From The Province Of The Cat #20 – Stands Scotland Where She Did? Timothy Neat at 70

Fortingall Traveller - Timothy Neat at 70At the beginning of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s novel The Great Gatsby the narrator Nick Carraway recalls advice his father gave him when he was a boy,

“‘Whenever you feel like criticising anyone,’ he told me, ‘just remember that all the people in this world haven’t had the advantages that you’ve had.’ He didn’t say any more…”

The purpose of such advice to the character in the novel is secondary to the function it enacts in the reader, which is one of trust. Because he believes such advice to be true we, who read Fitzgerald’s short tragedy of a booming society heading for a bust, can believe in Nick Carraway as our narrator. We can trust him to tell the truth because, as we learn as we read, everyone else in the novel, from Daisy Buchanan to Gatsby himself, is a stranger to veracity and if we did not trust Nick Carraway the entire narrative would collapse under the weight of its own excess. We also need to trust Carraway because Fitzgerald’s novella is an important literary document in as much as it is a warning, a portrait of an earlier time and society heading for disaster, which has luminous parallels with contemporary “Britain”. The Great Gatsby is a text whose poetic power – its strength – lies in how unpredictability gets converted into inevitability. Like ancient Greek drama the strangeness of the story is its familiarity – everybody knows how it is going to end and it will not end well. So it is that Fitzgerald makes his narrator, Carraway, our correspondent – a cross between Orpheus returning from the underworld and the god Terminus who marks the boundaries in order to protect the peace.

It was these thoughts which surfaced as I wandered around the exhibition, “Stands Scotland Where She Did? Timothy Neat at 70”, at the Peacock Gallery in Aberdeen last weekend. Timothy Neat was born in Cornwall in 1943 into a comparatively comfortable middle class family – no doubt with similar advice as was given to Nick Carraway ringing in his ears – yet he has evolved into one of Scotland’s essential cultural polymaths: writer, photographer, filmmaker, art historian, folklorist and artist. He has worked closely with a number of dynamic creative personalities as diverse as Ian Hamilton Findlay, Jean Redpath, Tilda Swinton and Sorley Maclean but the two seminal influences, which politically contextualise and culturally flavour Neat’s artistic vision and give his creative endeavours their inner life, are John Berger and Hamish Henderson.

In the book of photographs and drawings, “These Faces”, which accompanies the exhibition John Berger writes,

“Neat has the soul of a nomad, which explains why he is so at ease with those who are physically and sociologically nomads. And for nomadic people the sky has a special importance; the land changes, but the sky, for all its changeability is a constant. And if you look at the portraits and faces which are the content of this book – and exhibition – you can see how closely they resemble skies… They may be mysterious but, they are hiding very little.”

Like Nick Carraway in The Great Gatsby we, who view the many faceted work on display on this journey through a creative life, can trust our narrator, Tim Neat, because he also is “hiding very little.” J.P. Pick, the biographer of Neil Gunn, once wrote that “The greatest work of art the Highlanders (of Scotland) have produced is themselves.”  In a brief but deeply moving speech at the opening of this badly needed, and a long time coming, exhibition Tim Neat said how he stood before us “making an exhibition of myself” and that he believed Scotland was a “post war nation” and that Britain, or the UK, or England (call it what you will) was a “war embracing nation too keen to relive the glories of a past empire”. Outside the Peacock Gallery on Aberdeen’s Castlegate was a brand new statue commemorating the Gordon Highlanders who were, according to that well known pacifist Winston Churchill, “the greatest regiment in the world”, stood in grandiloquent concurrence. That very Saturday afternoon, before the Rangers v Stenhousemuir game, members of Her Majesties Forces disgraced themselves in an inarticulate and mangled manifestation of pro-Unionism cheered on by a Rule Britannia singing Ibrox crowd. The vital narrative of Tim Neat’s art, the cultural correspondence of his expressive life, stand in essential opposition to all of that reactionary and murderous kitsch.

Central to this redress – and to Neat’s life – is that other important figure in Scotland’s story: Hamish Henderson, whom he first met in Padstow in Cornwall in 1967. He would, of course, go on to write the magnificent two volume biography of the poet’s epic life. From the moment they met Henderson’s radical, unflinching international socialism combined with a passion for Scotland’s political independence and a deep learning of her cultural heritage made a huge impression on the young Cornishman. Hamish was to become a life-long friend and constant inspiration and creative collaborator. Henderson’s ribald and liberationist poetics were part of this redress, what Seamus Heaney has called “the redress of poetry”; a poetry which must redress both the silencing and the distortion of truth which are the results, directly and indirectly, of such things as The Official Secrets Act and the state fabrication of the War on Terror and the increasingly venal attack on the poor by this coalition government which falsely claims that “we are all in this together”.

In the 19th century Heinrich Heine famously claimed that “Freedom becomes people”. In order to describe the totality of Hamish Henderson political and cultural vision the poet Duncan Glen adapted Heine’s phrase so that it became “Poetry becomes people”. Almost all of the people portrayed on the walls in this exhibition are what John Berger called “nomads”. Indeed there is a sequence of revelatory photographs of some of Scotland’s Travelling people who are simultaneously “in the moment” of the photo and outside the boundaries of conventional, settled society. They appear, as does Timothy Neat himself, to be the children of the god Terminus – a votive, celebratory energy which insists that every force evolves its form and that, like Gatsby, the unforeseen becomes the inevitable.

