John Herdman’s memoir, Another Country – An Era in Scottish Politics and Letters, provides an abundance of fascinating information regarding the literary and nationalist political scenes in Edinburgh during the 1960s and 1970s.
Although written from an insider’s perspective, this is not a book which is simply about the author; rather Herdman describes in great detail the movers and shakers of the era. As one would expect the so-called ‘Rose Street Poets’ feature fairly prominently but a wealth of lesser known characters are also included, many of whom I encountered in this tome for the very first time.
The memoir is divided into two parts- ‘Poets, Pubs, Polls and Pillar Boxes’, which is both political and literary, and ‘Renaissance Culture Wars’ which is dedicated to the effects of the Scottish Renaissance, instigated by Hugh MacDiarmid decades before, in the era described above.
As a result, there is at times a measure of overlap but this is in no way detrimental to the overall narrative.
In fact, as the author is keen to point out, literature, music and politics were frequently intertwined in this period.
This is amply demonstrated by Herdman’s depiction of the collective known as ‘The Heretics’ founded in 1970 by the author, literary editor Willie Neill, and celebrated 'Sandy Bells Man’ Stuart MacGregor, and portrayed as ‘a gathering of patriotic writers, singers and musicians to present to the world an understanding of Scottish culture’.
The Heretics lasted for some ten years and arguably laid the foundations for future organizations such as the contemporary National Collective, even if the majority of the latter are, perhaps, unaware of the former’s existence.
As stated, the second part of the book is heavily devoted to the controversies and backbiting within the literary community – MacDiarmid, it seems, jealously guarded what he saw as ‘his’ Renaissance in an almost childish manner and was never shy of picking a fight, no matter how unnecessary.
Nonetheless, having been thoroughly demoralized by the Capital’s self-styled ‘literary sector’ – yes, this term is actually used these days, mainly by those who have actually written SFA – for a long time, I did feel an almost nostalgic yearning for a time when poets, writers and publishers actually cared enough about their craft to engage in lengthy, scurrilous and sometimes very public debates.
Indeed, as Herdman states when he compares the past with the present, with regard to the ‘ugly note of self-congratulation which has crept into the discussion of the arts in post-devolution Scotland… Edinburgh as a ‘City of Literature’ is a perfectly legitimate, if somewhat banal, aspiration, but to imply that this is an achieved reality because of the presence in the city of a few successful popular and genre novelists is only a little less grotesque than to make comparisons – and such comparisons are indeed made not infrequently - with the Edinburgh of the Enlightenment on the same grounds.’
He also quotes poet Stanley Roger Green (who died this year, 2015) thus: ‘nowadays poets don’t go to parties for fun, but to ‘network’… it is hard to resist the notion that one is in a marketplace, that writers are subject to deals and negotiations, that literature is the stuff of commerce.’
If anyone reading this has ever attended the ghastly UNESCO City of Literature ‘literary salon’, held monthly in the Wash Bar in Edinburgh, then these comments will almost certainly ring true!
Politically, the book is unashamedly patriotic in its leanings – it is dedicated to the ‘Yes Scotland’ Campaign – but as the author asserts clearly in his introduction it is a personal memoir and ‘is not intended as an academic essay and makes no claim to cover the whole ground evenly.’
Nonetheless, Herdman never succumbs to any nationalistic tub thumping, and many of his political anecdotes are very, very amusing.
Therefore, the memoir should be of interest to a wide variety of readers regardless of their politics. Having said that, as a staunch believer in Scottish independence I could not help but be moved by the way in which the author ends the first part of his book.
Published just before the referendum, he declares that ‘Even if the outcome proves to be negative this time the struggle will continue. Honour to those who aspired to such a goal and are no more.’ Beautiful words, Mr Herdman, to my ears at least!
I suspect that John Herdman’s work will soon undergo something of a revival, which he certainly deserves, and so I would encourage all readers to acquire a copy of this book and also his collection Three Novellas, published by Polygon.