This is the text of a Scottish Review lecture given in honour of Iain Crichton Smith in 2006
Like all who knew him, I had great times with Iain Crichton Smith. Not least professionally. At readings, or in their aftermath. During radio productions. And one hilarious evening, in a rowing boat on the edge of Loch Etive, when an interview was foiled by a faulty microphone, drained batteries, growing thirst and finally man-eating midges.
His output was phenomenal. Once when I bumped into Norman MacCaig, Norman asked lugubriously if Iain was all right.
'So far as I know,' I said. 'Why?'
'He hasn't had a book out for days.'
With some poets, though I couldn't begin to duplicate their work, I feel I can at least trace how it was formulated. Time and again (as with his astonishing, 'winged nightingales of brine') Iain's pure lyric leap defied literality or logic. His directness and lucidity could also be striking. 'The Beginning of a New Song,' commissioned for the opening of the Scottish parliament in 1999, starts:
Let our three-voiced country
Sing in a new world
Joining the other rivers without dogma
and ends on the hope that
Its institutions mirror its beauty;
Then without shame we can esteem ourselves.
How much have we come to merit 'esteem' and has the 'institution' itself, in the wake of the euphoria and acrimony surrounding the new building, lived up to expectation? What of the prevailing climate, and perceptions, vis-a-vis the parliament – and the literary community?
I have been shocked by the derision, in a section of the press, of the personal traits and appearance of our elected representatives. While doubtless symptomatic of politics reforming itself around personality, this demeans not just them, but the institution. On the other hand a skating on thin ice, a blurring of the bounds of probity among MSPs themselves, has served to undermine trust. All can't be tarred with one brush. But too much smacks of gratifying self
as against earning public
The arts, jinxed in having had six ministers in six years (and the manner of their going), are further bedevilled by sharing a bed with sport and tourism. The prime sins have been of omission; and most destructively the dismantling (abetted by managerial arrogance) of Scottish Opera, rather than an acknowledgement of magnificent achievement.
When I started to write, the climate was very different. At a polished desk in Kilmarnock's Dick Institute, I hid my scribbles for fear their shapes would reveal those effete objects, poems. We were belted for not learning by heart works by a Dead Poets' Society; or for using dialect words allowed only in Burns. And blizzard sophisticates as we fancied ourselves, I recall our shock at hearing a Rangers fan at Rugby Park yell: 'Get tore in at thae country yokels!'
On a BBC attachment to Edinburgh in the 60s I sensed an east-west linguistic split. Lallans was despised by many who urged a phonetic Glaswegian with a socialist as against nationalist impetus. It could be tooth-and-nail selling Scottish plays to the London networks. There weren't the grants and bursaries, writers' residencies and awards which provide a safety net (or trampoline) nowadays.
Poetry was a coterie activity. A National Poetry Day, far less a Scottish Poetry Library, were pie in the sky; with readings, pre-Traverse, pretty well restricted to the Saltire Society or soiree settings. Now in Edwin Morgan we boast a 'national poet,' appointed by the Scottish executive. Glasgow and Edinburgh have their laureate and makar. Under Douglas Dunn, the University of St Andrews houses a phalanx of poet-critics acclaimed here and abroad.
I recall Scots being prescribed; rows over style-sheets; echoes of Edwin Muir's claim that a Scot couldn't pen poetry of real stature in English; we feel
in Scots, but think
in the latter. Given the lie latterly in the interweaving dictions and rhythms of Don Paterson, Robert Crawford, Liz Lochhead et al. (Though I gather proposals for signs and information in Scots, at Holyrood, have foundered – through lack of agreement on orthography…)
Morgan's manifesto for the parliament building is displayed in Queensberry House. A sonnet sequence in 'Voyage of Intent,' by the parliament's first writer in residence, James Robertson, contains a pithy injunction to MSPs. While Kathleen Jamie's 'On the Design for the New Parliament Building by Architect Enric Miralles' reads simply:
An upturned boat
– a watershed.
On the other hand such is the plethora of writing groups, it can seem more folk are now writing the stuff than reading it. Poor sales figures are nothing new. Kenneth Patchen didn't beat about the bush: 'People who say they love poetry and never buy any, are a bunch of cheap sons of bitches.'
In the novel, even allowing for the allure of fashion, and hype, there seems every confidence that today's is a genuine high tide. Joining the advance guard of Gray and Kelman, Irvine Welsh, Janice Galloway and A L Kennedy, surges an exhilarating new wave, with an energy and diversity unthinkable even a decade ago. Distinguished among them are James Robertson and Ali Smith.
This cornucopia of confidence, 'this glorious ferment' as Keith Bruce called it in the Herald, was not easy-won; but engendered in part by the efforts of previous writers, publishers ready to take risks; and through the Scottish Arts Council (though the slice of its cake allocated to literature has been derisory), Scottish Book Trust's 'writers in public schools' scheme, and the growing stature of the Edinburgh Book Festival.
