How Scottish Theatre Predicted The Referendum

poster2By Alan Bissett

Gratifyingly, it’s now commonplace to talk about how the arts enlivened the independence debate. In his book Disunited Kingdom the journalist Iain Macwhirter describes the huge success of the artists’ group, National Collective, as ‘a new form of political organisation primarily about mobilising peoples’ imaginations.’ They gave Yes a colour and creativity which Better Together sorely lacked. Even the writers who came out for No – such as J.K. Rowling, Carol Craig and Ewan Morrison – resorted to gloomy, Unionist-endorsed economics and predictions of catastrophe, expressing bafflement, even anger, about the Yes side’s passion and belief.

But to reduce the artists to mummers on the campaign stage is to miss what had been happening, under the surface, since long before the referendum: a deep engagement with the shifting beast of Scottish politics. None of us, to be sure, fully expected a referendum, or even an SNP majority, but for about a decade we’d felt the tremors of something massive approaching, without knowing its true shape, and the most attuned of the Scottish arts to this imminent change was theatre.

Scottish theatre has, of course, a proud tradition of radicalism, stretching all the way back to 1552 and Sir David Lyndsey’s A Satire of the Three Estates, which mocked the clerics, merchants and lords, through to miner-turned-playwright, Joe Corrie in the 1930s and Ena Lamont Stewart’s portrayal of Glasgow poverty, Men Should Weep (1947). In more recent times, John McGrath’s iconic ceilidh play, The Cheviot, the Stag and the Black, Black Oil (1973) toured small Highland communities and helped form a left-wing sentiment in a new generation of audiences. Despite being a socialist, not a nationalist, play The Cheviot was recevied enthusiastically in SNP circles because of its emphasis on the ways in which the Highlands had been exploited by successive alien powers. McGrath’s own 7:84 company, as well as Wildcat, nurtured this newly-politicised audience through the Thatcher-era, with witty, entertaining, firebrand attacks on capitalism. The producer David MacLennan straddled both companies. The co-founder of Wildcat, with David Anderson, he’d been in the cast of The Cheviot with his sister, Elizabeth, who herself was married to McGrath.

059_305__maryqueenofscots_1373462250_standardLiz Lochhead’s Mary Queen of Scots got her Head Chopped off (1987), and a brace of works from Wildcat – Border Warfare (1989) and John Brown’s Body (1990) – represent the apex of this era, before the onset of the Nineties and (save for a few lone voices like Duncan McLean and political plays such as David Greig’s Caledonia Dreaming) the scouring of the radicals. Like the left itself, ‘agit-prop’ became instantly old hat, written off as dry, didactic, a relic from an era of class struggle, militancy and industrial action. By the late Nineties, younger theatre-makers had started to explore ‘the self’, in often ingenious ways, but unconsciously echoing the Thatcherite cult of the individual. Politics, where they appeared at all, tended to be lower down in the mix, like an embarrassing old uncle who wouldn’t shut about ‘Maggie’, seated at the end of the dinner table.

The Scottish Arts Council cut their grant to Wildcat in 1997, neutering them, as a Blairite agenda crept into arts funding. The political energy had long since shifted to prose fiction, with the blooming of Kevin Williamson’s Rebel Inc magazine, Irvine Welsh’s Trainspotting (1993) and James Kelman’s incendiary Booker Prize-winner, How late it was, how late (1994), but by the Noughties even that had been shunted to the margins, as genre novels, primarily crime, began to dominate Scottish publishing. In theatre, ‘contemporary performance, an experimental mode which pushes boundaries of taste, became the new vogue. It represented the very opposite of 7:84 and Wildcat’s aesthetic: politics had to be implicit rather than explicit, form was abstract rather than based in tradition, the relationship between performer and audience was challenged rather than consolidated. David MacLennan – agit-prop icon – would later report that his phone didn’t ring for about six years.

The lack of a national theatre, meanwhile, had, for nationalist commentators such as Paul Henderson Scott, become a symbolic memory hole at the heart of Scotland itself. As he wrote in The Herald on 13th November 1999:

Virtually every other country in Europe has a National Theatre as one of its most prized institutions. They aim at establishing a repertoire of the best plays in the country to the best possible standard…and to contribute to self-awareness and self-understanding.

At the same time, the touring trail and audiences which Wildcat had built up among working-class communities and the Highlands had dissipated through neglect.

The mood changed with the formation of the National Theatre of Scotland in 2006, under the auspices of Vicky Featherstone, a self-confessed 7:84 disciple. She wanted to return theatre to these very communities. Her first major success, Gregory Burke’s Black Watch, responded to the then-recent invasion of Iraq.

The politics of Black Watch are almost impossible to pin down, which was to prove its strength. It is simultaneously left-wing, seething about Blair and Bush’s Iraq misadventure and giving voice to a disenfranchised class of young men, and militarist, valourising the Royal Highland Regiment. It is as much Unionist, unapologetic about Britain’s imperialist history, as it is Nationalist, with its stirring bagpipe parades and broad Scottish accents. It was, however, most certainly political theatre – unashamedly emotional, crowd-pleasing, 7:84-style theatre – and its impact was seismic.

At the same time, in Glasgow’s new Oran Mor venue, David MacLennan was back to work, producing a popular revolution of his own with his A Play, a Pie and a Pint series. It saw a new play performed each week and audiences of hundreds filling the room every lunchtime. It quickly became the engine-room at the heart of Scottish theatre, and MacLennan saw it as his responsibilty to identify and coax a wave of young, politicised writers passing through it: myself, Kieran Hurley, Gary McNair, Julia Taudevin, Catrin Evans and Davey Anderson (son of Wildcat’s co-founder David Anderson), all of whom had shown signs of re-engaging with the 7:84 tradition.

