Edwin Morgan

As a tribute, here we reprint a presentation Edwin Morgan gave to a Scottish Left Review event at the Edinburgh Festival in 2002, entitled ‘Scottish Fiction’

I’ll begin by taking up some of the topics which the Scottish Left Review asked its three speakers to consider. I think ‘consider’ is the word, since in many cases there is no clear yes or no, right or wrong.

The first question was a big one, but we might as well plunge in and see what we make of it. ‘What does the state of the arts and Scottish culture more generally tell us about Scotland just now?’ Speaking about it from a literary point of view, I see it as a large and succulent egg which has not been quite cracked open. It seems to be generally agreed that there has been a revival of Scottish writing. If this is the case, it has come in two waves, one in the 1960s and one in the 1980s. The earlier revival was not chiefly concerned with things Scottish, the later one was very much concerned with things Scottish.

In the Sixties, there was an atmosphere, an excitement, a sense of liberation, of potentialities, of boundaries being crossed, which came from a great variety of things outside Scotland – the music of Bob Dylan and the Beatles, a new explosion of poetry and prose in America with Allen Ginsberg and Jack Kerouac, a new generation of poets in Russia with Yevtushenko and Voznesensky, the beginnings of space exploration, the international growth of the idea of a counter-culture. All this was reflected in Scotland, to the surprise of not a few observers. When a literary magazine called Sidewalk appeared in Edinburgh, there were complaints about its American title, to say nothing of its contents, and I remember a newspaper headline which said EDINBURGH SURRENDERS TO THE BEATS! This was the time when Tom Leonard published his poems in Glasgow dialect, to make his point that, as he said, ‘all living language is sacred’, and also to deliver strong political signals about social class and social authority. It was the time of The Edinburgh Writers Festival where the very public row between Hugh MacDiarmid and Alexander Trocchi made wonderful journalistic copy but was also genuinely significant as a turning-point in Scottish culture. Trocchi’s novel Cain’s Book, which later became very influential in Scotland, was largely concerned with the drug scene in America, but with flashbacks to the hero’s childhood in Glasgow, and it reminded people that the New York waterfront could well be regarded as material for a Scottish writer to deal with – it didn’t have to be Sunset Song country. Trocchi became a pivotal figure in Sixties culture with his Sigma Portfolios, which were cyclostyled sheets including articles by R.D. Laing and Kenneth White as well as by Trocchi himself and many internationally known writers. The main point about it is that Scottish writers were at home in an international context. And this applied also to things like concrete poetry, which was an international movement that turned out to be strong in Scotland but not in England. When Ian Hamilton Finlay and I began to publish our concrete poetry, eyebrows were raised; could this be poetry? could this be Scottish?! I was ready to answer Yes to both charges. It was a new time.

Between that time and the 1980s there was, of course the 1979 referendum and its failure to deliver a Scottish assembly. This political event, which caused a sort of numbness in Scottish politics, had the opposite effect on Scottish writing, a galvanizing effect that was unexpected but powerful. As Cairns Craig has written, ‘The political activism of the 1970s, made redundant by the referendum, became the cultural activism of the 1980s.’ This was the decade of Alasdair Gray’s Lanark, James Kelman’s The Busconductor Hines, Iain Banks’s The Bridge, Liz Lochhead’s Mary Queen of Scots Got Her Head Chopped Off, Janice Galloway’s The Trick is to Keep Breathing, Tom Leonard’s Intimate Voices.

These were not the books of a defeated country! There has always been argument about whether cultural change should precede, accompany, or follow political change. In this case, the outburst of good writing in the 1980s (which spilled over into the 1990s) clearly presaged the 1997 referendum with its overwhelming endorsement of a Scottish Parliament. Looking back now, I can see how my own book Sonnets from Scotland (1984), which began as a sort of defiant non-acceptance of the failed referendum, fits into an evolving pattern of Scottish culture as wide-ranging, risk-taking, internationally aware. Although it was in a sense a history of Scotland, an alternative history, I gave it a science-fiction setting, with mysterious visitors to the earth commenting on events and experiences in an oblique way, as in the poem called ‘The Coin’:

We brushed the dirt off, held it to the light.
The obverse showed us Scotland, and the head
of a red deer; the antler-glint had fled
but the fine cut could still be felt. All right:
we turned it over, read easily One Pound,
but then the shock of Latin, like a gloss,
Respublica Scotorum, sent across
such ages as we guessed but never found
at the worn edge where once the date had been
and where as many fingers had gripped hard
as hopes their silent race had lost or gained.
The marshy scurf crept up to our machine,
sucked at our boots. Yet nothing seemed ill-starred.
And least of all the realm the coin contained.

As a rider to that, I might add Tom Leonard’s little poem, written about the same time:

Scotland has become an independent socialist republic.
At last.
You pinch yourself.
Jesus Christ. You’ve slept in again!

