Five Books to Save Scotland

trainNo one reads books anymore. The idea that literature will play a key role in the coming months of debate and argument seems lamentably laughable.

Take for example the publication of last year’s Unstated; a collection of essays by writers on independence. Its contributors spent a lot of time bemoaning a low, mean political debate and the lack of space for the arts within it.

Like two estate agents trying to sell rival properties for £500 less than the other, the rival camps seem to only deal with culture in the most crass terms. The volume also pointed out that the wider creative scene had been branded to death by Creative Scotland. In short, with exceptions, there wasn’t that much to get excited about.

Of course ideas, the arts, and writing are what have brought Scotland to this juncture (slow in germinating though they may be). The very fact that there is a canon of Scottish writing that looks at our national identity – in all its heroin scarred, wee free, tartan clad glory – must imply that there is something better. It simply wouldn’t be worth writing about otherwise.

We’re very cautious as a people (for good reason) when it comes to proclaiming easy links with culture, identity and politics. Yet, simplistic thought it might sound, those of us who want independence need to state more and more clearly, even within a shallow debate, that the poets, by and large, are on our side.

I assembled this list because I realised that if every undecided voter in Scotland read these five books, there would be a resounding Yes in next year’s referendum.

Looking back, I think there is a lot for contemporary Scottish cultural figures to reflect on. Our intelligentsia should not be cheerleaders for Yes Scotland, but perhaps they do need to get over a post-modern coyness about politics. After all a nation is really just a form of narration.

In any argument, it’s interesting to look at the language that is used, not just in terms of content, but also quality. So much of the existence of the union is premised on ignorance, on leaving aside this ultimate anachronism in the development of the societies that sit side by side on these isles.

To my mind, each of these works points clearly, whether explicitly or not, to Scottish independence. I’d dearly love to find a supporter of the union who has read all five of these works and who would be prepared to engage with them and discuss the ideas they provoke. I suspect that such a person doesn’t exist but if they do I hope they get in touch.

For at the end of the day, writing about Scotland, engaging with it, is about uncovering its possible future direction. A worthy subject must have possibilities. It’s about imagination.

Scotland and Nationalism: Scottish Society and Politics, 1707-1994,
Christopher Harvie

Harvie explains with great clarity the historical oddity of Scotland as a stateless nation and the historical factors that led to its re-emergence. The author shows the substantial historical roots of the events that we are now witnessing. For those who see the politics leading up to the referendum as some kind of aberration, Harvie’s book is compulsory reading. Focusing very much on the institutions that continued as carriers of a Scottish identity Scotland and Nationalism demonstrates that the union has been a far more contested and turbulent marriage than most history books would dare to tell us.

Trainspotting, Irvine Welsh

The Hungarian critic and philosopher György Lukács famously argued that the realism of Sir Walter Scott was revolutionary due to his ability to portray the affects of big historical changes on the lives of ordinary people. In this sense Welsh is to the last days of the union what Scott was to its earliest. Trainspotting tapped into the post-Thatcherite zeitgeist and showed the reality of the death of industrial Scotland and its effect on life in our cities with a searing clarity. No country could have a novel like this written about it and not want to change.

A Scots Quair, Lewis Grassic Gibbon

Gibbon was ambivalent about the nascent Scottish nationalism of the 1930s and preferred to stick to his own distinctive brand of Trotskyism (which would see him expelled from the Communist Party). Remarkably, his novel of rural life in the Mearns, Sunset Song, remains the nation’s most popular, and the sweeping ambition of this trilogy is testament to the genius of an author who died far too young. A Scots Quair looks at the Scotland of its day with an uncompromising vision that celebrates the language, culture, and the life of one woman earthed to a native soil. It’s a story of her endurance and of Scotland’s in an age just a tumultuous as our own.

A Drunk Man Looks at the Thistle, Hugh MacDiarmid

It could be argued that more than any other figure, the poet Hugh MacDiarmid planted the seeds of a century long revival of Scottish identity. A Drunk Man Looks at the Thistle is an enthralling modernist epic poem about Scotland, the moon, sex, the cosmos and much more. In reclaiming for Scots the status of a literary tongue MacDiarmid reversed centuries of genteel Anglicisation and revived a culture and a nation that thought itself in terminal decline. His key call to all Scots living and dead: “To be yersel’s – and to mak’ that worth bein’,/Nae harder job to mortals has been gi’en” remains as potent today as it did in the 1920s.

Why Scots Should Rule Scotland, Alasdair Gray

This thin pamphlet may well be bettered by Gray’s forthcoming book on independence, but it remains a highly influential document. Its many assertions such as that of an inclusive nationality identity (everyone who lives here) and of a geological/ecological sense of who we are, have found their way into the language of mainstream Scottish politics. The fact that Gray has been vilified by the mainstream press for his more recent contributions to the debate in Unstated only demonstrates how craven and duplicitous our sorry excuse for a national press is. Their refusal to engage with the eloquence of Gray’s language and the logic of his arguments is indicative of a conservative establishment with its head lost in the sand. (Unionists with a taste for more risqué writing should read 1982 Janine – Gray’s novelistic re-imagining of A Drunk Man Looks at the Thistle).