Then, on Thursday 5th May 2011, the tinder that would light our theatrical uprising caught fire.

Edinburgh’s Traverse theatre commissioned a piece called Welcome to the Hotel Caledonia, to be staged on the day of the Holyrood elections. It was co-scripted by various playwrights, including David Greig, Rona Munro, Peter Arnott, Morna Pearson and David Ireland, and was an attempt to understand what post-devolution Scottish politics was about, if anything. The scene which seemed to best understand, and which humoured and shocked the audience in equal measures, was by David Ireland, and featured David Cameron ordering up a black man for his hotel room. The escort agency can’t find a black man and so send a Scottish one instead, complete with kilt and tammy, whom Cameron proceeds to bugger senseless.

The next day the SNP’s massive majority in the Scottish parliament was announced.

Over at Glasgow’s Tron theatre, that very weekend, the change this signified was palpable in the air. MacLennan was running a rival show to the Traverse’s, entitled It’s a Dead Liberty, which reunited the Wildcat alumni for a revue of their greatest hits. I was one of the guest performers. David gathered us in the dressing-room that night and told us that he’d decided to address the election result in his customary speech at the top of the show. MacLennan himself was a Unionist, who believed nationalism drove a wedge between the working-classes, but he was also aware that most of his cast were pro-independence. His antennae, furthermore, had been attuned after decades of activism and he knew what the result meant: a referendum, and all bets off.

The mood in the theatre that night was strange, a curious mixture of elation, tension and energy. As our political cabaret unfolded, we could feel a new Scotland being born in the room. The previous night’s show felt flat and meaningless in comparison. Laughs were bigger, villains were jeered with more gusto and when the comedian Sandy Nelson threw in an aside in support of independence an audience member shouted, ‘Bloody Nats!’ which led to a heated exchange.

Things seemed to be moving quickly.

In December 2011, in response to the SNP’s game-changer, MacLennan brought his Young Team together, under the the NTS’s Staging the Nation banner, in the Scottish Parliament itself, for a discussion forum called ‘Thorn in their Side’. This was effectively the moment at which the baton of socialist theatre, which MacLennan had been carrying since 1973, was passed on to us. In the wake of the financial crash and the dawn of austerity, not least the imminent referendum, we called for an urgent, left-wing, populist theatre in the Scottish idiom.

Under MacLennan’s guidance we co-wrote three pieces of socialist propaganda, The Jean-Jaques Rousseau Show (2012), Demons (2012) and The Deficit Show (2013), which exposed the Torygeddon of obscene banker-bonuses, privatisation and the demonising of the poor. Fuck ambiguity. We were going to tell the truth and make it funny. Audiences loved it.

The reasons that Scottish theatre-makers had moved back towards agit-prop, we realised, were the same reasons why voters had moved towards the SNP: utter disillusionment with a Westminster elite which rewarded the rich and punished the poor. While New Labour had been in charge we’d been all been able to get by on a general drift of vague disappointment and easily-available credit, but as the triple shocks of the Iraq War, the banking crisis and the return of the Tories accumulated nervous energy, Scotland woke from its slumber.

Theatre is the most immediate way to see social changes reflected in art. A thesis can’t be made in a painting. A novel takes years to write. Film requires huge funds. A song is over in three minutes. A play can not only be written and rehearsed in a matter of weeks, and can develop a narrative over at least an hour, but takes place live, creating a circuit between actors and audience which intensifies emotions, heightens political consciousness and, most importantly, stresses the communal experience.

Game on. Everyone drew up their battle plans for the summer of 2014, with the intention of creating such a carnival of noise, colour, ideas and stories around the Edinburgh Fringe that we’d make independence seem like the Greatest Show on Earth. Minds, we were determined, would be changed. Lives would changed.

Unfortunately, one life would end. That June, David MacLennan succumbed to the Motor Neurone Disease that had been troubling him for many months. We stopped to mourn his passing, then used that his example to power what we had to do. That he’d been a Unionist and that his protégés opposed Unionism mattered not a jot; he had impressed upon us the urgency of activism and the centralilty of theatre in rousing and inspiring people to rise up against their masters. His struggle was our struggle.

pitiless-storm-david-hyaman-press-pic-1-lst143778

David Hayman, The Pitiless Storm

Scottish theatre exploded. In one summer alone: the NTS’s Yes, No, Don’t Know Show, which had been David’s idea and involved hundreds of ordinary Scots; Scottish Youth Theatre’s Now’s the Hour, in which dozens of young people debated their future and which was described by Alex Salmond as ‘moving and very powerful’; the Tron’s Mayfesto season on colonialism; Rona Munro’s colossal James plays and Rob Drummond’s Wallace, which found echoes of the present in Scotland’s past; David Greig’s Twitter-based Yes/No Plays; Davey Anderson and Gary McNair’s How to Choose; the playwrights Peter Arnott and Liz Lochhead becoming two of Yes’s most articulate and passionate voices; Chris Dolan and David Hayman’s The Pitiless Storm, about a Labour stalwart who turns to Yes, and my own satirical play The Pure, the Dead and the Brilliant, which starred Elaine C. Smith.

This show was proof to me, were any further needed, just how much had changed both in Scotland and in Scottish theatre. We’d learned from the experience of Wildcat, who’d been killed as soon as their state grant was removed. Being such a partisan show, we wouldn’t have received one anyway. An Indigogo appeal to fund the play brought in over £18,000 from fellow Yes supporters, ordinary people, probably struggling to make ends meet, donating a tenner here or a twenty there in order to make political theatre happen. Over the course of its three-week run, 8000 people came to see The Pure, the Dead and the Brilliant, many of them No voters. I know this, because the audience were asked to vote at the end of each show. Only a few years previously, the idea that an unashamedly left-wing, nationalist play could command such numbers in Scotland had been unthinkable.

