To know your place

In the month when the world comes to Scotland to sample arts from around the world, Donny O’Rourke looks at a book which talks about our art, here

Carl MacDougall once suggested that every Scottish novel could carry the subtitle, ‘Myself, When Young’. ‘A Sense Of Place’ might be another contender. Certainly the lie, and truth, of the land has kept poets and painters busy in study and studio down the years. Artists are pre-occupied over time by what they occupy in space. The causal connection between de-populated bens and glens as habitat and tourist tat is truly a matter of life and death – the snapshot and the musket shot. Of all the large notions operative upon the contested identity, or identities of Scotland, place is as significant as any. Displacement from the Highlands to the various ‘new worlds’ gave rise to diasporic Scotlands of the imagination; displacement to Glasgow and other industrial towns and cities, made those places, to extents still palpable, Irelands of the mind. To say of someone that we cannot ‘place them’, is to make a statement about much more than memory. Confronted with the prospect of eviction and being replaced by sheep, the deranged victims of class depredation, quite literally, ‘lost the place’. One might suggest that Scots and other subject peoples have too often known their place, because they haven’t known their place.

The ‘authors’ of this book (I shall explain the inverted commas in a moment), need defer to no one in their knowledge about and understanding of their place. Or places. One was raised in Fife, lives in Edinburgh and taught art in Glasgow, the other, Lanarkshire-born but brought up in England, resides in Ayr and after a lengthy stint lecturing on literature in New Zealand, now works in Glasgow. Both have made important creative and critical contributions to the culture of a place and the place of a culture, they were determined not just to understand but to change, whether in the orthodox Marxist sense or not. That change, carried exhilaratingly forward in these pages, is above all, to the status of, reprioritised pedagogical investment in, research commitment to and research, media, and artistic engagement with, Scotland in, and as, Scotland. A willed, resolute, dissenting decision, maybe, to place an emphasis on emphasising a place. Much and marvellously to its credit, ‘Arts of Resistance’ is a partial (in every sense) explanation of how, thanks to dissident and oppositional, visual and verbal energies, Scotland came to look and feel the way it does today.

Sandy Moffat, former professor of painting at the Glasgow School of Art and Alan Riach present occupant of the chair in Scottish Literature at Glasgow University, have produced an odd book but a very good one, a comparatively costly hardback moreover, whose value approaches its price, on account of what there is to read and look at, in this opulently produced and discursively engaging, (almost literal), tour d’horizon. The slight oddness, and problematic question of, ‘authority’, derives from the book’s origins in a series of dialogues between painter and poet at The National Gallery Of Scotland, so that we are effectively listening with our eyes to a transcription of what one might term, a ‘curated conversation’ with the invincibly sensible Linda MacDonald- Lewis, whose idea the project was, playing the part of the sometimes chivvying, never chiding ‘moderator’. And because the speakers interact with each other as much as with the then-listener, now-reader, we are positioned, not always advantageously, somewhere between being audience member and eavesdropper with the insights, and there are many, sometimes listened to, sometimes overheard What is said is of consistently first rate quality, as talk. But to amble and ramble at book length, even when the conversation is compelling and the conversers companionable as well as expert, is to run a risk and run it valiantly, though those hazards and heroisms are offset by the sumptuous illustrations, worth the cover price in themselves, and by the intrinsic fascination of the subject and the distinction of the duo doing the deliberating, each of whom submitted his remarks to some judicious post confabulatory ‘overdubbing’.

Much and marvellously to its credit, ‘Arts of Resistance’ is a partial (in every sense) explanation of how, thanks to dissident and oppositional, visual and verbal energies, Scotland came to look and feel the way it does today

It is a remarkable talker whose words warrant being written down. Many a loquacious Oxbridge don, even the most quippingly quotable, had sufficient, and self protective prudence to prevent any would-be amanuensis preserving in print comments that ought not to have outlived the occasion of their utterance. Neither professor/ practitioner, though fluent, indeed eloquent, is an aphoristic communicator. There are no sound- bites at the Colourist cherry; probably a good thing. To get the most out of the expertly informative to-ing and fro-ing recorded here, however, you probably, as the saying goes, had to be there. But if we weren’t, as TV, radio and web cams were also not, then this chunkily beguiling volume amounts to compensation well worth claiming. Although it does develop theses, Arts of Resistance, is an informative and instructive work rather than an argumentative text. William Gillies, encountered, atypically unbuttoned, dancing dandyishly in a Glasgow sitting room, is moved ever closer to the centre of our comprehension of twentieth century Scottish painting, where he is joined by William Johnstone. Patrick Geddes is saluted and celebrated. The canon continues uncontested, the usual suspects rounded up and released. Yet this is no bad thing. Moffat and Riach are enthusiasts who’d rather hymn than hate. Theirs is a book of exultation as opposed to excoriation; and, in a work, broken up into geographical sections, they pan for nuggets everywhere.

