Where is Alexander Linklater?

EuniceWhere exactly is Alexander Linklater? His description of Scotland (‘The union belongs to the Scots, it’s at the heart of our cultural identity’) suggests he’s located somewhere else entirely, or experiencing a different multiverse from the rest of us.

“Where is the legendary Scottish dispute?” he asks in the Observer to scores of nodding-head Devo-Nano cultural enthusiasts. Now I don’t know about you dear reader but I can’t tumble out of bed without someone starting a constitutional argument with me these days. The builders next door have painted their truck with a massive saltire, workplaces, airwaves and town halls are mobbed with political discussion, publishing houses are churning out non-fiction work like never before and poets and song-smiths are in full voice, and Alex can’t find anyone to have an argument with?

This is odd.

There’s a strange twist at work here. If the independence movement focuses on identity they get branded as ‘woad-smeared’ separatists. If they don’t, they get castigated as narrow functionary econitons.

Linklater seems to be inhabiting a parallel place, and reading more closely you can locate where it is. He’s comfortable with Douglas Gordon winning the Turner Prize (1996) and longs to hear the views of David Tennant, Alison Watt, Billy Connolly and Ian Rankin. This is certified successfully exported Scotland. Ratified.

These people may well have an interesting view but they can’t be compelled to speak. Tennant’s comment that it’s ‘not his business since he doesn’t live in Scotland’ seems entirely reasonable. Bella can assure Linklater that the current Time Lord’s views are 100% certain.

But by yearning for the wisdom of certified metropolitan Scots he seems to be ignorant of the actual debate being played out every day in, you know, actual, Scotland. Linklater’s give-away line is his retrospective of the days when Glasgow was ‘UK City of Culture’ and Scottish artists were ‘seizing their place in a global market’. Ah, the global market. Those halcyon days when culture-as-product was an unproblematic idea (note to author read the entire back-catalogue of Variant for a thirty year demolition of this puerile naivete).

“The atmosphere is tense, nervous and unimaginative” the author continues.

Is it?!

Can someone tell the National Collective and Gen Yes please? From all accounts Changing Scotland in Ullapool was none of these things. Can someone tell Zita Holbourne, Jatin Haria, Eunice Olumide, Soryia Siddique, Hunza Yousaf, Naseem Anwar, Zareen Taj, Nina Munday, Ahktar Kahn, Graham Campbell and Chimeze Umeh, all contributors to the recent Scottish Left Review special issue on Black Scotland?


Someone better let Eunice Olumide know, and give Finlay MacDonald, Steve Mason, the Pictish Trail, Django Django, Emma Pollock, Stuart Braithwaite and Nina Nesbitt a shout too while you’re at it?


Can you scrub out Kathleen Jamie’s epic poem to be inscribed on the new Bannockburn centre and, hang on a minute, you’d better stamp out the collective enthusiasm of Teen Canteen, Loki, Solareye, and the Social Club as well?


Better tell John Aberdein, Allan Armstrong, Alan Bissett, Jenni Calder, Bob Cant, Jo Clifford, Meaghan Delahunt, Douglas Dunn, Margaret Elphinstone, Leigh French and Gordon Asher, Janice Galloway, Magi Gibson, Alasdair Gray, Kirsty Gunn, James Kelman, Tom Leonard, Ken MacLeod, Aonghas MacNeacail, Kevin MacNeil, Denise Mina, Don Paterson, James Robertson, Suhayl Saadi, Gerda Stevenson and Christopher Whyte (just off the top of my nervous unimaginative head).

As Scott Hames wrote about his collection of essays, Unstated, which gathered the thoughts of writers from across Scotland:

“Nobody devoted their essay to how great/terrible it would be if independence meant gaining or losing £500. Many essays approach the question from ‘first principles’, cutting through the what-if fantasies and nightmares. Others are focused on specific issues, e.g. holes in the logic of left-nationalism, what’s gone wrong with Scottish masculinity, the difference between ‘settlers’ and ‘colonists’ managing the Scottish arts. The writers were quite brave, sticking their necks out without knowing what each other were saying.”

Linklater’s efforts to claim credit for the cultural successes of Trainspotting, Black Watch or Grand Theft Auto are based on a bizarre set of assumptions about ‘separation’ and cultural collaboration. People and companies in lands throughout the globe cooperate and collaborate and nothing will change about this when we have a functioning democracy.

As far as I’m aware the collaborations of the likes of Gregory Burke and John Tiffany would still be permitted in a country managing it’s own affairs. This analysis – lauded in many parts – stems from a pernicious view that – somehow – you can’t have a dynamic outward looking cultural activity and a democracy?

This doesn’t look Tense to me.

This doesn’t look Nervous.

“The British dream is not a confining state, it is a creative and a commercial opportunity” pleads Linklater, unconvincingly. Is this the sunshine, the thrill we’ve heard of? Perhaps it is. But they’ll need to do better. Black Watch existed and succeeded because we created the institution of the National Theatre (against interminable cries of ‘woe betide you’ from many).

The argument is misconceived. It’s acultural to be blindsided to the lack of confidence and underfunding in crucial parts of the Scottish cultural landscape, and it’s a perverse and confused notion to think that this can only be (!) resolved within the Union.

What, for example would be the cultural consequences for independence in broadcasting?

What would be the cultural ‘bounce’ of a Yes vote?

What would be the soft power implications?

What would be the literary implications?

“The problem is that the in-or-out binary question bypasses the reality of Scottish culture, which has, historically, lived out a duality” he asks, opaquely.