Then there was David Greig’s daily discussion forum at the Fringe, All Back to Bowie’s, and National Collective’s mighty Yestival tour, which crowdfunded £31,000 and took dozens of performers around 25 Scottish venues – from Shetland to Melrose – with the questing, community-focused spirit of The Cheviot, the Stag and the Black, Black Oil. And far from being the ‘Yes echo-chamber’ which cynics like to portray these ventures as, both Bowie’s and Yestival found room on the bill for Unionists such as Alex Massie, David Torrance and even (shudder) John McTernan.

Theatre funded by the people for the people about the people. This had been David MacLennan’s dream all along. He may have been a Unionist – and for the right reasons, I might add – but MacLennan’s ingenuity, commitment and generosity of spirit were gifts that went beyond Scottish theatre and into the Yes movement, changing the nation for the better and irrevocably.

Alan Bissett’s Collected Plays 2009-2014 – which features an Introduction by the late David MacLennan and the script for The Pure, the Dead and the Brilliant – is out now with Freight. On 18th April he will be performing selections from his plays at the Aye Write! festival in Glasgow. Tickets here.



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45 replies

  1. Yeah, it’s a real shame no-one in the 90’s thought of writing a play about the collapse of the old socialism in the face of Thatcherite temptation so starkly reflected by the miner’s strike and the demise of union power. That might have been nice.

  2. Fine article Alan. I’ll get my popcorn though as that contentious 4th paragraph is challenged!

    KW

  3. Whatever happened to/in Scottish theatre during the late 60s/very early 1970s? Thatcherism seems to have induced some kind of amnesia, with politics almost the only topic available.

  4. I have say the whole Scottish ‘nationalist artsy crowd’ thingy niggles a bit with me. I grew up in a Scottish/ English/ Irish family in Liverpool during the 80 s (I now have lived in Glasgow for last 25 years) and was pretty immersed in that mixing of culture (old man used to wear his Celtic top to Anfield while my English/ Irish mother made soda bread and obsessed about Coronation street) and one of the few positive aspects of that era was the popular culture.

    The best stuff, the things most people spoke about and enjoyed, gave them voice and identity was far removed from the kind of pseudo intellectual posturing and pretentiousness of the ‘artsy Indyref’. It was accessible stuff like the bitter sweet (very intelligently written) humour of only fools and horses, Del boy and Rodney trying navigate the inequalities of the Thatcherite world from a rough estate, with the odds stacked against them – more genuine pathos and tragedy in a single episode than the whole indyref output entire, or Aufweidersen Pet, or Brookside or Educating Rita (I still get a lump n my throat when I think of the line….(“Found a culture, have you, Rita? Found a better song to sing, have you? No–you have found a different song, that’s all. And on your lips it’s shrill and hollow and tuneless. Oh, Rita, Rita…”)…for soooo many reasons.

    or listening to the Pet shop boys or the Housemartins or Frankie goes to Hollywood or the Smiths and so on. It’s not that I’m a philistine, I enjoy good theatre also and recognise the need for ‘high art’, but therein lies the problem. It was mostly rubbbish! So much self congratulation for mediocrity hidden under endless, endless hyperbole. (this article yet another case in point – it opens with the dogmatic (opinion as fact) assertion about how wonderful the arty types – the author presumably included – are/ were. Most folk I spoke found it all a tad embarrassing.)

    There is the cringe worthy

    ‘…In his book Disunited Kingdom the journalist Iain Macwhirter describes the huge success of the artists’ group, National Collective, as ‘a new form of political organisation primarily about mobilising peoples’ imaginations…’

    Mobilising imaginations…FFS. How patronizing. Oh we humble dullard prols are so grateful for the artists to come down from their cloud.

    or

    ‘…Everyone drew up their battle plans for the summer of 2014, with the intention of creating such a carnival of noise, colour, ideas and stories around the Edinburgh Fringe that we’d make independence seem like the Greatest Show on Earth. Minds, we were determined, would be changed. Lives would changed…’

    mmmm, whose lives were changed exactly? Again the patronizing…minds would be changed? er no, we unimaginative dullard prols can think for ourselves and some gobby artist made little difference. Reading the economics and weighing up the pros and cons, was the general way us mere mortals came to a decision.

    It professes to be radical and ‘political’ but it rarely speaks to anyone other than other artsy types in a small clique. Utterly removed from most people.

    And this article is really just a ruse for flogging the author’s own book. When you bleat on about evil Capitalism it’s kind of inconsistent to also pursue your own commercial interest at the same time. Next time leave the advert at the bottom out perhaps?

    • Wonderfully well-put, Judy. Sadly the rather odious Mr Bissett – passionate though he clearly is – takes every opportunity to shamelessly plug his tedious output under the banner of the Indyref movement. The man is evidently in love with himself; even a cursory glance at his Twitter will tell you as much. (“Yes, I will rock skinny jeans & black leather knee-high stiletto boots” – well, hooray for you, Perennial Pusher of The Envelope, we really couldn’t care less….) I found this line particularly insulting: “They gave Yes a colour and creativity which Better Together sorely lacked….” Excuse me, but colour was provided by a huge cross-section of the Yes movement; the idea that the vim or pep that so infused the Yes campaign came solely or even predominantly from the arts scene is insulting, insular and a rather transparent case of snobbery and back-slapping. You know, Alan would do well to step outside of Glasgow’s well-heeled West End now and again….he seems to think anyone who does not count themselves an entrenched member of the arts scene is, as you say, a prole, incapable of intelligent thought or expression.

    • Thanks for sharing Judy.

      Are you familiar with any of the plays or events Alan mentions? Have you actually seen any of them?

