3 Jul 2016

The Search for Scottish Identity #1

Beyond Identity: New Horizons in Modern Scottish Poetry, by Attila Dósa.
Beyond Identity
On the shelf is a book called Beyond Identity: New Horizons in Modern Scottish Poetry, by Attila Dósa.

Published by the Scottish Cultural Review of Language and Literature (SCROLL!) it is a polite wee book that consists of interviews with Edwin Morgan, Douglas Dunn, Robert Crawford, John Burnside, Kathleen Jamie, Don Paterson, Tom Leonard, Frank Kuppner, WN Herbert, Kate Clanchy, Kenneth White and Aonghas Macneacail.

The reason I keep looking at it however, is down to the dread word IDENTITY.

Identity has been a constant in Scottish letters since MacDiarmid fell on his side euolgising over the herbage in 1926. But in recent years identity has become an obsession in Scotland, and in some respects this has been unhealthy.

Meaning that if you ain't talking about identity, you are probably not Scottish, because in failing to stress your identity, you may be confused with the ruling elites?

I don't know! But that may well be the narrative of recent times, but like most narratives it won't stand up to much actual scrutiny, and more likely distracts us from the pressing facts. It may work in academia but it don't really relate to us much, it turns out.

At the same time, it is normal that writers get involved in the discussion of identity because it's the linguistic situation that most informs identity, and anthropologists have known this for a long time.

But in Scotland the discussion doesn't do writers any favours and usually holds them back.  In speaking of the Scots language, its possible to even understand English speech as a political imposition. The Scots language, in fact, as the introduction of Beyond Identity states, is now seen as 'an impure regional variety of English'.

As with other articles on the question of identity and language, Beyond Identity points to what it classes as cultural Darwinianism, a state of affairs in which the stronger culture thrives.

What we find then is that almost all of the poets featured in these interviews have chosen to work with English-based publishers.  And when they do so, they never forget to make it clear that such decisions come from practical considerations which have nothing to do with national feeling or the lack of it.

This is a decision personal to each writer and you can treat it, and them as you wish.  But aside from the implication in their choice to be published in England that there may be no decent Scottish publishing industry to speak of, there is no assertion from any of the writers questioned that they feel the need to do anything about it, other than go to England.

Well - this is an academic book, and so it is certainly going to whiff of these well-thought-out but unrealistic Marxist narratives which pollute the corridors of that unreal world. What I mean by that is that this subject is viewed here in terms of power - an oppressed (The Scots!) and an oppressor (The English!) and once that narrative has been established, as it is early on, the rest of the fun is in justifying it.

Beyond Identity also takes the view that a nation is the product of imagination, a 'comprehensive agreement which has a primary residence in the thoughts and opionions of its citizens.' 

This is such a statist view that it blesses the inherence of statism with absolution, denying the possibility that there is any local will in the world for the sort of self-organisation under which writers would thrive more than most.

Identity proves fertile ground for one of the more interesting contributors to the volume, Frank Kuppner.  Kuppner in fact expresses a doubt that sums up various national themes at once, including the idea of 'the Scottish writer' and our own joy at identifying him or her.

I'm quite used to seeing this list of Scottish writers that I'm not on.  There are after all, much larger blips on the radar.  But I think people do tend to see me as slightly foreign and as not really 'Scottish'.  I understand it and it's true that I'm not quite wearing the same team strip, you know.  Maybe I'm in the away strip.  And, indeed, it may even be they don't think I'm worth the trouble.  It's true that I don't think that being Scottish is something one should feel one has to work at.

What is great about this is that it demonstrates how useless ambiguity is to discussion of identity.  If you can bear to cast your mind back to the 2014 Referendum, you will recall how such a lack of ambiguity served up a case of straightforward polarity, and realise how destructive the talk of identity can be. 

Certainly identity is great to blether about, but if you are uncomfortable with it as a subject, then like Kuppner you are simply going to be overlooked, as he is.

Bad luck Frank Kuppner! Question things like that, and guess what, you end up with no identity at all. You're not Scottish! No way! But you're not English either, so there is nothing to be done with you.

In the same breath, W.N. Herbert shows what trouble you can get into if you begin to take these things seriously, and he winds up making some utterly guddlesome comments:

I regard myself as a Scottish writer who works primarily in a Northern European context.  Being on the border between England and Scotland means to me that I work in a Northern European rather than a northern English or British framework. 

This is excatly the sort of giddy tripe that those who spend their days discussing identity aspire to. I can't really hold W.N. Herbert too responsible for that, as his statement only attempts to establish itself within the narratives available to him, even if the results are comic. These and comments like it stand as proof that the subject is very likely as moribund as the works which epitomise it, things like Alan Bissett's Vote Britain, and poems like James Robertson's The News Where You Are, which rely on a crowd-pleasing recognition of our shared oppression to achieve what we are expected to feel is a shared selfhood or status.