In Tim Neat’s work the people become poetry as much as the “poetry becomes people”. In these portraits and drawings art becomes an agent of a possible transformation and its force is that of glimpsed alternatives, the affirmation of poetry as MacDiarmid attested, of “Human existence come to life.” Whether it is in his photo-studies of ordinary people in an Andalucian village in 1963, or his portraits of crofters and bards from various parts of the Highlands and Islands, to individuals snapped or sketched on a London street or a Parisian boulevard, Neat supplies his subjects with the freedom of the moment offered by photography – and perhaps lacking in their actual lives – and the spontaneity which drawing allows them and of which, in reality, they could only dream of.

This exhibition is also as much about a life as it is about art. Alongside the creations of a fifty year career are the associated mementoes of a life dedicated to creation whether that is in print, pottery, film or photography and drawing. These are gifts, exchanges, postcards – manifestations of solidarity, appreciation and gratitude from those who have collaborated with Timothy Neat along the way. There are the copies of the magazine “Seer” Neat produced when he lectured in the History of Art at Duncan of Jordanstone College of Art in Dundee with editorials full of artistic questioning and revolutionary zeal. This magazine and its struggle for survival is indicative of Timothy Neat’s relation with the artistic establishment of Scotland throughout his creative life: at odds, an omphalos at the edge of convention. To be artistically adventurous and also successful in critical terms but to be eschewed by Scotland’s cultural mainstream has constantly been Tim Neat’s fate. It is a “fate” which has to change if Scotland is to embrace fully her creative future.

What “Stands Scotland Where She Does?” proves is that the domain of Terminus, the edges and the boundaries of the creative imagination and the lived life, is where the beating centre of Scotland’s expressed heart actually is. As Scotland proceeds to the referendum in September 2014, whether it is “slouching to Bethlehem to be born” in W.B. Yeats phrase, or a confident re-awakening of an “auld sang”, the work of Timothy Neat can show us who we really are because these pictures and drawings and artefacts of accumulated life-joy offer us the “glimpsed alternatives” of a possible, contrary narrative to that spewed out daily by the politicians and their cheerleaders in the media. The energy at work in the work in the Peacock Gallery is that of an artist alive to his time and of a people corresponding with freedom, inhabiting – both the artist and “the lave” – what D.H. Lawrence called “the poetry of the living present”.  When Orpheus went down into the underworld and returned, what that re-emerging represents is the ability of art to triumph over death and here I am especially thinking of Neat’s powerful and deeply moving pencil drawing of his mother on her deathbed in 2009. The reverence and anguish of art are beautifully realised on the back of a boarding pass, the first thing that came to the artist’s hand. It is as if that drawing has become a kind of Orphic banner, or a standard. In a poem he wrote after spending a month in Poland in 1965 Neat elegises those who “trod slow with violins … to meet their death… for in brotherhood the standard is passed and held aloft.”  The “standard” in question is life and art.

© George Gunn 2013

Stands Scotland Where She Did: Timothy Neat at 70 runs at the Peacock Visual Arts – Centre for Contemporary Art, Castle Street, Aberdeen until 9th November 2013

These Faces, photographs and drawings by Timothy Neat, with a foreword by John Berger is published by Polygon, ISBN 978 1 84697 277 5 price £20.00

A Northerly Land, new poems by George Gunn is published by Braevalla Press, price £7.95

Comments (6)

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  1. Dougie says:

    Great piece George, about a very fine man. His book ‘the Summer Walkers’ is a treasure I return to again and again; and the film ‘Play me Something’ a neglected, and sadly unavailable, masterpiece.

  2. Fay Kennedy says:

    Provocative, evocative. A beautiful piece of writing. And look forward to learning more of this artist.

  3. I can’t believe that a piece of writing of this calibre has only 2 other response on Bella, while more “political” pieces get dozens. If this is where the sensitivity of the Scots psyche is at, we might as well forget Independence, for even were it to be obtained it would lack soul. Come on folks. Wake up!

  4. bellacaledonia says:

    True Alastair, though some pieces get huge traffic and little comment. We are a bit of a jumble in here. George’s articles are always very well read I assure you

    1. That’s pleasing to hear, Bella. I was just blown away reading it. Such depth and beauty, and that phenomenal photograph to back it up. I wrote my comment on a train coming back from a conference at Lincoln Cathedral where we’d reflected on the human face as an icon (“image”) into the divine, and that picture of Martha Mackenzie from as recently as 1976 to me just summed it up. I was further influenced by having in my bag a copy of Sheila Stewart’s collection of Scottish Travelling People’s tales, “Pilgrims of the Mist” (Birlinn, 2008). I’d picked it up last week on the Stornoway ferry where, sadly because it suggests not many buyers, they were selling off stock at half price. It starts off with a story handed down from her great grandfather’s grandfather’s time of the “Tinker” people being hanged, simply for being Tinkers. My son read it and was shocked. Some of the stories are of great beauty like the one that gives the book its title, “Pilgrims of the Mist” and, in the face of injustice and prejudice, the Traveller’s refrain to one another, “God’s no’ sleeping.” I loved that, and we’d probably have had none of it handed on in literary form were it not for the work of people like Hamish Henderson and the role played, in various contexts, by Timothy Neat – a man who I should love to meet having read his stunning biography (or Vol 2 of it – “Poetry becomes a People” – of Hamish. We need more than a prosaic politics to see us through (though that’s important too): we need a bardic politics, and that’s what the likes of Stewart, Henderson, Neat and George Gunn inspire us with.

  5. Craig Smillie says:

    Well said, Alastair!

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