by Kevin Williamson
May Day 1992 was one of the bleakest in recent memory. Scotland had sunk into a collective despondency when the Tory Party, under the leadership of John Major, were astonishingly re-elected to another five years in office. After thirteen years of divisive Tory rule – characterised by greed, privatisation, unemployment, strikes, riots, war and the Poll Tax – it didn’t seem possible.
With hindsight, painful as those five years were, they were the jolt that Scotland needed. When the History of the UK, 1707-2014, is eventually written that demoralising election day in 1992 will surely be recognised as the date that Scots crossed our political Rubicon and crucially, albeit hesitantly, began to dismantle the crumbing walls of the British state.
I’ve got mixed feelings about that time. The dismal trudge into work the Friday morning after Election Night was the lowest point. Harry Young, the Tollcross Primary lollipop man was the first person who spoke to me. He was stood at the school gates as usual, hat askew, stubble on his chin, bantering with the kids. He spotted the glum look on my coupon. “Dinnae worry, son. The working class will never be defeated. The struggle goes on.”
Harry was a cheery bloke, loved by everyone who knew him. He wrote poetry too – good poetry –was a weel kent peace activist as well as a lifelong communist. His lollipop man’s uniform was adorned with CND and trade union badges. “Five years is nothing, son. We’ll regroup and come back at them stronger.”
This was coming from a guy in his eighties! Harry was a one-off. I’m so glad he lived long enough to see the ousting of the Tories in 1997 and the establishment of a Scottish Parliament two years later. When I stood the Scottish parliament in 1999, and then for Westminster in 2001, Harry mailed me a few quid with encouraging letters of support. His mantra was “never let the bastards grind you down.”
Harry was spot on. It wasn’t just the labour movement that regrouped in 1992. Culturally and politically a warm raucous wind was blowing through the cold embers of defeat. The long march from the nadir of April 1992 to the historic referendum victory of September 1997 is well enough documented.
Those five years were the making of Scotland. From April 1992 we had the bit between our teeth and we fought back. Those of us who lived through that fascinating period will know fine well that the political process at a national level was driven forward by Scotland’s disparate writers, poets, thinkers, film-makers, musicians, artists and community activists rather than the professional politicians.
With the benefit of hindsight Rebel Inc can be placed within an ad-hoc network of cultural resistance. Upstairs, in the former James Thin shop in Edinburgh’s illustrious George Street, I launched Rebel Inc magazine on May Day 1992, just nine days after the Tory election victory.
There was a good community of writers around at that time helping each other out. Duncan Mclean, Gordon Legge, Barry Graham and Sandie Craigie helped get the project off the ground. The magazine struck a raw nerve. An extract from a certain Leith-based writer in Issue #1 didn’t do the magazine’s reputation any harm. I was in the right place at the right time.
Although I was evangelical about poetry and literature and was on a bit of a mission with Rebel Inc, on another level I was just winging it, making it up as I went along, and having a bit of fun.
Inevitably there was a backlash. Who the fuck did these upstarts think they were? When asked to defend the magazine on a Radio Scotland lunch time arts show – against charges of bad language, violence, filth and depravity, etc – I got caught up in strike action at the Beeb. I spotted an opportunity and wasn’t about to look a gift horse in the mouth.
“So Kevin how do you defend your publication?”
“Well, Colin (Bell) I’d like to defend the magazine but as a trade unionist myself I’m going down to join the BECTU picket line outside”.
I took off the headphones, picked up my bag and left to join the picket line outside. Or as the press put it the next day I was thrown out the back door of the Beeb.
In the movie The Great Rock’n’Roll Swindle the Sex Pistols’ chancer-in-chief, Malcolm McLaren lies back in a hot bath and sneers out Lesson Number One: “ESTABLISH THE NAME”. The print was hardly dry on the magazine yet here it was being discussed on the front page of the Herald and even in the tabloids. Every writer in Scotland now knew the name. And just as importantly where we stood on the social spectrum. Job done. Game on.
For the next decade Rebel Inc carved out its own unique path. As well as poetry and fiction the magazine published interviews conducted on ecstasy, prison diaries, and organised readings in night clubs. I’d need to write a book to include all the stories and characters met along the way.
In 1996 a new chapter began when I entered into a five year partnership with Jamie Byng and Canongate Books. Around 60 titles were published including the Rebel Inc Classic series. The attitude, swagger, counter-culture kudos, and sheer quality of the books published as part of the Rebel Inc imprint jet-propelled both Rebel Inc and Canongate Books onto an international stage.