      • Of course she hasn’t seen any of them, Graeme. In Jude’s world theatre is too much for working-class people to cope with. They should be content with Brookside and Only Fools and Horses, apparently. She also doesn’t seem to understand the basis of capitalism. A capitalist is someone who makes a profit from other people’s labour, not someone who sells their own.

      • Erm…last time I checked Willy Russel and ‘Educating Rita’ was theatre?

        And if I wasn’t aware of Mr Bissett’s ‘creative’ output and that of the wider artsy scene, I wouldn’t have posted. would I? Or am I just a dizzy wee women who would be so stupid?

        Actually like Rita, I went back to college and then University at a ‘mature’ age and studied English Lit and received a rather good grade from a rather posh university (why I came back up to Glasgow) I now work in adult literacy and am very interested in the arts and sometimes even trek over to the Westend from my more humble part of town. And there is some great stuff out there. Just not from the ‘breathless’ national collective types. Call me a nit picker but if you have to constantly tell people how great your work is, and how you’re the vanguard of a revolution, rather than the work speaking for itself and this being self evident then you are probably not doing your job very well?

        And note the sneering pomposity in Mr Bissett’s tone towards Brookside. I certainly am ‘content with’ something written if you remember by a certain Jimmy Mcgovern, with nation changing story lines including the first lesbian kiss on TV, and Jimmy Corkhill on Heroin. If you had that kind of social understanding and intelligence you would probably also have the nuance to understand that the medium, theatre or a ‘soap opera’ for us Proles is irrelevant, but what counts is the quality of writing.

        And ‘she’ does understand the basis of Capitalism. It is the harnessing of the mode of production for private profit and future aquisition, not simply about labour exchange as ‘He’ seems to think. But that’s another issue entirely.

        Sorry but some of us are sick of this: the polemical confused with the radical; the intelligent with the hyperbolic; the pretentious with the meaningful…..

      • If you had read the article, Judy, you would be aware that the focus is not on Alan Bissett’s own creative output. But it is as I had suspected, you don’t know anything about the works and artists he references and so are not well placed to make an assessment of their worth.

      • Quite, Graeme. Okay, Judy, let’s hear it. Which of the shows mentioned in the piece did you see? You say you’re someone who enjoys theatre, and your proof of this is that you cite *one* play by Willy Russell, yet you’re happy to write off the diverse output of literally dozens of writers as ‘pretentious’ and ‘utterly removed from most people’. On what grounds? Which shows listed in this piece were guilty of this, and on what basis are you presuming that audiences – many of whom were working-class – couldn’t understand them or didn’t enjoy them?

        Also, are you actually telling me that someone who crafts a chair then receives money in exchange for it, or a schoolteacher who sells their labour skills, is a ‘capitalist’? No they are not. And neither is someone who sells a book which they themselves wrote (for which, btw, they receive a mere 10% of the cover price, after yer actual capitalists have skimmed off their profit). A capitalist owns and controls the flow of capital. I do not. And Brookside (which I used to watch btw) may be a good example of the soap opera genre, but your argument is essentially not only that working-class people can’t cope with writing beyond the complexity of that genre, but that they shouldn’t even be offered it? Who’s the patronising one here…?

        You seem very, very angry at people who are essentially, y’know, making plays. We are directing our anger at bankers, Tories, warmongers and the super-rich. But, no, you’ve decided the playwrights are the problem…

  5. Hey Jude … the movement you need is on your shoulder

  6. It’s a great article and I feel more and more distant from it all. That contentious 4th paragraph is indeed contentious, and of course culture has to be at the heart of our politics, but I am reminded of Loki’s exceptions. However people experienced Loki’s intervention we have to acknowledge plenty being left cold by elements of what is emerging as our tartan consensus. It feels like a terrible betrayal but every single bit of it clanks like the chains of 1997 for me and that terrifies me, for us, and for what we need to be.

    • “In the wake of the financial crash and the dawn of austerity, not least the imminent referendum, we called for an urgent, left-wing, populist theatre in the Scottish idiom. Under MacLennan’s guidance we co-wrote three pieces of socialist propaganda….” Not sure how that fits in with what you’re saying, Stevie.

      • Three pieces of Socialist ‘propaganda’ that no one was interested in!

        ‘propaganda’? This is exactly the problem. It assumes people need to be instructed or be led, rather than actually reflecting lives and the considerable intelligence and awareness out there. It is a top down patronising approach that doesn’t engage with the people you have appointed yourselves to represent.

        It is this attitude; that without the self appointed ‘artists’ people have no thoughts or imagination what so ever.

      • It is simply a comment that the alienated remain very much alienated though hugely attracted to the New “we’re not those cunts” party. I felt inside it all last year but out now and I think my increasing distance from what Yes has become – remember spending two years telling folk Yes wasn’t the SNP – is twofold in auld beardy man terms. I see no credible analysis of the economic relations and base of out society, simply that we’ll have a nicer version. I see no cultural thing to belong to now, don’t get me wrong, the political situation is exciting and bears the potential for fundamental change and the SNP have done well as a decent centre leftish party, however where were the gasps and cultural responses to that Hydro rally? We’re both old enough to have lived,hoped and died Blair. Is there no indy cultural voice now reflecting a potential horror story about repeating the same story arc locally? Form over content, emotional appeals over redistributing obscene wealth to benefit all in society.

        I followed in your footsteps, rejoiced at the creative flowering and the sheer joyous ingenuity of it all, but now, now we’re playing by the old political rules me and the other folk who couldn’t give a toss about a fire at the art school remain thoroughly outside a political discourse utterly lacking in the authentic pissed offness that it now needs.

        Fuck austerity and an £8.70 minimum wage. My kids generation will be lost in the Blairesque niceties of our ‘change’.