As you move through the 1990s, however, there are signs that things are not going to be so clear-cut. When Irvine Welsh’s Trainspotting came out in 1993, it broke various boundaries and set up various challenges. It was another modern urban novel,

but its language was Edinburgh/Leith instead of the Glaswegian people had become used to in works of this kind; it lifted the lid off the wildness of urban life without moralizing; and although it was obviously very Scottish it was also anti-Scottish. As the hero Renton says, watching some violent, mindless, swaggering guys in a pub:

Ah hate cunts like that… Fuckin’ failures in a country ay failures. It’s nae good blamin it oan the English fir colonising us. Ah don’t hate the English. They’re just wankers. We are colonised by wankers. We can’t even pick: a decent, vibrant, healthy culture to be colonised by… What does that make us? The lowest of the fuckin low, the scum of the earth… Ah don’t hate the English. They just git oan wi the shite thuv goat. Ah hate the Scots.

This language, with its mixture of the colloquial and the educated, seems devised to open up questions about Scotland in the reader’s mind. It’s an aspect of the book’s particular kind of realism, the realism that made it the success it was. You may say, wasn’t there realism before, in Kelman for instance? It’s instructive to compare these two writers. A decade has passed between The Busconductor Hines and Trainspotting, and they inhabit different spaces, different worlds. Here is the busconductor telling his young son how to make mince and tatties. It begins like this:

Item: 1 pot. Item: 3⁄4 lb mince. Item: 2 onion, medium sized then a 1⁄2 lb carrots, a tin of peas and also a no – not at all, don’t use a frying pan to brown the mince; what you do is fry it lightly in the same pot you’re doing the actual cooking in. Saves a utensil for the cleaning up carry on. So: stick mince into pot with drop cooking oil, lard or whatever the fuck – margarine maybe. Have onions peeled and chopped. Break up mince with wooden spoon. Put pot on at slow heat that it doesn’t sizzle too much. While breaking up mince all the time in order that it may not become too fucking lumpy. Toss in onions. The pepper and salt to have been sprinkled while doing the breaking up. Next: have your water boiled. Pour a 1⁄2 pint measure in which you’ve already dumped gravy cube viz crumbled into the smallest bits possible. Stir. When mince brownish add mixture. Stir. Place lid on pot. Having already brought to boil. Then get simmering i.e. once boiling you turn gas so’s it just bubbles and no more.

And here is the hero of Trainspotting, listing what you need to come off heroin;

Ten tins ay Heinz tomato soup, eight tins ay mushroom soup (all to be consumed cold), one large tub ay vanilla ice-cream (which will melt and be drunk), two boatils ay Milk of Magnesia, one boatil ay paracetamol, one packet ay Rinstead mouth pastilles, one boatil ay multivits, five litres ay mineral water, twelve Lucozade isotonic drinks and some magazines: soft porn, Viz, Scottish Football Today, The Punter, etc. The most important item hus already been procured from a visit tae the parental home; ma Ma’s bottle ay valium, removed from her bathroom cabinet.

Between mince and cold turkey there’s quite a gap. Drugs are not a problem in Kelman’s world. In Welsh’s world no one would waste time making mince and potatoes. Both books reflected aspects of Scottish life, but when Renton and his pals appeared, they made us look back on the busconductor with different eyes, not necessarily more critical, but different. And it may be that one of the legacies of Trainspotting, even though it has been much imitated, has been to establish or encourage difference rather than schools of writing. The sense that a referendum, this time likely to be a positive one, was in the offing may have induced a certain feeling for creative freedom instead of the linearity of striving towards that particular change. At any rate, in the last decade it has become much harder to see the wood for the trees and in fact there may not be a wood. Take a handful of recent notable books: Toni Davidson’s Scar Culture, Jackie Kay’s Trumpet, Alan Warner’s Morvern Caller, James Kelman’s Translated Accounts, Ali Smith’s Hotel World. Have they anything in common? Scar Culture is a powerful, complex story of child abuse and psychotherapy. Trumpet is the touching story of a black jazzman who is found after his death to be a woman. Morvern Caller has a rural setting (Oban, plus a visit to the Mediterranean rave scene); it’s written in the first person of a very cool young woman, amoral, unsettled, ready for anything. Hotel World interlinks in an oblique but moving way the lives of five women who have a connection with a big hotel. Translated Accounts shows a new aspect of Kelman: non-Glaswegian, written in a fractured, jargon-ridden English, set in an unnamed police state. The variety of approach in these five books is an argument in favour of diversity, a new phase in which Scottish writers have decided to boldly go wherever they feel impelled to explore. Categories are thin on the ground. Risks are taken. But this mixed, scene is not all that different from the Scottish scene in general.