Aside from Frank Kuppner, probably the most entertaining interviewee in Beyond Identity is angry ex-pat Kate Clanchy:

I am quite troubled by the ideas of Scottishness and the panic about being Scottish enough.  There was an article in the Scottish journal The Dark Horse about Dream State, which is a new anthology of Scottish poetry with some of my poems in it.  In the article I was picked out as somebody not being quite Scottish enough to be in it.  You know, I'm not Scottish enough because I live in England and my father is English.  I think if we were doing this with colour and said this person is not British because they've got a black father, then we would say it is straightforward racism.

Her arguments may not be popular, but Kate Clanchy in Beyond Identity points to a smugness in Scotland that surfaces as paranoia, as in the case of the discussion she read in The Dark Horse.

This isn't only evident in Scottish writers and writing, but as Kate Clanchy found out when trying to apply for a job as a teacher in Scotland, it runs to the very height of the establishment.

It is impossible to broach any discussion of Scottish identity in literature without mentioning Irvine Welsh's 'being Scottish is shite' speech in Transpotting, but the 'being Scottish is shite' speech is actually a fair summation of all the main Scottish-identity arguments since the 1970s. In fact virtually everything that has followed the 'being Scottish is shite' speech has paraphrased it, echoed it, extended it, updated it and made it into books, plays, films and now, combined them with political movements, blogs and events.

What's worse, is that when identity becomes the theme the quality goes down the pan, we've seen a lot of this in recent years, and ity maye be simply because there is nothing new to say.

So while Dr Dósa Attila called his book Beyond Identity, he spent much of the time in its composition involved with much more familiar pronouns, such as within, around and concerning, asking people if they considered themselves Scottish, or British - the most tiresome and yet common question in all. Combined with this, the Doctor pumps loaded questions at his interviewees relating their answers to its 'strategic relevance in a Scottish literature that is famed for its tough, macho image' and he quizes them about their place in Europe.

There is a very little that could in fact be more boring, because of the implication that if you are a Scottish writer you are somehow oppressed, and it is to our great disappointment that we can't seem to avoid identity, and this is made worse by the fact that when identity is the proferred subject, the quality of composition becomes shudderingly worse. 

During the referendum of 2014 many participant writers contributed to the discussion of Scotland’s identity.  Scottish writers, who wrongly consider themselves an enlightened part of the moral elite, contributed to this search, broadly establishing that in their eyes Scotland was an independent but peripheral part of Europe.

Oddly, Scotland’s great literature which is one of its finer contributions to world civilization has  little popularity in Scottish society as the reading public fail to make the distinctions that the writers talk about in their conferences and on their blogs and newspaper articles. Nowadays readers in Scotland are unaware of who the primary Scottish publishers are, and have seen their reading minds obliged into various Venn Diagrams, in which Scottishness overlaps with the subject at hand, even hopefully making academic intersections across other oppressed groups.

This is possibly because one of the most popular answers about Scottish identity that the interviewees give is that Scotland is colonised by the English — an idea made enormously popular by Trainspotting (1993).  The highlight of this belief in recent times was Alasdair Gray’s pre-powerful referendum attack on the appointment of English ‘colonists’ to influential and powerful positions in Scottish arts, believing as he had it that Scots had no confidence in their own land and in their own people.

In the book Unstated: Writers on Scottish Independence – Gray said: 

"Immigrants into Scotland, as into other lands, are settlers or colonists. English settlers are as much a part of Scotland as Asian restaurateurs and shopkeepers, or the Italians who brought us fish and chips. The colonists look forward to a future back in England through promotion or by retirement."

So it appears that 2014 was a challenging time for those involved in discussions of Scottish identity simply because there was nothing new to say.  Gray was right that arts institutions usually have the effect of depressing art rather than encouraging it, but that was only a side focus.

Reading Beyond Identity I can't help feeling that the academics and the writers of our country are behind the times, being the only ones left still trying to get everyone to have this discussion about identity.  Scottishness as an idea has been under pressure for a long time and the challenges to the idea are so great that the thought (or it is in many people’s eyes a dream) of a unified Scottish national body is no longer a useful artistic ambition.  

Scottishness is not challenged territorially, nor  ethnically, and Scotland has had national distinctiveness within the United Kingdom, even if it hasn’t had independence.   The qualitative difference in discussions of Scottishness, Englishness and Britishness after the 1960s have focused on the end of the Empire, but discussions of Empire in Scotland can overlook Scotland’s part in that project.  Subsequently, the demise of the conversation about identity constinues with no new input.

We have every cause to be worried about imperialism, because it is a real threat.  The problem is that it doesn't threaten Scotland alone, and instead it threatens everybody equally, and that inlcudes those in its service.

In the same way the independence referendum was above everything a victory for capitalism, call it money of you prefer.  Imperialism signifies the absolute control of forms of expression, both the medium and the message, and suppresses the more negligible and the less important or less profitable forms. Capitalism is the part of the process that makes that sell, and in this case, what seems to sell is the fact that Scotland remains a confused victim of the British elites, whereas the real issues are likely far more nuanced.

Image of The Scottish Parliament located here and authored by Andrew Cowan/Scottish Parliament