        Where’s our Yosser Hughes for these times?

      • Stevie, I still don’t understand. My article listed several examples of socialist theatre/theatre-makers, who will continue to make work reflecting the very anxieties you describe and have no links to the SNP. As for Judy. Sigh. “Three pieces of Socialist ‘propaganda’ that no one was interested in!” As it happens, Judy, all three shows sold out hundreds of seats for six days running. They were widely and well-reviewed. That’s a sign for me that audiences were very much ‘interested in’ what we had to say. Because you didn’t see them, you have absolutely no way of knowing if or how they engaged with people. You are the one who is simply presuming that working-class audiences won’t ‘get it’, therefore you are actually the one telling them what is and isn’t good for them.

      • “Stevie, I still don’t understand. My article listed several examples of socialist theatre/theatre-makers, who will continue to make work reflecting the very anxieties you describe and have no links to the SNP. As for Judy. Sigh. “Three pieces of Socialist ‘propaganda’ that no one was interested in!” As it happens, Judy, all three shows sold out hundreds of seats for six days running. They were widely and well-reviewed. That’s a sign for me that audiences were very much ‘interested in’ what we had to say. Because you didn’t see them, you have absolutely no way of knowing if or how they engaged with people. You are the one who is simply presuming that working-class audiences won’t ‘get it’, therefore you are actually the one telling them what is and isn’t good for them.”

        Alan, I think those comments are fair if you’ve read me as criticising you then, back in the heady days and all that. I am not meaning to do so, I am opining the lack of cultural voice now, the yawning empty chasm of critique, analysis and political maturity regarding what strikes me as creating a tartan 1997. You weren’t freaked out by the Hydro rally? I was and I’m doing my best to support the SNP, despite this beautifully formed contentless vessel drifting towards rocks I’ve hit hard in political parties before.

        Well done on last year, and indeed on all of the cultural output that did engage people of all sorts and from all walks of life. It was joyous and I belonged, so many of us did. But I am alienated now, not then. Working class voices are largely silent now, not then. Radical ideas and political alternatives are utterly missing from our debate now, certainly not then. It’s a worry.

        Had we voted Yes we’d be in the middle of an enormous and beautiful battle of ideas on the way to forming our new society. Now we’ve voted no we’ve rammed ourselves as hard as possible into old modes, familiar political clothes, and a safe politics of “we’re not those cunts”. Blair did it, Obama did it….but nah, not for me this time round. I hear little to echo those feelings of wanting to support but being so uncomfortable and increasingly concerned about doing so.

        Be well

        • You make many good points, Stevie. Maybe it’s just too soon / everyone’s too exhausted for the artists to respond to the actual referendum result and its aftermath. BUT! The Oran Mor ‘Young Team’ that I mentioned earlier will be doing a show in Sept, one year on from the referendum, exploring some of the very concerns that you have. Be great to see you there and have a chat x

  7. Interesting summation Alan Bissett, though what are we comparing the NC and Yestival with?

    By far the most important Scottish arts movement was the Scottish Renaissance, and it seems to me that MacDiarmid, Gunn and MacLean’s programme has largely been abandoned or watered down. Certainly, the linguistic programme…those three giants were barely mentioned during the campaign, but if it wasn’t for them, we would never have had a referendum in my opinion. The Scottish Renaissance reconfigured Scotland, plotted out new maps, created a new raised consciousness and awareness about what Scotland is, and can be…

    The sheer intellectual weight of somebody like MacDiarmid is hard to match, but I never got the sense that there was an intellectual backbone or programme to NC or the Yestival, other than for a YES vote.

    Or else, take the James plays. Do we need this potted history? I saw one of them, and one was enough – not that it was bad. But the onus on historical figures like kings and queens and Wallace seems to me to be the opposite certainly of MacDiarmid’s programme. It is exactly that cock-eyed view of history which we need to get away from. Scotland has a huge intellectual history which most people know nothing about. There is far too much onus on the past, and far too much about royalty…

    In any case, what I do agree with you is that the theatre is an interesting space to explore the future. The Left in general throughout Europe has not come up with a powerful new vision of society yet in my view. We are all floundering a bit, and the theatre can be an interesting place to explore ideas…

    As for David MacLennan’s passing, it is a great loss to Scotland….

    • I hear what you’re saying, Douglas, but the cultural indyref movement involved literally hundreds of artists working on dozens of projects. An ‘intellectual programme’ would’ve been an impossibility. It would’ve fallen at the first hurdle because everyone would’ve disagreed on what the programme should look like! And the ever-imminent deadline of the referendum meant activism and activity were more important that constructing a thesis. These are very different conditions from those under which MacDiarmid, Gunn and MacLean were working. If feminism has taught us anything it’s that theory flows from practice, not the reverse. Besides, it’s not as though any of the events or shows I listed in my piece were devoid of intellectual content, since debate and the challenging of established ideas were at the heart of most of them. But a ‘programme’ would’ve killed things stone dead. Plurality is strength.

      • I can see what you´re saying about the practical aspect Alan, fair enough, and you´re quite right about the power of theatre and its immediacy. My feeling, let me be honest, at the time is that the Yestival and the NC were gimicky more than an attempt to make serious art. But that is a perception and even a prejudice, I didn´t see your play, or anything you guys did….

        My point is a wider one, not specifically related to the NC etc, but evidenced there well enough, and it is my feeling is that Scotland is more hostile to intellectualism than it ever has been, and it has always been hostile enough.

        If you were going to name a Scottish intellectual figure of weight, who would it be? It couldn´t be James Kelman, respect him as I do, or Irvine Welsh either. Kelman says “I write what I see and hear” which is valid enough, but that is no programme either. Irvine, love him as I do, dismisses MacDiarmid in his contribution to the book Kevin Williamson published about Trocchi.

