As my title suggests, my key question is how long we do actually remember our writers? Iain Banks died a couple of years ago, and Alasdair Gray is getting on. The torch is passed to the next generation of James Kelman, Irvine Welsh and Ian Rankin. And there’s a plethora of contemporary women writers too. Forgive me, my knowledge of contemporary Scottish women writers is much poorer than it could or perhaps should be. (I’m not forgetting, I’m just ignorant on this score.)
After all, this piece is not about championing one writer or another. This is about (drum roll for that irritating word, used here I believe in a correct context for once) legacy. All writers have one thing in common. Their work remains in copyright for 70 years after their deaths. For some that’s good for the immortal soul, for others it’s the kiss of death. And the difference between the two is tied up with publishers and agents and money and cultural ideology – we might say it’s a combination of copyright and the canon.
The debate on whether copyright is a good or a bad thing is substantially a political one. Copyright itself is what one might call a ‘vexed’ question, especially in this digital age. Obviously the worker should be worthy of his hire, but selling rights is something of a dark art – and it’s one which transcends mortality.
A literary canon (as I’ve mentioned before now) is largely a political thing. And something which looks different from the perspective of 70 years. The first wave of the Scottish literary Renaissance (from 1920’s) is now described as a kind of Scottish modernism. It supposedly stood against the ‘Kailyard’ school (of the 1890’s) – but with hindsight one can find elements of each in the other, and different ‘groupings’ can be attributed given our current perspective. Which is what? I’m afraid I don’t know my labels here. I’m not big on labels or as they are presented in publishing – genres. What came after the Renaissance? Post-modernist, Punk? I really don’t know how James Kelman and Irvine Welsh are described these days. Perhaps the jostle for position with the currently ubiquitous and all conquering Tartan Noir phase, of which it is claimed Ian Rankin is King. Interestingly McIlvanney is sometimes called the Father of Tartan Noir (though he described it as an ‘erzatz’ genre. It reminds me of the relationship (though not the writing) of Walter Scott and Robert Louis Stevenson as regards what was then called the Romantic school. I suspect there’s something of the same battle going on between those who are and aren’t happy to define as Tartan Noir. But both seem to be relentlessly urban in delivery. I wonder should we write essays on ‘Discuss the similarities and differences of Tartan Noir and Kailyard?’ And how will they look back on all this 70 years from now?
It’s a fact that today Scotland has a mainly urban population. So it comes as no surprise that its fiction is urban-centric. Especially when we are fed the line that rural writing must be parochial or nostalgic. And that there is definitely no room for that in the landscape of modern Scotland. I find that a shame. Rural Scots may be in the minority, but surely we deserve recognition for our kind of fiction too? As many of those who made the move from country to city in the 19th century sought to read about the rural places they had left (some favouring George Douglas Brown and James Barke others Galt and Crockett) stars rise and fall not just with public taste but with social pressure. I’m struggling to find a ‘well known’ Scots rural writer since Robin Jenkins. There’s Alan Warner, but I don’t recognise the ‘rurality’ he writes about. There are doubtless such writers about but they certainly aren’t the tartan of the month. Some Scots writers never ‘make’ it. Some very good ones. And many more are quickly forgotten. This seems wasteful, and more than that, it seems to illustrate a scant lack of pride in our own culture. (It’s not just reserved to writers of course, there are loads of Scots who have made great contributions to the world in any number of spheres who are overlooked on a regular basis.)
It seems to me that we should start paying some attention and some respect to those who have gone before. That we should lift our eyes away from the bright lights big city awards and bestsellers lists and glossy magazine pay to play reviews and start exploring our own culture – past and present – on the margins, be that urban or rural.
I’m in the business of practising what I preach. This year I’ve been engaged in a project to bring back a ‘forgotten’ Scottish writer. I got the idea from my friend (and one-time gritty rural realism writer) Cally Phillips, who has being doing this service over the past few years for the much maligned S.R.Crockett. I have somehow fallen into working with and on JAMES LEATHAM (1865-1945.) He died this month exactly 70 years ago. Which is my link from my start point of McIlvanney.
Imagine, 70 years from now, McIlvanney may be in the same situation as James Leatham is now. We cannot predict the future of fashion in fiction. But we can be fairly sure it will be inextricably linked up with the ideology of the elite in society. Unless we reclaim it. May I suggest Scottish writing doesn’t need a Renaissance, it needs a Revolution. And I see the path from Romanticism to post-Renaissance more as reactionary than truly revolutionary.
McIlvanney’s star may rise and his work may stay at the top of the pile as a creamy cash-cow, or he may sink to obscurity as so many have before him, lost in the torrent as we rush head-long ever in search of ‘the new.’ If what he has to say no longer fits the zeitgeist, or the current cultural capital of the ruling elite, he will, in 70 years, be as James Leatham is today
Now this article is a game of two halves – I’d like you to do some homework. I challenge you to find out about Leatham for yourself this week. And I’d ask you to take some time to think about what you’ve just read, (both in this article and on your bedside table) and how you might start to reclaim your Scottish cultural identity – whatever that may be. You may fit comfortably within the Tartan Noir stable, but I’m guessing there’s plenty of other readers who travel far from Scotland in their reading matter, simply because they don’t feel represented by the dark, at times nihilistic at times brutal, picture of modern Scotland. I certainly feel that if Scotland was as depicted by most ‘best-sellers’ these days it’s a country I wouldn’t want to live in. Yet I love living in Scotland. My Scotland. It’s not tartan and shortbread but it’s not heroin chic, swingers and sectarian working class rivalry either. Perhaps I’ve discovered a vindication of the theory of parallel universes.
Some people are happy with One Nation Britain. I’m not. But I don’t believe there’s One Scotland either. And I don’t believe that my Scotland gets anything like the recognition it deserves – in fiction or in fact. So I’m part of a resistance movement which seeks to broaden the kirk, to awaken the sleepers and to find fellow travellers. We need to start fighting for our fiction. And the fight is against selective memory (if that sits more comfortably with you than the phrase mainstream elitism!). My general is James Leatham. Who is yours?
A wee clue - check out www.thedeveronpress.scot for more on James Leatham.