Beyond Storm Ophelia...
It was less a promise, but a strong suggestion that a piece I wrote in response to Professor Alan Riach's three part serial about the place of the Kailyard in Scottish literature, would be in The National newspaper on Monday 16th October. It isn't. It may be later, but I'm taking the opportunity to publish it here for members to read, in case it gets somehow misplaced in the wider cultural sphere!
The cause of independence is poorly served by articles such as Prof Alan Riach’s http://www.thenational.scot/culture/15565199.Alan_Riach__Before_MacDiarmid_changed_Scottish_literature__there_was_the_Kailyard/
Mis-representing some very fine Scots writers by perpetuating the ‘Kailyard’ myth, (which is in essence, just literary name-calling,) does nothing to encourage to average reader to connect with our rich literary history.
In the 1980s I was in exile in London working in sales and the killer sales pitch started ‘If I could show you a way…’ So… If I could show you a writer who was as skilled in satirical social commentary as Dickens and as evocative in his natural description as Hardy; who might even be construed as a prose version of Rabbie Burns; would you be more interested in reading his work than if I told you he was writing sentimental unionist conservative fiction - which is, by the way, simply inaccurate on all scores.
Crockett firmly believed a man’s a man for a’ that. He writes from the perspective of the ‘wee voice’, of the ordinary rural working class. He stands against hypocrisy and hierarchy wherever he finds it. I find, in him, common cause as one who believes that the only real authority is epistemic, not privilege or power. But this is the work we are being discouraged from reading.
I might venture to suggest that Scotland’s culture, and the very struggle towards independence is actually damaged by such positions. In so much as I see the followers of MacDiarmid (a mercurial spirit if ever there was one – I make no claims for or against his poetry, having no authority to speak on the matter) as the followers of fashion, I must take an alternative stance –I align myself more with the lyrics of Suzanne Vega’s ‘left of centre’ than The Kinks. I come not to praise Kailyard but to dig it up. Not to rake it over and add more organic matter to the ground, but to suggest that by ignoring the likes of Crockett and Barrie we fundamentally miss something significant about Scots culture and identity.
Reducing Scottish literature to a binary kailyard, non-kailyard is both pointless and divisive but it does go to serve the Scots Canon, which I suggest is the consequence of what I call a false Renaissance and which smacks to me of cultural imperialism. The very notion of a canon is hierarchical. That we should have some who, for power or privilege, are able to tell us what is ‘quality’ or ‘good’ in our reading matter is a very dangerous thing. And it certainly doesn’t do anything to promote a healthy, independent cultural atmosphere.
I believe this matter strikes to the very heart of our cultural identity. Setting arbiters of taste and quality on pedestals; be this an academic or cultural elite; is as dangerous to culture as the commodification of it into mainstream, free-market, consumerist fare. As long as we are spoon-fed our culture from on high, we will never be free – and if we are not free in mind, how will we ever become independent as a nation?
It is time to embrace the diversity of scots culture. We don’t need to ape England by having a literary canon. We aim and claim to be an outward looking, culturally diverse and welcoming place in search of an equal and just society where everyone can be encouraged to maximise their potential. It follows, at least to me, that these goals are at least consistent with an understanding that creativity is neither primarily a commodity nor a hierarchical privilege to be placed in an ivory tower. Cultural identity and its expression through creativity should be the right of the ordinary Scot, and until it is, we will never lose the Scottish cultural cringe, never stop doffing the cap to the British hierarchical vision of our country.
In a largely secular country we should strive indeed to be a broad kirk. We should have space for the ‘wee’ voices as well as the big. Authority, where we must have it, should be epistemic rather than bought and sold.