        Neither, in any case, would want to be considered intellectuals probably, and it´s natural in a way, one generation reacts against the one which preceded it. The only person I could see would be Gray.

        My point is that MacDiarmid plotted a very rich and varied and still to this day largely unexplored map about Scotland and Scottish culture. It is well worth looking at that, it is terra incognita. Scottish artists will find rich pickings there – I mean his prose, his essays…I would rather Rona MacDougal did a play about one of MacDiarmid´s Scottish Eccentrics rather than a king…

        Nobody has done more for this country than Hugh MacDiarmid, He is the one towering intellectual giant of Scottish 20th century culture, albeit he is quite wrong about some things, like many European intellectuals were in the 30´s. He seems to me to be scandalously ignored and overlooked.

        You would need to update his thinking of course, some of it has dated, but he basically wrote out a route map for Scottish artists….

      • And the wider point Alan, is that if you don´t premise Scottish independence on cultural differences, then you fall into the vacuum of talking about whether Scotland will be richer or poorer and being 100 quid better or worse off…the only people who made the case for Scottish indie on those grounds, or made it best, were Moffat and Riach in “Arts of Resistance” and Gray too…and if anybody should be making that case, it is Scottish artists….

        That was the angle which I missed in the debate. Nobody gave more than passing reference to the Maclean or William Johnson or, for that matter, George Davie and the democratic intellect, and, remember too, there was a play by – who was it? – called James the Sax, written in Lallans back in the 50´s or 60´s, and we get the James plays in Scottish English on the eve of the referendum….

        We missed a chance there I think, that´s my feeling…maybe it´s unfair to compare with the generation of the Scottish Renaissance, the most gifted generation since the Enlightenment, but for me they are the yardstick….

      • It’s a difficult balance. The problem is that by assuming a ‘Scottish cultural traditional’ you run the risk of narrowing the cultural field to those who fit and to those who agree with the agenda. This is why the indyref or Scotland in general hasn’t really produced any ‘great’ work, but lots of pale imitations of what is considered the cannon (often by those people trying to imitate)…cue Macdarmid, Kelman, Welsh, and so on (usually men incidentally).

        The irony is not lost, but it seems to me that the sooner Scotland stops being so ‘Scottish’ and obsessing about how writing is reflecting nationhood and identity, the sooner we will get quality Scottish work that really does reinforce Scottish identity and distinctiveness. Anything that begins with a prescribed agenda is doomed to fail as it is anathema to genuine creative output. Let people free of the constraints and be amazed at what occurs.

        This perspective is not new, many ‘liberals’ in other countries have realised this. The more you conflate art with a program, especially a national one, the less that art reflects the program and actual nation and becomes stodgy and boring. Authoritarian states often try to control the ‘national output’ and you end up with nothing but Wagner…not that Wagner is bad! etc.

        Scottish writing will be ‘Scottish’ simply by virtue of the experience of being in or associated with Scotland and not because it aspire to a set of rules (be that writing in Lallans, about the working class in Glasgow, or Edinburgh lawyers, drunk teens in small town Aberdeenshire etc….although all these things are great to write about!) Everything else is just waffle that closes the creative space down.

        There we go. I’ve inadvertently started a freedom movement …..called ….Open the space! Down with cultural prescription!

        This debate always reminds me of the fantastic TV event back int he sixties, Our World and the first simultaneous live broadcast around the world…most countries chose the ‘art’ that they thought represented the nation the best…most was po faced and dull, French avant guard ballet, Hokey USA all Amrican squeaky clean white family singing in the kitchen…and so on…The UK got the Beatles in dressed in kafthans, and beads surrounded by the likes of Jagger and Richards to sing ‘All you need is love…which of course starts with the Marsellieses fused with Glen Millar’s in the mood…It was a stroke of genius as the world lapped it up. It’s this openess and non nationailstic confidence that makes national culture great!

      • Agreed Macbride,

        You become what you hate. There was a good argument 20 or 30 years ago, that Scottish writing was marginalised vis a vis narrow cosmopolitan London (everyone had to be Ian Mcewen rather than Kelman. Although this was more about class.) But this is simply no longer the case and all this appeal to a narrow ‘Macdairmid’ ‘Scottish’ arts agenda, damages Scottish arts IMO. It has become a closed shop for a select few, irrespective of, and certainly not because of talent, but more dependent on their politics and who they know and which badge they wore. It’s also very west of Scotland centric. I think it is perfectly reasonable to hold a cosmopolitan view and also be ‘Scottish’ or have a ‘Scottish’ voice but ironically, from my experience and especially those in actual art, it is outside of Scotland that such a conflation is supported and celebrated (not necessarily ion the UK either, although London is actually very colour/ culture blind these days – less so class blind perhaps, but then this is no different in Scotland. The arts everywhere are the preserve of the middle classes.) And inside Scotland if you try anything different from the ‘nationalist narrative, you’re seen, strangely, as betraying some mythical tradition. But all art is ultimately individual. All writing is a solitary pursuit. And that is how it ought to remain.

  8. Alan, by the way, here is MacDiarmid’s three point plan for the Scottish Renaissance:

    1) To bring Scottish poetry (or the arts) abreast of contemporary intellectualism.
    2) And the same for “political requirements” and to “give our people a proper appreciation of their patrimony”
    3) To get behind the Renaissance and break with “mere earthly eudaemonism”

    Sounds good to me…I didn’t see enough of the Yestival to have an opinion, but I never got the feeling there was a programme like that behind it…

    Back to MacDiarmid! would be my battle cry….