A further question was suggested to us: “How do we persuade politicians of the importance of the arts in a time when micro-management is seen as the priority?” When the Scottish Parliament was established, it got a mixed reception from Scottish writers. Iain Banks said “I think it’s a good idea. I’m all for devolution. I voted for the SNP at the last election… despite their absurd resistance to devolution.” Tom Leonard said he wasn’t even interested; it was just a different kind of sweetie being handed over to Scotland by Westminster. Alasdair Gray was somewhat between these two extremes. In his book Why Scots Should Rule Scotland, which came out in 1997, just before there was a referendum, he wrote (answering his publisher’s comment that Tony Blair had committed his party to a Scottish assembly): “Perhaps. It is likely to be what Billy Connolly call a pretendy parliament… It will only be a step nearer democracy if Scots refuse to let it rest at that.” And what was perhaps a surprise reaction from Irvine Welsh, whom many people think of as a sort of bizarre anarchist-cum-entrepreneur: “British identity is in terminal decline. Full independence is the future for Scotland. The worst-case scenario is that the parliament will be crap. You always get an oligarchy that creams it off for themselves. There is such a moribund’ infrastructure of deadbeats and con men in the Labour party that has dominated politics in central Scotland for so long. I’d be absolutely astonished if these people didn’t manage to push their noses in the trough and dominate. Hopefully not.” I think all these comments suggest a very guarded welcome for the new Parliament. Welcome, but watch it! seems to be the mood.

It’s quite natural for writers and artists to be wary of governments and governmental bodies. Writers and artists want recognition, but they also want independence. That’s the crux. The Irish poet Yeats served for six years as a senator in the first Irish Free State parliament, but became increasingly disillusioned by its politics. One thing he did do was introduce a new Irish coinage – surely the most beautiful coins in Europe. That was alright; but really Yeats’s value lies in his poems and plays. How far a government can be proactive for the arts is always an arguable point. I think a Minister for the Arts would help. At the moment we have a Minister who includes the arts with a portfolio bulging with other things, and that’s not good. The arts,and especially the literary arts, explore and expose and express the soul of a country (the Scottish Executive seems to be either unwilling of unable to make any kind of strong commitment to Scottish literature, perhaps in the mistaken belief that this would play into the hands of political nationalists). Take a small example. After I was appointed Glasgow’s Poet Laureate by the City Council, a number of people began to ask why there wasn’t a Poet Laureate for Scotland, especially since it now had its own Parliament. There was an English Poet Laureate – Andrew Motion – so why not a Scottish one? The answer is of course that Andrew Motion’s post is a UK post, and it doesn’t matter that no Scottish, Irish or Welsh poet has ever been crowned, that’s just the way the cookie crumbles. Well, a proposal was, I believe, put to the Scottish Executive, but received a dusty answer. There are no plans for a Poet Laureate in Scotland. It may seem trivial, but symbolism is never unimportant. The Scottish Executive is still thinking in UK terms and cannot get its head round the fact that there really has been a change, and it must be recognised.

Do governments simply distrust writers? IRVINE WELSH FOR FIRST MINISTER! How would that go? Even if they distrust, they should listen to them. As Burns said, “A chield’s amang ye takin notes, / And faith he’ll prent it.” And what he (or she) says about Scotland may not look like very good electioneering material. Here’s Liz Lochhead, in the guise of a crow:

LACORBIE: Country: Scotland. Whitlikeisit?
It’s a peatbog, it’s a daurk forest.
It’s a cauldron o’ lye, a saltpan or a coal mine.
If you’re gey lucky it’s a bricht bere meadow or a park o’ kye.
Or mibbe… it’s a field o’ stanes.
It’s a tenement or a merchant’s ha’.
It’s a hure hoose or a humble cot. Princes Street or Paddy’s Merkit.
It’s a fistfu’ o’ fish or a pickle o’ oatmeal.
It’s a queen’s banquet o’ roast meats and junketts.
It depends. It depends … Ah dinna ken whit like your Scotland is.
Here’s mines.
National flower: the thistle.
National pastime: nostalgia.
National weather: smirr, haar, drizzle, snow.
National bird: the crow, the corbie, le corbeau, moi!
How me? Eh? Eh? Eh? Voice like a choked laugh.
Ragbag o’a burd in ma black duds, a’ angles and elbows and broken oxter feathers, black beady een in ma executioner’s hood.
No braw, but Ah think Ah ha’e a sort of black glamour.

‘No braw, but a sort of black glamour” – Is that subject to management, or micro-management? Probably not! It needs a bit of lateral thinking. The crow has a lef twing all right,but it gives a raucous warning that if you want the lordly eagle or the rare osprey or the famous grouse as your national bird, you’re barking up the wrong tree. It’s the common crow, watchful, dangerous, interactive.

Talk to it.