by Kevin Williamson
– And yet I feel this muckle thistle’s staun’in’
Atween me and the mune as pairt o’ a Plan.”
When Hugh MacDiarmid’s whisky-fuelled ‘Drunk Man’ looks up from the gutter, through the dark silhouette of a thistle, to the moon and stars beyond, and contemplates The Warld and Life and Daith, Heaven, Hell, ana’… it is a defining moment in modern Scottish literature.
After the horrors of the First World War, curious Scottish tentacles had pushed onwards and outwards, through the mud and slums, probing and grasping at the bright lights of astronomy, science, philosophy, politics, Russian literature and modernity itself. The fierce and resourceful intellect of MacDiarmid brought them home to our own Waste Land.
The gutter is a fine place to make sense of such matters. Twenty years earlier, Oscar Wilde’s most quotable character, Lord Darlington, asserted “We are all in the gutter, but some of us are looking at the stars.” The field of vision is perfect.
The ground beneath our feet seems to be shifting once more. Over the last few years it’s been wonderful to see the emergence of a diverse group of younger Scottish writers make their mark, loosely converging on the pages of Gutter magazine, many featured in the ground-breaking Cargo anthology The Year of Open Doors (edited by Rodge Glass).
Issue 4 of Gutter magazine is launched next week at Glasgow’s CCA. Since it first appeared in 2009 Gutter has showcased the bright young things of Scottish writing, alongside more established names, and attempted to shake things up. And not before time.
I don’t believe such things happen by chance. Nineteen years ago I launched Rebel Inc magazine. I was fortunate to be in the right place, at the right time. 1992 was a pivotal year for Scotland. The unexpected and utterly depressing Conservative victory in the general election of that year – after the Great Poll Tax Rebellion and the ousting of Herself – set in motion a chain of events and a sea change in thinking that eventually led to that beautiful summer’s day on 1st July 1999 . What was not just luck was my belief, right from the off, that it was the right place and the right time to try and stir it up. That’s why Rebel Inc worked.
In the twilight years of Thatcherism an underground Scottish literary revolution found its voice among the housing schemes, in bedsitland, among the dole queues and workplaces, on the football terraces, in the pubs and clubs. Sex, violence, drugs, introspection, iconoclasm, scabrous wit, social surrealism, and political revolt aligned themselves with poetry and fiction. I positioned Rebel Inc in the midst of this tumult of ideas and creativity. I get a lot of things wrong. (Cannabis cafe anyone?) But that wasn’t one of them.
Nowadays the writers who were around Rebel Inc in the early 90s are all middle-aged, balding or fat. Some have been successful. Others survive as best as they can, keeping on keeping on. A few, most notably the poets Sandie Craigie and Paul Reekie, are no longer with us. Rebel Inc has become a mere footnote in the annals of Scottish literature, a scratch in the sand. Which is the way it should be.
I don’t believe for one minute that the growing reputation of Gutter, or the current vitality of the new wave of Scottish writing, is an accident of history. Culture does not develop in a void. In addition to the published texts I’ve read interviews with many of these writers, the non-fiction that has complemented the fiction and poetry, and have listened to talk in bars after readings and suchlike. I sense a reaction. A thoughtful engagement with shifting social realities, both at home and abroad. These are dangerous and difficult times. But this is just the sort of rocky terrain that the engaged artist thrives on.
An editorial in Gutter 04 connects the dots. “In the past, when times were hard, Scottish culture had a habit of kicking into overdrive. 1992 was the year of Black Wednesday and the last big recession. It was also the year Rebel Inc was founded with the rallying cry, “Fuck the mainstream!” Now is a great time for like-minded folk to look at filling the gap vacated by London publishers.”
This is music to my ears. The news that Gutter is to expand its remit to include “creative non-fiction” is another step in the right direction. Dangerous times need dangerous minds. Actions need ideas.
The role of magazine editor, on a publication such as Gutter, is, of course, subordinate to the writing. The act of selection is important, although in my experience, selection by committee rarely works. Too many cooks and all that. You go with your gut instincts and what works for you. Fuck the consequences and to hell with critics.
But there’s more to editing a magazine than selection of good material. Developing an aesthetic, an attitude, lines of attacks, a sense of timing, connectivity, all of these things count. In this respect Colin Begg and Adrian Searle are doing a fine job editing Gutter. Keep kicking against the pricks.
(Gutter 04 – which is a 228 page book – is available by subscription from the magazine’s website. It’s worth every penny.)