What connects Alasdair Gray, Dirty Dancing and Gary Tank Commander?
Bear with me. The veteran Scottish writer and painter has been in the headlines after complaining about the high number of non-Scots in top arts jobs particularly — if I understand him correctly – folk who intend to come and go without getting Scotland under their fingernails. All hell’s been let loose online and in the twittersphere and one of Alasdair’s “colonists” Vicky Featherstone has written of feeling bullied after taking over as first Director of the National Theatre of Scotland because of her English origins. It’s all got very personal, very fast. Alastair’s not daft – he would have known that “naming names” prompts a defensive response. And the terms employed in the book chapter from which the newspaper article came are indeed loaded. Settler has the ugly connection of “white settler” – colonist has the unattractive overtone of colonialism.
So this is not to further analyse Alasdair’s piece – but to pick up on a very important subject that lies at its heart, sadly lost now in all the furore.
Do Scots believe they look and sound like winners, or leaders or folk able to apply for, win and shine in top jobs? My experience is that an overweaning concern about “sounding common”, not being able to speak “properly” in public, using bad grammar and “not knowing the right name for things” are the nameable aspects of a deep problem that stops many Scots taking the next steps in their lives and careers. It’s not necessary for anyone to be actively discouraged. The knowledge you’ve never seen someone with a working class accent or the Scots cadence of Easter Road or Govan reading the news tells you all you need to know. Having to explain references that are commonplace in your own background does the same. As Prof Tom Devine puts it – and I paraphrase – Scottish history is exotic for many young Scots. How can the norm be the exception? Quite easily.
Encountering folk who sound like you in every walk of life is the empowering fundamental upon which all subsequent tolerance and interest is built. So young Scots must see and hear the full panoply of their own accents, thoughts and references growing up – it’s the real and familiar bedrock upon which and through other cultures can be loved and investigated. As a young broadcaster born in Wolverhampton and brought up in Belfast I consciously used the everyday Scots of my Highland mum and dad on air and insisted on using first names of all interviewees (even members of the House of Lords) to achieve the level playing field that allows everyone to express ideas, not simply assert or hide behind status. A visibly and audibly level playing field in public life is vitally important to achieve equality of aspiration in any nation.
Ok – where does Gary Tank Commander come in? Well what are these?
Are they clementines, tangerines or satsumas? Naw they are all “wee oranges.”
Now this either prompts a laugh or you don’t get it. The writer Des Dillon is a great observer of the way Scots speak – and Scots generally don’t see a value in learning the tiny differences between exotic objects and are more interested in the infectious use of metaphor – thus, you may be thinking, see this argument – see mince.
But can a leader, a top person, a manager really be someone who (defiantly) calls mandarins wee oranges? Can you confidently say “aye” in a Scottish court without being done for contempt (it did happen in 1993.) Can Scots bring their “whole selves” confidently into the limelight in the powerful positions of their own country — and particularly into the highly contested domains of arts and the environment where “proper sounding” people abound? Of course you could say there are working class Scots in leadership roles and no-one is automatically born to occupy a top job – whatever accent or background they have. Perhaps that’s why Bradley Wiggins was a shoe-in for Sports Personality of the Year. He is that very rare thing. A working class lad made good without corners visibly knocked off in a sporting world usually dominated by those with parental cash, time and backing.
That’s where Dirty Dancing comes in. I’m not ashamed to admit (well I am a bit) this is my favourite film and not because of the late Patrick Swayze. The best line in the film was the exchange between the cringingly named “Baby” and her dad when she confessed to having a fling with Pat. You lied too – she says. You told me everyone has the same chance in life, everyone deserves to be treated equally. But you didn’t mean everyone. You just meant people like you.
And that of course is the moment kids really grow up. When they realise adults say a lot of things they don’t actually mean. Life should be fair – but in practice it isn’t. Boundaries and limits are quickly learned, acquired behaviour helps to firm up that “place in life” and self or peer-group policing then takes over. Thus girls can do whatever they want at school – as long as they all wear pink anoraks to school. Kids from backstreets can all be Bradley Wiggins – except they generally can’t without feeling isolated and weird. Scots can mumble away about the small beer things that make up their lives, culture and spoken tradition and still get top jobs. Except they don’t. Especially, ironically, in those walks of life that have most to do with the essentials of culture and nature.
If this was easy to measure or remedy Scots would have cracked inferiorisation – a problem observed and analysed across the world where less dominant communities have been stopped from asserting or developing their own values. So of course it’s impossible to say what proportion of top appointees “should” be Scots, impossible to say which individual non-Scots have sufficiently understood the Scottish zeitgeist to become “honorary Scots” and which individuals are stubbornly “rolling out the barrel” in defiance of all local Scottish tradition. Impossible to prescribe — and undesirable. Change takes time, patience, encouragement, small step promotion, risk and – above all — balance. The last thing that would be “natural for a trading nation like Scotland, is an unwelcoming reception for anyone who wants to come, visit, live here or come and then leave. The last thing that would ever be appropriate in this “mongrel nation” would be a state-prescribed mono-culture of (inevitably) synthetic Scottishness — since any essence is by definition impossible to describe or prescribe.
But the question still remains. Do Scots run Scotland? It’s a subjective argument and a cultural one. That doesn’t make it any less important or real. Just much, much more sensitive.
Before devolution, the average Scot stood on the sidelines and watched for decades – maybe centuries — as a different class with different habits, accents, vocabulary, cultural preferences, reading material, university backgrounds and presumptions about life got almost all Scotland’s top jobs. Those “leadership voices” were just as often educated Scots – indeed thanks to a law passed by the old Scottish Parliament, the eldest sons of clan chiefs had to be educated in English not Gaelic. A product of internal Scottish “control anxiety” not an edict from down south.
Until Scots believe in their heart of hearts that they are leadership material – just as they are – the sensitivity surrounding Scots and Scottishness in top places will endure. The terrible shame of the last few days is that the piece by Alasdair Gray hasn’t served to open up debate but make it too angry and hurt to even air. Ochone.
Nonetheless, there is a bit of craic in this podcast
The bit discussing Alasdair Gray starts 22 minutes in.