This idea of us being permanent stuck in a ‘lived out duality’ is an odd concept to unravel. Are we uniquely ‘stuck’? When did history stop us at this point and who stopped it? Are all countries subject to this immutable law or only us? Is this the only grist to our creative mill – to be trapped in this state? Aren’t we part of endless multiple dualities of gender, racial origin, physicality, ethnicity, identity? Why is this one – ‘Scottish & British’ –  primary and sacrosanct?

The whole piece is a blend of bitterness and naivete. The author claims that ‘due to BBC impartiality rules’ we’ll never know the views of Andrew Marr or Kirsty Wark on the subject. It’s a comically revealing aside.

As the poet Don Paterson wrote, in a fashion not tense, nervous nor remotely unimaginative:

“We need the freedom to start failing a little, and to learn a modesty appropriate to our imminent international status.”

Freedom to fail is key in art and democracy and identity.

The questions a multitude of artists and citizens are asking themselves are all about identity: Who are we? But more importantly, who do we want to become?

It’s a strange place Alexander Linklater inhabits, wherever it is. But it’s not Scotland. He should come visit.


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  1. Dan Huil says:

    I read Linklater’s effort and was both depressed and uplifted. Depressed because he came across as a supine individual desperate for the attention and blessing from those he considers his betters: the unionist “elite”. Uplifted because such ignorance in the unionist camp can only help the Yes campaign.

  2. Alex Buchan says:

    It’s the upstairs downstairs version of the Scottish cringe. Those who have succeeded but want to be accepted, in what they mistakenly see as cosmopolitan culture. They fear being stigmatised as narrowly Scottish, not realising that if they stopped trying to be accepted they would gain more credibility in London. Linklater’s piece is a window into his own angst.

  3. Alasdair Frew-Bell says:

    the duality in Scots culture is represented by the spineless cringe and pungent toadyism, both nauseating to witness.

  4. Derek says:

    Not tense. Not nervous. Still can’t relax, though…

  5. JGedd says:

    Interesting observation in this article and I also agree with above comments. For unionists, it is always purely personal no matter what they say, which is why when they try to address the concerns of the rest of us, they descend into cloudy logic and a welter of humbug. In short they can’t give a case for the union because there is none for us, but there is for themselves – one which they can’t actually articulate because it is so obviously to do with their own situation within the British establishment.

    By the way, there has been a stream of excellent articles on Bella. I come here every day now knowing that there will be lively and reflective contributions to the debate. Thank you.

  6. Michael says:

    Oh, very good, Mike Small, I fair enjoyed this.

  7. Stan Reeves says:

    Well, he obviously stays at home most of the time and only reads the news papers. He needs to get out more. Remember the time when journalists got out of the office and talked to the folk on the ground??? I am getting afraid of going out now in case I am accosted by all the cultural warriors out there. No one I know is talking about anything else FFS.

  8. Elaine Black says:

    Fantastic piece Mike Small. If only Linklater could aspire to write something similar, the Union would not seem such a small place.

  9. madjockmcmad says:

    Alex Linklater will be welcome home once he gives up on his British is best meme and leaves his ‘Scottish Cringe’ at the door. His argument that Scottish creativity is reliant on English creativity or some hatred of England would be despicable if it was not so far from the truth to be laughable.

    Sorley Mclean only great because he hated the English …. Capercaille one of Europe’s finest bands of their style only great because they hate the English ….. Ian Banks, Kellman, Grey all modern geniuses because they ‘hated the English’ ….. see what I mean about Linklater’s core argument and why it is best to laugh at him ..

  10. Douglas says:

    What is revealing in Alexander’s piece is the recycling of this dubious notion of a Scottish duality, here given expression as a Scottish-British identity.

    If people want to have a Scottish-British identity, then that is fine by me. I respect it, It is a personal question, and it s part of our culture for a large part of the Scottish population to see themselves as Scottish-British.

    But, if we are going to talk about dualities, what the article fails to mention is the Scottish-European tradition of duality. Though what could we expect from the London press, the most parochial press in Europe?

    George Buchanan was the finest Latin poet of his age – the “prince of poets according to his pupil, Montaigne – who wandered Europe and was imprisoned by the Inquisition in Portugal.

    David Hume wrote “A Treatise on Human Nature” in FRANCE.

    RLS would not have been RLS if he hadn’t been a francophile too, his prose sometimes draws on French usage, and of course he wrote his “Travels with a Donkey” in which he “discovered” the Scottish Covenanter tradition in the French equivalent, the Camisards.

    Coleridge grumbled that the Scottish intellectual tradition was more German than it was English.

    When he wasn’t founding the SNP, Robert Cunningham-Graham was known as Don Roberto, a fully bi-cultural Hispanic-Scot.

    Edwin Muir and his wife Willa Muir were the first to translate no less than Kafka into English.

    So we have this European tradition which is overlooked, and which perhaps Kenneth White, another Euro Scot, writes about best today.

    This is not a tradition which exists in the Anglosphere, and to reduce our “cultural duality” to the Scotland – Britain tradition, is precisely the blinkered, narrow view which Alexander himself condemns those of us in favour of independence for holding.

    As Edwin Morgan put it, another Scottish polyglot, “open the doors, let in the light”.

    The only way to open the doors is by voting YES.

  11. Paul Martin says:

    In Scotland you can replace the surname “Linklater” with “Establishment”, saves a lot of time and typing.

  12. andygm1 says:

    Can I just unfold myself from my habitual cringe to remind you of the truly wonderful Lady Alba?

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