role of Scottish right-wingers. And Patterson explains that while the more 'kitschy Scottishness' of the 'tartan and the Scottie tin' variety is old hat, there are emerging 'more insidious versions' of a new Scottish kitsch, 'reflected in the sort of writers that are getting promoted as the great new Scottish writers or the aspects of their work that are picked up upon'. Think of New Scottish writing and Irvine Welsh springs to mind - with all the authenticity of urban working-class youth, drugs and gritty realism. The film that launched the Edinburgh International Film Festival was Lynne Ramsay's Ratcatcher, a grim reflection of childhood poverty in Glasgow. This 'People's politics' aspect of Scottish self-definition allows the new Scottish parliament a particular edge in pursuing some Blairite themes in arts policies. The buzzwords we are all familiar with in any documents to come out of the Department for Culture, Media and Sport - arts for social inclusion (the title of the Labour Party fringe meeting addressed by Chris Smith and Melvyn Bragg), access, People's art, taking art to the community, and so on - all these are given that extra credibility in the Scottish context.
Greig points out that Scottish writers need to be wary of what has happened in Irish theatre, which is currently making itself a specialist of working-class Celtic kitsch. Keen not to blame the writers (there is some very good writing and interesting and terrific performances), Greig is withering about 'the critical discourse that surrounds' this new brand of authentic theatre. He points out that the most common words reviewers now use as compliments are 'fiery, passionate, searing and raw'. He blames the London theatrical and critical establishment, which is a bit like a vampire 'desperately seeking and wanting the Irish theatre to provide it with an emotional heart, vitality and passion which it presumably feels it does not have'. This not only caricatures the Irish - and the Scots if they follow - as only being good for sentimentality, but it also limits creative endeavour. Greig complains that critics increasingly don't want 'intellectual ideas-based drama' and express disappointment that his work is 'absolutely resistant to the idea of providing heart or an emotional passion content'.
The popularity of the authentic working-class voice in Scottish writing flags up the changing role culture is starting to assume in the whole of Britain. Greig sums it up disparagingly as 'the view of art as a kind of a therapy or as a balm', which attempts to flatter the audiences with familiar images of themselves. Patterson fears that this can make culture become 'awful cosy'. There is a danger that audiences will be let down by writing which seeks to give them an accessible version of their own lives.
In this scenario, art is no longer seen as an escape into imagined other worlds, and can become merely people's lives reflected back on themselves as a mirror. Patterson enthuses about Robert Hughes' point that 'art connects you to everything that is not you. It's not about re-reminding you of yourself again, it's about transcending yourself, your own infinite possibilities'. But too frequently Irvine Welsh is cited as a writer appropriate for teaching to urban teenagers, not because he writes brilliantly innovative fiction, but because they will 'get it'; as his work supposedly describes accurately their own experiences. This can lead to bland, predictable writing. Greig wants theatre audiences 'to go on some sort of journey of discovery through the play' and says that he himself finds it 'unbearable when I go to a play and I feel I know what is going to happen'.
Seeing your own life on stage does not just limit the imagination. As Patterson points out: 'A simple reflection is limited and it can just confirm you in your mediocrity, in your own situation. It makes the intolerable more easy to tolerate.' For AL Kennedy, such formulaic working-class writing is not truly reflective of real life in any case. She resents the way people are depicted as 'stupid people who swear a lot' by writers who 'pertain to have a radical voice'. The working-class lives are not being turned into art but into 'soap opera, seeing their lives diminished'. It's the problem she has with writers such as James Kelman 'who would say "I am authentically presenting men in the pub saying things", but he's fucking not. Actually if you go into a pub, it isn't how they sound. They are more surprising'.
Kennedy points out the irony of this approach. 'One big Scottish tradition which is worth retaining and celebrating is of the self-education of the working class. You went into Parkhead Ford and they said to apprentices, "have you read Shakespeare?". And while you learned your trade and you learnt to learn as it was your heritage as a human being.' Patterson agrees and points out that the working classes have always been aspirational and elitist about art. 'They always aspired to bourgeois culture because that's what's good.'
Greig also thinks this 'constant looking for authenticity insults the audience', but in a different way than Kennedy and Patterson suggest: 'It denies that a person who comes from a working-class background in Scotland can have a desire or dream that is bigger than simply to see themselves - or rather someone else's idea of themselves - when they go to the theatre.' He points out that despite the obsession with extending access to the arts, people are less likely to go to the theatre if all they are going to get is a mirror image. 'My granny takes a bus trip down to London to see West End shows. Do you think she wants to go and see a show about the terrible lives of old people in homes? No, she wants to go and see Cats.' The last word goes to Don Patterson - access to the arts, he says, should be 'all to do with clearing the cones off the roads to art - rather than doing anything to art itself'.
Reproduced from LM issue 125, November 1999