Plugging in... How the new politics are powered by a buzzing culture
A scene from a surgery in Partick: I am exchanging pleasantries with a cheery and tender medic, who is attending to my klutzy leg wound. So what’s your schedule like for the weekend, nurse?
“Oh, I’m off to the Citizens to see the Lanark play. The reviews so far have been wonderful. I’m a deep reader of all Alasdair Gray’s work.” A Yes voter? Need you ask?
The question of how we think of Scottish culture one year after the indyref, and as we stumble and search our way towards the next one, is properly messy and nuanced. At least in the Yes-zones, however, it’s hard to avoid the natural, everyday relationship between culture and politics that has evolved.
Let’s be clear though: Scottish culture doesn’t march to a political schedule. Indeed, it tends to anticipate politics, operating like a kind of advanced warning system. The writer and playwright Peter Arnott has noted that all the major “referendum” plays were already written in the 80’s and 90’s - The Cheviot, the Stag and the Black Black Oil (currently touring), John Brown’s Body, Border Warfare, Caledonia Dreaming, Dissent, and Arnott's A Little Rain.
Scottish literature declared its own act of radical autonomy, at the level of writing style, in the 70’s and 80’s, with authors like Gray, Tom Leonard, James Kelman, Janice Galloway, Liz Lochhead and many others. They had an intense commitment to the particulars of the Scottish “voice” - in terms of language, vocabulary, and social experiences previously unrepresented.1
But they also consciously placed themselves in universal contexts - of feminism, socialism and anarchism, or as contributors to a post-imperialist “world literature”. From their writing desks and favourite howffs, these writers declared their independence on the planet, never mind “in Europe”.
The wave of writers that came immediately after them - Alan Warner, Alison Kennedy, Liz Smith, James Roberston, Iain Banks and Irvine Welsh (again, among many others) - adapted their predecessors’ radicalism. They took their worldly, intimate, complex Scottishness, and brought it to invigorate other mediums and markets.
The overall result of this activity, as it impacted on the indyref, was to provide a rich cultural background - by no means homogenous or propagandist - which supported a mentality of essential national self-worth amongst the citizens. (Never did the two bumptious Georges - Galloway and Robertson - make more of a fool of themselves in the indyref than when they suggested Scotland didn’t have a “distinctive culture”.)
We should never forget that the referendum vote, despite the crude binary of the question, ended up being about “full powers” versus “more powers” for a self-governing Scotland. No version of us as a “North Britain” was, or even could be, implied.
For this, we have to thank the “voicing” of Scotland by its artists, to some degree at least, as they helped solidify and articulate that identity (simply by letting their imaginations do the work).
In response to the indyref and its surging aftermath, there would seem to be some subtle shifts underway, at the highest cultural levels. After Jonathan Mills’ ill-considered proclamations of constitutional “neutrality” at the 2014 Edinburgh International Festival, the new director Fergus Linehan seems to have been much more relaxed about placing major Scots works alongside a global programme.
Take the satirical version of James Hogg’s Confessions shown, as well as the children’s production Dragon, and of course David Greig’s and Graeme Eatough’s version of Lanark. The EIF’s Hub venue also prominently features King Creosote’s heart-melting combination of music and footage, From Scotland With Love, as well as Scots multi-instrumentalist Alexi Murdoch.
If this heralds a shift towards a more reciprocal relationship between the cosmopolitan, and the Scottish-national, in cultural programming in this country - to the mutual enrichment of both approaches - it is to be quietly but clearly welcomed.
However, as Greig wisely counselled at the pre-referendum peak of August 2014, if someone asked him to write a play “about” the referendum he “wouldn’t know where to start. It’s just not how a play arrives. A play begins, for me, with an unsettled feeling, a sense of matters unresolved. It can take years and years for that grain of psychic sand to acquire enough layers of grit to become the pearl of a play.”
And for “play”, read any artwork: Greig’s predicts that in five years time, the Fringe will be louping with referendum backstories. But given that “fiction also sometimes functions as a kind of receiver of distant signals from the future”, as the playwright puts it, we should remember to read and view Scots culture with as open a mind as possible.
The posters in the streets can often be useful clues. Sitting alongside the rock and rave posters, the Glasgow theatre company Cryptic’s engagement with Indonesian culture this month, timed to the country’s 70th independence anniversary, has fascinated me.
Is this a geo-aesthetics preparing the way for the geo-politics of independence? Scots need a full understanding of a 21st century world where the centres of power are now multiple. But perhaps opening up the channels of art and culture, in all their ambiguity, personal connection and emotional openness, may be more important and enduring than any commercial or political exchange between nations?
The young design crew Lateral North also speak to this, in their various graphic mappings and connections across the North Sea and up to the Arctic. They have pulled this together in an “atlas of productivity” - where Scotland is already a pulsing power-centre of natural and cultural resources.
[See today's report in the New York Times. Also, hot off today's press, news of the CCA's season on the aftermath of the indyref, 'The Shock of Victory' - with an explicitly globalist reach (and more)]
I also await (and have long awaited) the fusion between the more traditional artforms in Scottish culture, and our thriving technoculture - of apps, computer games and graphics, new social platforms, electronic dance music.
I kicked off this column earlier this year with a protest against the closure of the Arches in Glasgow - not a great indicator of progress in this area. But as we know all too well in Scotland, something falling over spectacularly can often allow gnarly little hybrids to thrive amidst the rubble.
The future of Scotland, like many other nations’ futures, will involve grappling with strange new technologies and possibilities. It’s appropriate enough that our current cultural big-ticket is in part an SF dystopia, which ends with a giant fiery and watery storm swamping a totalitarian Glasgow.
But let’s also remember Alasdair Gray’s other hero(ine), Bella Baxter from Poor Things - revived from death by a Frankenstein-like doctor and given the brain of a child, which makes her innocent, energetic and insatiably curious.
If I could haul one genre into the beating heart of Scottish culture, it would be speculative/science fiction. More generation of startling alternatives, less tedious backstreet mur-durrs, please.
The cover of yesterday’s souvenir edition of this paper reminds us of one further role of culture and creativity, as we prepare for the next collective leap.
There was more than enough artistic agit-prop and icon-making (or to be less kind, patriotic art) in the last indyref to go around. And I’m sure it will crank up again for any second referendum on the horizon.
But in an age of mass self-expression, the aesthetes and taste-police should relax a little about the popular culture of Yes. The only energy shortage we should really worry about in a politics of independence is a human energy shortage.
Our cultural life - from the quickest cheap-shot collage on social media, to the ambivalent masterwork summoned slowly from the maker’s depths - will continue to be one of the obvious places for the indy movement to plug in. And charge up.
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1 [For a critical overview of this "voice", see Scott Hames here].