Scottish drama, a creature of fits and starts long pilloried as backward-looking, has won plaudits through the innovative energy of Peter Arnott, Gregory Burke, David Greig and David Harrower. And through directorial and audience nurturing. Most boldly a new Scottish National Theatre Company (for which there have been runners down the decades) stands on the threshold of its first season. I applaud its choice of plays and venues – and wish it well.
In his oft-quoted speech on St Andrew's Day 2003, first minister Jack McConnell declared: 'I believe we can now make the development of our creative drive, our imagination, the next major enterprise for our society…Art for all can be a reality.' Last summer, a cultural commission set up under James Boyle presented its report; its aim not just to rearrange the cultural infrastructure (adding yet more tiers of arts administrators) but put us 'on the brink of the most exciting policy shift of our time.'
The executive's response, in 'Scotland's Culture,' held fewer goodies and less in the kitty (£20 million for the arts sector) than hoped for. The national companies are to come under the executive. Libraries likewise (how much going on books
?). The SAC and Scottish Screen, merged as Creative Scotland, will concentrate on development. Also targeted are education and 'cultural entitlement' (do we really need the right to attend and participate in artistic events conferred on us?). Dispiritingly the booklet's numbing civil-service-speak was light years from the pulse of what it pertained to put its finger on.
Bodies other than the national ones sounded sceptical. Once again, a declaration of intent. But will the rhetoric bear fruit? All hinges not just on the reality of the crock of gold at the end of the rainbow but on its reasonable distribution, and a concession that literature is
one of the arts. In this context it will be interesting how Edinburgh realises its City of Literature promise on behalf of today's
writers (and perhaps the provision of a writers' centre) and as a stepping-stone to other cities and cultures; rather than by 'salon' evenings or replicating the function of existing organisations – as in hitching their wagon to the glossy three of Rowling, Rankin and McCall Smith.
The arts merit more than slick VisitScotland catch-phrases, being governed by market forces, or measured by a narrow community yardstick; but must be treasured as central to the nation's heartbeat and spiritual identity. With 'standards' not as a dirty word, and as an investment in
I was recently at a poetry festival in Macedonia (my second in the Balkans). Even such glimpses (many of you have far wider experiences) were salutary. Road-signs to Pristina were a reminder of terrible events. No Serbs attended. Translations were solely into Albanian, Tetova University's teaching tongue – whereas Skopje's is Macedonian. A Croatian diplomat chastised my keeping in a poem the name of a girl I'd read about who had been shot – Melina – because it was Bosnian.
When I mentioned to one writer the flood-feud theme in Ismael Kadare's novel, 'Broken April,' he said he wished there could be an end to violence 'stemming from events 60 years ago.' Our good fortune in not being similarly pressured, historically or racially, made me very aware of narrow views on Glencoe and the Clearances say; or scapegoating the English. Never mind the sectarian chants, still tolerated at our football grounds, harking back to 1560 and 1690. More trivially, how fatuous for our rugby team playing Samoa or Italy to brag of sending 'proud Edward homewards, to think again.'
We are accustomed to expressing ourselves without fear of imprisonment or worse. Yet horizons are narrowing. Language is increasingly under threat; with meaning distorted, as in the chameleon term 'rendition', and the cynical redefining of 'torture'. How to balance freedom of speech and right of response, and establish mutual respect, in an atmosphere rife with hypocrisy and incitement? Alerted by the religious hatred bill were groups not commonly aligned: academics and stand-ups. Writers can protest individually or through membership of International PEN whose remit, besides supporting those under repressive regimes, includes monitoring censorship and other practices, at home.
At least, while the West Lothian question has been raised anew, and pseudo-political correctness leads to farce, neither has yet given rise to shooting in our streets. Pedantic calls for 'respect' are seen as a sign of authority seeping away; pleas for a reclamation of the union jack as a reminder of the ambivalent motives for waving any national flag.
In his last radio interview I asked Norman MacCaig, was he proud to be Scottish. He replied: 'No, it certainly isn't pride. I can never understand why people say "I'm proud to be a Scot." He's only Scottish by a bunch of accidents. Pleased if you like. I'm very pleased
to be Scots. But I see things in Scotland that I'm not proud of at all. That's common sense, isn't it?'
At one extreme, Iain Crichton Smith bemoaned 'the land God gave to Andy Stewart.' At the other he showed a detestation of dogma…any form of ideology. With the world close to spiralling out of control, we can afford neither complacency nor insularity. Our writers and parliamentarians alike must speak responsibly to
, and for
us; and (as commendably underpins the Institute of Contemporary Scotland) not ex
clusively, but in
clusively – with moral values and vision, humanity and tolerance. Bearing a torch not just for us to observe and praise, or bask in, but to illumine and inspire…and be passed on. Then without shame we can esteem ourselves.