  9. Scots need to hear a lot more Scots voices and theatre is one of the best ways to do that, as is TV of course. That Scottish theatre (and film) has been intentionally suppressed there can be no doubt, and is still. Our language is just as important as our land. Culture Secr. needs to get her finger uit and ignore the unionist cringers.

  10. Alan, by the way, MacDiarmid tells a good, and very funny, anecdote about how anti-intellectual the average Scot is at the end of The Company I’ve Kept, a book of autobiographical sketches but, like everything by MacDiarmid, full of fascinating digressions.

    So, at the end of his career, a man in his seventies,somebody proposed MacDiarmid be made a freeman of his home town, Langholm, otherwise known as “the muckle toon”.And it appeared this was going to be granted, until some local dignitary kyboshed the idea on the grounds that MacDiarmid hadn’t lived there for many years, and had spoken unfavourably of some people there in his autobiography, “Lucky Poet”.

    Says MacDiarmid, “Modern Scots are adept at disparagement, there is nothing they hate more than a man getting a little above himself and arising above the ruck…. I pointed out that I was not destitute of honours as to care what a handful of Bumbles who knew nothing about my work and were quite incompetent to assess its value might think, and that while I loved Langholm…I would never in future accept any gesture meant to honour me at the hands of a group of citizens ignorant of my work. The future would determine which of us had brought distinction to the town…” …

    …and then, this fascinating footnote which captures the spirit of the thing perfectly…” James Finlayson of Hawick, as guest speaker at the Eskdale Burns Club Supper in Langholm in Jan 1966, expressed the hope that a reconciliation might be effected between the author and his birthplace….remarks which were greeted with cries of Never! Never! and Away back to Hawick!”….

    ….hee hee hee!!!

  11. “Of course she hasn’t seen any of them, Graeme. In Jude’s world theatre is too much for working-class people to cope with…” How nice of Alan to underscore his nastiness and snobbery, missing the woman’s point entirely. The poor guy’s head is so far up his own backside it’s completely irretrievable.

    ‘MacLennan saw it as his responsibility to identify and coax a wave of young, politicised writers passing through it: myself…’ / ‘I was one of the guest performers’ / ‘my own satirical play The Pure, the Dead and the Brilliant…’ / ‘8,000 people came to see The Pure, the Dead and the Brilliant…’ If you don’t get it, Alan, you never will.

    ‘Even the writers who came out for No – such as J.K. Rowling, Carol Craig and Ewan Morrison – resorted to gloomy, Unionist-endorsed economics and predictions of catastrophe, expressing bafflement, even anger, about the Yes side’s passion and belief.’ Let’s face it, all calls for a No vote can too easily be characterised as gloomy, and you seem to flippantly wave away the legitimate economic concerns of No voters with a kind of ‘be wheesht!’ dismissal. These were genuine concerns for working-class people. Incidentally, I voted Yes and support and continue to support independence wholeheartedly, but your characterisation of No voters (or at any rate some of them; you make the mistake of lumping them all together rather frequently) is deeply offensive. Of course, I shouldn’t need to point out that some of those economic concerns have been validated, given the SNP’s predictions for North Sea oil have been totally discredited…having been 13 times higher than recent projections.

    Lastly – ‘We co-wrote three pieces of socialist propaganda….which exposed the Torrygeddon of obscene banker-bonuses, privatisation and the demonising of the poor’… I’m pretty sure these age-old tenets of Toryism are part of the public consciousness – certainly among the working classes. You needn’t pat yourself so hard on the back, as you exposed that which is already commonly understood.

    • A mate of mine from down south recently put me on to ‘Our Freinds In the North’. Absolutely great (at least the early episodes. With T Dan Smith and labour corruption, through to the Thatcher years and the breakdown of the working class communities through to New Lab. Great panoramic overview with characters you cared about. Some of it was a bit OTT – like the whole famous photographer bit, but the rest was great! Stunning performances all round!

      Why is Scottish play writing and culture always seems so self conscious and labored in comparison? Is it because it always sets itself up to be measured against bigger England it ends up constraining itself?

      I mean why does the narrowness and anti-intellectualism/ anti complexity/ hyperbole of likes of people Bissett prevail, culturally speaking?

      • Interesting, Macbride. For you I’m ‘anti-intellectual / anti-complexity’, but Judy comments that I’m elitist, pretentious and out of touch with ordinary people! This suggests to me that I’ve got the balance about right. Cheers for the confirmation.

    • Wow, JDB, you really don’t like me. Ah well, maybe you’ll feel better now that you’ve got all of that out of your system. As for my negative characterisation of No voters…hmm is that why I just wrote an essay praising one of them as a visionary? And as someone so committed to the independence cause you’ll remember that Blair McDougall, head of Better Together, has admitted that it was a tactic of the No campaign to magnify people’s fears about the economy. So you can call these ‘genuine concerns of working-class people’ if you like, but McDougall’s confession proves that these concerns were being deliberately stoked and inflated by vested interests. This might not be the place to have the economic argument, but to suggest that the SNP’s economic plans have been ‘totally discredited’ is way off the mark. i) THE OBR’s own projections, upon with the UK govt rely, were also wildly out. ii) There is absolutely nothing to suggest that the price of oil will remain this low indefinitely and iii) As Salmond has since pointed out, it’s the amount of long-term replacement barrels which is the determining factor for economic stability, not the short-term oil price, in which respect Scotland is well-covered. I suspect this will all fall on deaf ears though, JDB, since your very first sentence in reply to my wholly positive piece was to describe me as ‘odious’, which is deeply personal and unnecessary.

  12. MacBride above re your post:

    Much of that I agree with, it’s a good post. But in the context of an arts movement like NC on the eve of a historical referendum, and what seems to me to be sheer ignorance about Scottish culture in Scotland at large, I would say there was a clear case for going back to the Renaissance figures, who are the source of it all, to look to make something bold and of substance and not just a kind of marketing gimmick, which, perhaps unfairly, NC always struck me as.