We so need to get over the Kailyard. We need to learn from the mistakes of the past. But do we? Today Scotland’s literary culture seems framed between Tartan Noir and Trainspotting, with a cultural elite who deny their elitism because, at least partially, they promote a mainstream. But this current mainstream is predominantly urban-centric and offers as little to the modern rural reader as it does to anyone who is not part of the cult of MacDiarmid. It is true Stevenson is coming out of the shadows – Barrie is not far behind him – but I worry whether they are simply being adopted by the followers of fashion for ‘Noir’ and ‘Modernism’ - which is to do both writers a serious dis-service.
Perhaps Crockett is luckier by being ignored? I offer an alternative view of the man and his works in around 150 words, the scope recently afforded him by Professor Riach.
Best-selling author of the late 19th century, his star had begun to fade even before his death in 1914 and post First World War his work fell out of fashion. Far from the ‘kailyard’ author he’s still all too frequently discredited as, his writing encompass both Scottish and European history over several centuries. Nearly half of his 60+ works are set in his native Galloway, displaying an interesting perspective on the rural working class. Stylistically Crockett blends the Scots romance of Stevenson with the realism of Galt, offering in many ways a prose version of Robert Burns. The legacy of his Cameronian upbringing saw him stand against hypocrisy and hierarchy, be that in church, state or education. In his fiction one finds a veritable treasure trove of social and domestic detail in terms of economic reality and social mores.
I do claim some epistemic authority in the matter of S.R.Crockett. I have undertaken what might be called immersion therapy in his work over a period of five years, having been less intimately acquainted for over twenty. In that time I have gained insight and respect for his work and have consequently publishing over forty books by and about him. I have read all of his works at least four times and I am privileged to hold two major archives as well as a complete library of his works on behalf of The Galloway Raiders (the S.R.Crockett literary society I founded in 2014). It is to our national shame that such an archive is not given house room somewhere more fitting than my spare room, or that Crockett is not properly credited either in his native Galloway or in Edinburgh at the Writers Centre. I’m well aware that Crockett is not the only Scots writer thus overlooked – a victim of a canonical hierarchy - but Crockett is the one I know best.
The choice should be yours but unless you know a writer exists you cannot read him, and while he is dismissed you may not choose to explore. That’s how cultural imperialism works isn’t it? I continue to put my time where my mouth is and work hard to bring Crockett out of the shadows. I do so in the spirit of working toward the better nation I hope Scotland could be. A more inclusive, more equal, more open place where culture is not a privilege but a right. Whatever you conclude, I urge that you actually engage with Crockett by reading – widely, deeply and without prejudice.
It’s up to you to engage or not – with Crockett, with other overlooked writers, and also with modern marginalia. Because the debate extends far beyond Crockett. As you open your eyes and minds to a range of Scottish literature (or fiction if you are uneasy with the term ‘literature’) you might also consider that today we have many voices who are not privileged but whose writing may be worthy of exploration. Rather than claiming ‘authenticity’, there are those who simply go about their writing by being real. They communicate their real lived experience, their hopes and dreams – and for many of them their aspirations are not to be the next Ian Rankin, Liz Lochhead or Irvine Welsh. Many of them see Scotland as a place where aspiring to be rich and famous is in fact a fiction. You won’t have heard of them because they are not competing in the market-place. They do not ask to be allowed in. They subscribe to an ‘our world too’ philosophy. Their only demand is the freedom to exist on their own terms.
Platforms such as McStorytellers provide many different voices of Scotland as it is lived today. An awareness of this grassroots culture might well be a more certain key to unlocking the door of self-esteem and pride in identity which is required before we can achieve any kind of Independence, than a close-minded, reframing of an old, outmoded argument born of ignorance and jealousy. If we really care about the future of an independent Scotland it’s time we started embracing the ‘wee voices’ left of centre (I talk culturally not politically) who reside in the margins of our cultural and literary life, rather than putting on the garb of dedicated followers of fashion. Fashion is fickle. Identity is for life. As a famous Scots writer once wrote: Choose life.
The list of articles thus far batting back and forth on this topic are listed below (and in your October Raiders News)
also the Riach articles: (you may have to register to read them and you appear to be restricted to reading 3 free articles a fortnight)