Many readers, even some in Dundee, will be glad to know more about that occasionally patronised and neglected city’s visual art and literary legacy. To see some much-needed redress in the critical neglect of painter Stewart Carmichael and poet James Young Geddes is a welcome revision lent impetus by this discussion. Neither’s oeuvre was familiar to me and the meticulously prepared disquisition on their lives and work, and the expository and ardent advocacy of that work, is typical of the book’s enthusiastic and scholarly thoroughness as a whole. Justice also begins to be done to David Forrester Wilson, a predecessor of Sandy Moffat’s as a tutor at the Glasgow School of Art and as Moffat demonstrates a major depicter of Island scenes and people. Paid seemly tribute too, is the critic John Tonge, author of, ‘The Arts of Scotland’, a leading proselytiser for the Scottish Renaissance, friend and ally of the two Roberts, Colquhoun and MacBryde, and the figure with a walking stick, hirpling down the stairs in the top corner of Moffat’s iconic group portrait. He, like everyone and every thing else in ‘Arts Of Resistance, is spoken of with a winning mixture of lightly-worn but immense erudition and nuanced, never chauvinistically reductive intellectual ardour. These two exceptionally well informed artists and teachers leave the general reader much better informed about the relationship between poetry and painting in this country.

Despite having worked admiringly with them both (an interest now declared), I know nothing of the specific personal politics of the authors and nothing in detail is divulged in passing. They lean to the left (though at what angle there is no protractor to tell us) and they believe, to resort to word debased by over use, passionately, that the curricular neglect in Scotland of Scottish art, culture and history, has had debilitating consequences for Scottish art, culture and history. They could perhaps go further in theorising this, even in a book not too snobbish to disdain the better class of coffee table, in terms of invasively inculcated self loathing and internal colonisation. There are some, it is not too churlish to point out, who will feel ambivalent about the part played in this process by the very institution hosting these reflections.

One might suggest that Scots and other subject peoples have too often known their place, because they haven’t known their place.

Each protagonist tends to cluster his lucidly learned arguments around a (very persuasive) big idea. For Sandy Moffat, this is the pre-eminence in terms of precedent, practise and principle, proper to German, as opposed to French influences on Scottish art. His influence is to be seen (again, in this instance, literally), on the famous Glasgow painters he famously taught in the late seventies, Ken Currie, Steven Campbell, Peter Howson and Adrian Wiszniewski, expressively expressionist to a man, each relating himself in one way or another to Moffat’s friend John Bellany who had assimilated Beckman as previously Fergusson had incorporated Derain. Alan Riach’s big idea is the big idea that was, is and ever shall be, Hugh MacDiarmid, whose work the younger poet has brilliantly edited and analysed. It is (slightly) frustrating that whilst fitting weight is given to a consideration of the New Glasgow Boys in relation to place, their literary counterparts, poets Riach’s age and younger, are crowded out of the canvass, perhaps, because Alan Riach wishes to avoid any imputation among his peers, of back stabbing or scratching? The connection between, say, the imagistically innovative, seen from above visualisation of Scotland as a circuit board, so characteristic of Robert Crawford’s approach to the lie of the land, and the aerial view landscapes of carol Rhodes, merits an aside at least perhaps. Similarly, Calum Colvin is, rightly lauded and critiqued but not the poetry of W.N. Herbert who uses verbal effects that provide a counterpoint to Colvin’s collagistic interrogations of, if you will, Scotland’s myriad mythed opportunities. Douglas Gordon’s productions are here but not those of any poet his age. There are visual omissions too. Paul Strand’s masterly Highland and island photographic studies duly appear and are assessed but the exhibition which first placed those places, so to speak, by exploring the ideological implications of quasi-genocidal human absence from them, As an Fhearann, (From the Land), a seminal touring exhibition mounted in the late eighties by Stornoway’s An Lantairr Gall is passed over. One could go on…

It is more useful however, and surely more gallant, to stick to what is in this really rather splendid book. What is very much in, is the poetry of those maestri of the mid century and after, gathered by Sandy Moffat in his masterpiece, ‘Poets’ Pub’. Moffat was most impressed and inspired by MacCaig. In Riach’s book, or his half of it, the mostly unpubbable Edwin Morgan is the force really to be reckoned with. Vivid renderings of the backgrounds to this generation of makers that came after and drank with, MacDiarmid, are a strong suit, whether the war time desert in which several of them served, or the Orkney, Lewis, Assynt, Edinburgh or Glasgow which nurtured their imaginations. Moffat knew all of these men (sic) and Riach some of them, which lends the conversation anecdotal savour.

‘Oh fuck, there’s two of them’, unamused patrons were alleged to have groaned on seeing Bernie Winters join his equally unfunny brother, Mike, on the stage of the Glasgow ‘Empire’. This double act will elicit few groans, for there is indeed, variety here. ‘Arts of Resistance’ is a lavishly ample poetry anthology and a considerable cultural catalogue raisonee and would be sufficiently cherishable for those reasons, even it did not teem with tutelary talk. Sandy Moffat and Alan Riach trail in their enticing introduction the story they wish to tell and it is a broadly familiar one. But as a survey of, ‘poets, portraits and landscapes of modern Scotland’ their elegant dialogic deliberation, in doing exactly what it says on the cover, adds copiously and compellingly to what we know about the relationship between the images produced by poets and painters, in the presentation and re-presentation of a country thinking harder than ever about what it dares to be. We cannot envision without revision and capital has a vested interest in displacement activity of all distracting and enfeebling kinds. This huge hearted, tough minded work of celebration and cerebration is replacement activity of magnificent restorative power. This conversation with end papers is no. ‘wheen o blethers’. Purposive chatters they may be, but Sandy Moffat and Alan Riach are certainly not all talk.

Arts of Resistance: Poets, Portraits and Landscapes of Modern Scotland – Alexander Moffat and Alan Riach with Linda MacDonald-Lewis, Luath (£29.99)