    MacDiarmid is monstrously simplified and misunderstood. He wrote a lot in Lallans and a great deal in English too. He is known as a poet but for me he wrote as good prose as anybody did in 20th century Scotland. He said he would really like to have written in Gaelic and he extolled the virtues of the Latin tradition in Scotland. He was a fervent nationalist and yet he declared Hume, that old Tory and Unionist, to have been the greatest Scotsman who ever lived.

    It is anything but a narrow programme he called for, and nobody has read as much about Scotland as MacDiarmid that I know of. He called for people to be aware of their culture – to read – and respond to it. At the same time, his work is full of quotes and text purloined from foreign writers and poets. He was an international figure as much as he was a national one. For most of his life he lived in extreme hardship or outright poverty.

    People should write what they like, writing is first and foremost an act of freedom, but you have to be aware that you are working in a tradition whether you like it or not. And so it therefore follows that you have to read the tradition, whichever one it is, if only, as Ian McEwan noted, to make sure that that what you are writing hasn’t already been written by somebody else.

    A French writer who wrote a novel about a bored and adulterous provincial housewife, and who hadn’t read Madame Bovary would be in some considerable difficulty…

  13. Some good points both from Macbride and Douglas. I think the issue isn’t that there shouldn’t be a Scottish cannon but that the cannon needs be retrospective and non prescriptive. Macdarimid rightly deserves his place, but should not dictate ‘Scottishness’ in writing. There is a problem is when writing or culture is politicised in this way as it necessarily becomes narrower and exclusive. There are logical and necessary limits to ‘cultural nationalism’. That’s the whole point to it. And it’s why many true free thinkers rebel against it and are uncomfortable with it. Until they end up in the cannon that is..lol. Note the distinction being made between political writing and politicised writing that has an agenda to follow. This isn’t just a Scottish thing but universal in all countries. In Italy there is a constant the battle between the decided ‘national’ culture and those seeking their own Italian voice, that will probably later on end up as the settled national culture.

    As for Alan Bissett, he comes across as a bit of a bully. The first thing he does in the article is to single out by name and attack people who can’t, or who shouldn’t feel the necessity of defending themselves. And he project motives on to them that he wants them to have deliberately mis-frames their opinions. I also read JK Rowling, Carol Craig and Ewan Morrissions reasons for their decision on Independence and they were perfectly reasonable conclusions. They weren’t baffled or angered by the Yes campaign vitality at all but were grounded in prosaic pragmatism and appeals to cosmopolitanism. Disagree with it, but don’t bully by framing it as something it isn’t.

    • Why couldn’t JK Rowling, Carol Craig or Ewan Morrison be able to defend themselves?

      • Perhaps they can? but the point is that they shouldn’t need to as it implies they’ve done something wrong for expressing their democratic right. And it’s telling that of all the things discussed in this thread, Bella chooses to reinforce the underlying sense of bullying and wider sense of passive aggressive intimidation (characterised by the mis-framing of opinions to suit negative assumptions) that tainted the Independence Referendum. Well done Bella.True colours.

    • In fact it is rather hilarious that Bella comes straight out to mis-frame the issue by projecting the focus on those unfairly scapegoated – as examples. Not the smartest are we Bella.

    • Helena, good post. I agree with you mainly. I disregard a lot of MacDairmid, for example his mania for making anybody with Scottish ancestry a Scottish writer, at whatever cost. Or all his stuff about race and soul. But I refuse to judge him for that, just as I refuse to judge Ezra Pound for being a fascist – the man who invented modern translation, a man of great importance for me as a translator, a hero – or Years for his dalliance with fascism, or Unamuno in Spain for initially supporting Franco’s coup – a decision which later he regretted so much once he knew what Franco was doing that it literally killed him. Or Pessoa who flirted with all kinds of garbage, and who met with no less than the Satanist Alisdair Crowley, having corrected his astrological charts.

      It’s not about taking MacDiarmid wholesale, so much as exploring the avenues he opened up. And let’s be clear, if it wasn’t for MacDiarmid et al, James Kelman and Irvine Welsh would have never have been published, that simple. They would have been told to go and write in Queen’s English.

      MacDiarmid opened the playing field, he didn’t close it down. He is not narrow, he is broad. He is an incendiary writer, and you have to take his excesses in your stride and not judge him for them.

      On the wider point, in this culture saturated with creative writing courses – there is no course, there is only a reading list – does anybody actually bother reading the canon you talk about or literature in translation? Do contemporary Scottish writers read Borges and Bolaño and Javier Marias or W.G Sebald and Italo Calvino or Claudio Magris? Are Scottish writers, as MacDiarmid called for, abreast of contemporary intellectualism? Maybe I haven´t read enough contemporary Scottish prose, but I don´t see any sign of that AT ALL, outside the obvious ones like Gray.

      What we have is people “expressing themselves” and the democracy of art….at what cost I ask you?

    • “Even the writers who came out for No – such as J.K. Rowling, Carol Craig and Ewan Morrison – resorted to gloomy, Unionist-endorsed economics and predictions of catastrophe, expressing bafflement, even anger, about the Yes side’s passion and belief.”

      This sentence, Helena, is your definition of ‘bullying’? Oh my word.

  14. Alan, very interesting article that actually resonates largely with my analysis of the referendum’s impact on theatre in research I have recently completed.

    I agree the theatrical benefits of the process of the IndyRef are as you’ve stated above; engagement, accessibility, politicised and relevant content. What do you make of the other impacts? Do you think that theatre elitism (if you believe it exists at all) has been challenged by the referendum process?

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