I quite enjoyed being a meeja slut in those days (not interested anymore) and never missed a trick when it came to publicity. The project was driven forward as creatively and as chaotically as I could manage. The rest is history.
Or so I thought. Given that there was zero interest in the 20th anniversary of Rebel Inc from any of the mainstream media in Scotland it would appear that whatever Rebel Inc achieved back then has been edited out of the official narrative of Scottish literature. Such is life.
So here we are in 2012. While superficial political comparisons can be made between 1992 and 2012 there are important differences. Some positive, others less so. Many of the changes, particularly the ones that affect publishing, are structural.
The net book agreement has gone and with it most of Scotland’s independent bookshops. The internet has created a whole new consumer ball game. Amazon, ebooks and Kindles are re-shaping the publishing industry, which now finds itself at a similar crossroads the music industry arrived at when file-sharing first took off in the early days of Napster.
Some publishers have adapted to the new terrain, others have struggled. Canongate Books aren’t the only success story from Scotland. Birlinn, Luath, Polygon, Mainstream and Black & White have all put many great titles into the public domain.
Two very different Scottish publishers whose work has consistently excited me over the last decade have been Itchy Coo and Cargo Publishing.
Itchy Coo, the brainchild of authors James Roberston and Matthew Fitt, publish children’s books written in Scots and they have done it with great panache. Since their launch in 2002 Itchy Coo have published 36 titles and sold around quarter of a million books. It would be difficult to quantify how vitally important titles such as Rabbie’s Ryhmes or Where’s Katie’s Coo have become to the youngest of Scotland’s readers. As well as entertaining kids these books legitimise in print – to a young readership – the wonderfully versatile Scots language. Itchy Coo take the work of Kelman and Welsh to a new level.
Scotland has changed for the better as a result of the Great Language Wars of the ’80s and ’90s. The time, when a judge could sentence someone for contempt of court for using Scots instead of English has gone The days when kids could be belted in school for speaking in Scots (or Gaelic) are now but a dark and distant stain on our cultural history.
Publishers come and go. Cargo Publishing have tried to fill the gap that Rebel Inc left after I parted company with Canongate in 2001. With attitude to spare and no little flair Mark Buckland & Co. have brought a grassroots buzz back to Scottish publishing that no amount of Booker Prizes or celebrity memoirs could ever generate. It’s been wonderful to see. This is what independent publishing is all about.
(As an aside I confidently predict that Ewan Morrison’s Tale From The Mall – published this week – will do for Cargo what Children of Albion Rovers did for Rebel Inc. This is a phenomenal and important groundbreaking novel maybe even the Trainspotting of its generation. It will be reviewed here soon enough).
Over the last decade I’ve given short shrift to the idea of re-launching Rebel Inc as a publishing house. For one thing I couldn’t do it any better than Cargo are doing at present. Yet there is unfinished business. Which is why I’m marking this twentieth anniversary by bringing Rebel Inc back to life.
I’ve kept almost EVERYTHING from the Rebel Inc days. Letters, manuscripts, diaries, posters, flyers, books, postcards, T-shirts, magazines, photos, radio & TV recordings, as well as mementos that are quiet, eh, outlandish. The National Library of Scotland enquired about taking the whole archive but for now I’ve found an amazing space at the new Summerhall arts complex where I can store the archive and put part of it on permanent public display.
This public archive at Summerhall will be located within the Rebel Inc Bookshop. This is where I intend to exhibit and sell off the remaining Rebel Inc books and publications – including some first editions of the magazine – plus most of the books that I’ve gathered over the last 35 years. I don’t want to lug these boxes around anymore. They fill an entire lockup. When we open the Rebel Inc Bookshop to the public it will be first come first served until they’re all gone.
I’ve also decided to take Rebel Inc out of its publishing retirement and give it the proper send-off it never had. My ongoing commitments to Neu! Reekie! and Bella Caledonia mean there are limitations to what I’m currently able to do. But there is at least one more book screaming in my ears to be published.
After that? One book at a time. Or, as wise ole Joe Strummer once said, The Future Is Unwritten.
Kevin Williamson was founder, publisher and editor of Rebel Inc magazine from 1992-1995 and Senior Commisioning Editor of the Rebel Inc imprint of Canongate Books from 1996-2001.