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  1. Firstly, as the latest book sales figures show, people DO still read books, albeit probably mostly 50 Shades of Grey.

    Secondly, if a nation really is a form of narration, then the pro-independence camp need to recognise the ongoing power and validity (and, bizarre as it might seem, the comfort many people still derive from) the British narrative of which Scotland has been a part. I agree that this particular story might indeed be coming to its end, but I doubt reading these five books alone will shake people from it.

    Thirdly, I’m increasingly wary of the secular deification of Alasdair Gray–as would the man himself, I’m sure. He’s written a lot of brilliant things during his life–that pamphlet among them–but that essay in the Unstated collection was not, in my opinion, among them: simplistic, needlessly provocative, and overtly self-centred. (While he did himself point out that the only examples he was giving were from his own experience, that only heightened the implication that people who went along with what he wanted were “good” settlers, while people who didn’t were “bad” colonists).

    Fourthly; good to see Bella on the social media ball, providing helpful links to the books in question so that, regardless of what they might think afterwards, more people will read them.

  2. annie says:

    Fer Christ’s sake, don’t mention ‘A Scots Quair’! Ray Bell is traumatised enough and is STILL having flash backs 😉

    1. Ray Bell says:

      I’m amazed you remember it. The book’s great, it’s just the actors’ accents were way off the mark. I’m not sure about forcing books on kids (bairns?) though, it can backfire and make them hate them.

      I see three problems with Scottish literature today, firstly people are not very familiar with the traditions anymore, secondly, publishing companies seem to be mainly interested in books by people who can’t write and don’t write (i.e. celebrities) and thirdly, Anglo-American culture has given literature (especially poetry) an image of a kind of effete nonsense.

  3. annie says:

    Of course I remembered it 🙂

    Yes, forcing WEANS (;-)) to do anything is always counter productive. And just like adults, some weans will absolutely adore reading and some will look at you as if you’ve gone nuts when presented with anything resembling a book! (I have two of the former and one of the latter, now young adults)

    You also, quite clearly, have to take into consideration that a large number of families are struggling just to feed their weans bellies, which for obvious reasons is a tad higher up the priority list. I’m banking on a fairer, more equitable Scotland putting this right – especially in all areas of education. Hopefully every bairn/wean/kid/child/leanabh gets at least the chance to decide whether or not they enjoy reading books.

    Excellent, positive article in The Herald mapping out exactly how to do it
    http://www.heraldscotland.com/politics/referendum-news/a-new-blueprint-for-an-independent-scotland.20985084

  4. Patrick S Hogg says:

    Note also we have a mass of evidence to show our national Bard Robert Burns was a pro-democracy political poet of the Republican ilk, whether you read The Canongate Burns, my own biography RB: The Patriot Bard or The Bard, the conclusion is clear. We also have Thomas Muir, the father of modern SCottish democratic ideals who was tried for sedition for his pro-democracy views in 1793. Our culture is rich is dissident thinking and the first principles are found in the 1790’s era where the Friends of the People had almost a 100 branches throughout Scotland. Our education system in an Independent Scotland needs to link up to these groups to draw inspiration from where our political consciousness changed to crystalise the vision of a modern democratic state. We can still achive their ambitions and rule our own country for the sake of the people, run our economy for the benefit of the people of Scotland (not corporations or monopolies) and place a trust in the people of Scotland that the power they give over to politicians will not be abused or become watered down by the politicians being bought off and corrupted as Westminster has done to so many. The modern SNP have taken over the House of Labour’s Credibility and labour are at a loss to find the ground from which their principles once sprang given they abandoned so many basic fundamental principles under Warmonger Blair. Labour as a party gravitate to satisfy the aspirations of the people in the South of England and London to get back into power in Westminster and as a consequence Scotland is treated as a top-up vote region for them, so they do not and cannot, under this straight-jacket, speak the voice of the Scottish people whom they took for granted for so long that they treated us with arrogant contempt. Ian Davidson comes to mind as the case in point of the sell-out MP’s who are addicted to the status and bloated self importance of working in the dead Halls of Ambition in Westminster where democracy died so long ago no one seems to have noticed. Ideas change the world….we still have plenty of them in Scotland and ideas are most important than whiskey or oil. ‘Where is the Soul of Freedom fled?’

  5. annie says:

    “Note also we have a mass of evidence to show our national Bard Robert Burns was a pro-democracy political poet of the Republican ilk”

    Yes! Unfortunately, BT are trying their damnedest to delude even their young people that Burns favoured the British Establishment as opposed to being a Scottish Socialist

    http://bettertogether.net/blog/entry/better-together-youth-rep-lachlan-on-what-burns-words-can-teach-us-about-ou

    It breaks my heart to see them using the same tactics as UKIP

    http://webcache.googleusercontent.com/search?q=cache:http://www.ukip.org/scotland/articles/1405-robert-burns-was-british

    Perhaps it would be helpful if some of these young campaigners attended Kevin Williamson’s talk ‘The Slave’s Lament’

    http://www.ragged-online.com/2013/04/9th-2013-slaves-lament-robert-burns-scotland-empire-kevin-williamson/

    Not to try and get them to vote Yes, but to enable them to appreciate a different perspective of the Bard himself.

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