The spirit of peace and goodwill to all men hasn’t been most obvious recently. Last week I made a comment on Willie McIlvanney which, to my great surprise, caused a bit of outrage. But then anything can cause outrage these days, can’t it? I thought I was making some apposite and intelligent points about how Scots are really poor at remembering their ‘greats’ and I got it in the neck. I think the argument that hero worship isn’t the way to go as it is easily subverted into commercialisation (which is neither the fault of the dead writer, nor a reflection on his/her work) and that it is THAT which we are striving to avoid if we are reflective, intelligent people (as I’m sure all of you reading this now are!) fell on dull ears.
It was enough to make me shut ma geg about the passing of Ian Bell. I thought I’d made my point once, why make it twice? But I’m still saddened by the fact that while arguing fiercely against ‘parochialism’ some of my fellow countrymen cannae see that forgetting all but those who have been adopted (in life or death) by the establishment (again, possibly through no fault of their own) is an exercise in extreme parochialism.
Now, in and of itself, I’ve no problem with parochialism – if we use the word to mean community minded, which is how I tend to view it. If you add ‘narrow’ to parochialism then you’ve moved on beyond me. I abhore ‘narrowness’ in all its manifestations.
I also set cat among pigeons for admitting that a) I don’t read Tartan Noir or crime fiction from choice, b) that I’m not personally interested in urban based fiction in general and c) that my knowledge of female Scots writers isn’t as great as it should be. These are not examples of narrowness… they are just my personal opinion. That I’m less well versed in contemporary Scots female writers than I might be, is simply due to the fact that whenever I read them I don’t really enjoy them. It may be a gender thing, it may be I just haven’t found ‘the right woman.’ But it’s not something for anyone to take offence at. Give me a reading list and I’ll go to it. The simple fact is, we live in a world overwhelming us with choice and we do have to make choices. Expressing personal opinion is not narrow minded. Being offended by people expressing opinions diverse to one’s own (or indeed the mainstream) is, I suggest, narrow minded.
So with no offence intended to any Scot living or dead, I’d just like to offer a choice to readers with a McRenegade tendency. My early Christmas is the publication this week of The Commemorative Gateway. I’ve been working hard all year, making friends with one James Leatham. He might well be seen as the McIlvanney/Bell of his day, but since his passing 70 years ago, he’s been forgotten. The magic number 70 means that come December 31st we will once more be able to read his work and it’s been my endeavour this year, along with the newly established Deveron Press, to make sure that his work, once in the public domain, is accessible to as many as possible. This, I feel, is the best tribute one can offer a fellow writer.
As Leatham himself said (in context of a stooshie on copyright of which I would be proud)
‘An author who believes his views are for the good of the world will want them as widely diffused as possible.’
And the 70 years since the death of this remarkable Scot has been an effective gagging order. This is a man who published the first Socialist magazine, back in the 1880’s, who lived through (and commented on) both the First and Second World War, was repeatedly sacked for his involvement in promoting social justice – for example fighting for an 8 hour working day – and the cause of what we now call ‘affordable’ housing, but in his day was simply ‘municipal’ housing. A man who wrote and published a journal that ran into 361 editions over 3o years – all without fear or favour of what the media moguls or politicians thought. His propaganda was purely his own. To my mind, a truly great Scot.
All I had been trying to say re McIlvanney was a sort of parody of Shakespeare – ‘let him paint an inch thick, to this he’ll come.’ It was no poor reflection on McIlvanney, but rather a reflection on the parochial, narrowness of many modern Scots – the insult and offence should not have been taken on McIlvanney’s behalf, but yes, I guess there is room for offence to be taken. No one likes to be called narrow-minded now, do they?
But Leatham has taught me a number of things this year. Firstly, that if you only read things you agree with and feel comfortable with, you are missing out on a lot. That if you feel you have to agree with everything you read, you are missing the point of what a lot of really good writing is doing. I can’t agree with more than about 50% of what Leatham says, and I’m still very young in my journey in knowing the man through his writing, which of course is the only way many of us know writers – it’s a vicarious experience at best. But Leatham always makes me think. He leads me to question and enables me to see things differently in both a personal and in a public context.
No one else’s Leatham journey will be the same as mine. Some will enjoy him, some won’t. No one will love everything he says, but he offers an object lesson in rising above the comfort zone, the narrow perspective which tells us we and our current opinions are always right. He writes about Scotland, about society, about politics and about culture and I keep coming back to the conclusion that if only we’d paid a bit more attention to things he said, Scotland might be a better place today. So of course, I’m trying to persuade you to read some Leatham – but I’m not engaging in hero worship when I do so. My stance is, I believe, quite social realist, suggesting that ‘there are more things in Heaven and earth than are dreamed of in your philosophy’ to nick from Shakespeare again. Or to take from one of our own ‘icons’ Leatham gives us a chance to ‘see oursel’s as others see us.’ And it’s not always comfortable. So if you have any interest beyond the mainstream, let me give you an early Christmas gift… These are all quotes from the as yet unpublished (and unfinished) autobiography which I have been working on this year and will be published in the spring…
‘Yet the power of a nation to shape its own destiny is the dearest of all human rights. And the surrender of it, or the neglect to exercise it, is one of the greatest of human deprivations.’
‘All the organs of public opinion – press, Parliament, radio, pulpit, are in the hands of careerists who support the established order... It is because the newspapers do not give the material facts of social progress, and still less emphasise their significance, that I have for years maintained a propagandist press, with no advertisers, directors or shareholders to please. It is correct to say that I maintain the press; it does not maintain me. Unless a propagandist enterprise had a party organisation behind it, it never pays. Sometimes not even then.’
If these words click, then Leatham is someone you really want to get to know in 2016. He may be dead but as he says in his pamphlet on John Barbour (another great Scots writer perhaps rather overlooked these days):
‘Empires and systems may rise and decay, but so long as a single copy of a great piece of literature remains it can be reproduced and perpetuated to a life beyond life.’
I believe this vindicates rather than contradicts my stooshie inducing post from last week – it’s up to us to keep the literature alive – not by hero worshipping but by doing what we can to keep the work alive beyond it’s ‘fashionable’ time. We need to get behind our many, diverse Scots writers, not as ‘icons’ or dead celebrities, but by appreciating that icons and heroes are made these days all too often for commercial purposes. We need to read. We need to think less about ‘great’ and ‘good’ and appreciate diversity more. Yes, we can make choices and we don’t all have to love the same writers. Writers are not burgers. Books shouldn’t be like McDonalds. We need to think what are the best ways to remember those who have gone before us and what they have said. Me, I’ve put my time and money where my mouth is.
It’s easy to think that one is riding on the shoulders of giants. But our ‘great’ writers were just people like us. We should walk with them; side by side, in preference. And as I walk with James Leatham into 2016, I hold his words ‘Publishing is an adventure’ firmly to my chest. It’s true. I have Leatham to thank for showing me that. He’s not my hero. I have no heroes. But he’s a man still worth listening to. Still worth reading. And I’ll do what I can to make sure that others read him – even if that means getting into ridiculous stooshies about ‘great’ men such as McIlvanney. I think McIlvanney would be on my side, by the way. From what I read of his work, he seemed to be a man who called a spade a spade, not a sparkly Christmas fairy wand.
To find out more about James Leatham you should head over to The Commemorative Gateway It’s no Bella Caledonia, but as they keep telling us – every little helps. I’d prefer to quote Tolstoy (again a paraphrase) and suggest that it’s better to think of it as adding one’s light to the sum of lights.