From the Province of the Cat #35 – The Haggis addresses The Human

“It is your populist, envy-based, vote-hunting ideas which make our country crap” - James Blunt

“It is your populist, envy-based, vote-hunting ideas which make our country crap” – James Blunt

by George Gunn

The current and on-going spats between Scottish film producers and Creative Scotland, Scottish Enterprise and the Scottish Government over budgets, training and a film studio and the ding-dong between singer and ex-army officer James Blunt and shadow UK Culture Secretary Chris Bryant about the “politics of envy” and how the privileged sons and daughters of the well-off can afford to work in the arts because they can cash-flow risks and develop their careers by working for nothing or peanuts, has brought out the best and the worst in what passes for everyday reality in the cultural world.

In The National, on the day after Burn’s Night, Andrew Learmonth had a perceptive piece in which he quoted research by Dr Ealasaid Munro from the Centre for Cultural Policy Research at the University of Glasgow which showed that “working class children in Scotland might not even have the opportunity to imagine the possibility of working in the arts.”  Little chance then of a contemporary Burns, that “heaven taught ploughman”, breaking into the creative writing circuit at any university any time soon. Dr Munro also stated that “In people educated to a degree level or above 92% of those people engaged in culture over the previous year, but only 45% of people with no qualifications participated. That’s a pretty big gap.”

That “pretty big gap” represents a society which still has terrible class and economically driven disadvantages holding it back. According to the Scottish Household Survey of 2014 61% of people from Scotland’s most deprived areas had attended a cultural event, compared to 85% from the country’s least deprived areas. Whatever the Scottish Government or COSLA might say about the various cultural initiatives they are sponsoring and about “Creative Learning and Equalities and Diversity” what is apparent that in cultural provision, either participating in or attending arts events, the lower 20% of society are, according to Dr Munro, out of reach. Burns, the working class hero, can continue to address the haggis of life – but nowadays not as a career.

The actor Brian Cox, himself the product of a working class Dundee upbringing, has previously stated that his profession lacked social mobility and was cutting itself off from the working classes. Chris Bryant has asked the question: where are the Albert Finneys and Glenda Jacksons of today? In Scotland it would be safe to assume they are not currently training at the Royal Conservatoire of Scotland in Glasgow because even with the payment of tuition fees hardly any aspiring Scottish actor – without serious financial prime-pumping by parents – can afford to enrol. This is true, in my experience, of Scottish universities in general. To be successful now Burns would have to turn himself into a haggis in order to address the lack of humanity in this wasteful and culturally destructive process.

James Blunt, ( or James Hillier Blount to give him his Sunday name) was not impressed, it was fair to say, to be reminded that by going to Harrow he was part of an elite 7% of British society and that, as a result, he had a head start on, for example, a singer-songwriter from Wester Hailes. Not that Chris Bryant, himself an ex-public schoolboy and Oxford graduate, necessarily had Wester Hailes in his mind when he cited James Blunt as an example of arts career privilege. In his reply to the Right Honourable Member for Rhondda Mr Blunt was less comradely than he could have been, suggesting to Mr Bryant that “it is your populist, envy-based, vote-hunting ideas which make our country crap”.

It was the reference to envy which intrigued me. Vicky Allen in her Sunday Herald column wished “that the phrase ‘politics of envy’ could be wiped from the language. Its endless repetition amounts to a kind of cultural brainwashing of the 99% by the 1%.” How James Blunt feels about being elevated from 7% to the very top 1% is unknown to me. I suspect, like Tony Blair and Peter Mandelson he’ll be “comfortable” with it. I could be wrong. He has done good work for Mèdicines Sans Frontières for example, so nothing is straight forward.

My experience of the “politics of envy” came in 1984, at the height of the Miners Strike when Chapman magazine published a poem of mine called “The Queen Mother Drives Through Dunnet 1968”. In the poem I tried to express the feelings of fear, anger and injustice which were the common currency of most working class people at that time as they witnessed the militarisation of the police in order to break a strike through state violence and the suspension of almost every civil right in order to wage class war on ordinary people trying to defend their communities. All that coupled with my own reading of the history of my own people in the north Highlands in the 18th and 19th century, a history of dispossession and exile which is still not properly taught in our schools – coming together (in a lyric poem!) to focus on one member of the Royal family who happened to own the Castle of Mey, a few miles from my old primary school from which we were extracted and handed Union Jacks to wave every time she passed in her Rolls.

Joy Hendry, the editor of Chapman, was delighted with the poem and even more delighted when a reader wrote to the magazine cancelling their subscription suggesting, amongst other things, that I was “envious” of the Queen Mother. Truly now the haggis was forced to address the human. Joy Hendry was so “delighted” in fact she stuck the letter on her fridge door where it stayed for longer than was healthy. But then Joy is a brave woman.

This idea that those of us from the lower orders who criticise our betters do so from a position which is “envy-based” is a common charge and one that raises its fur-coated form regularly when the issue of land ownership is discussed in public. In the past the campaign to get shooting estates to grant the public access or to pay non-domestic rates now often gives rise from landowners jibes that land reformers are just “jealous” or “envious” of “an accident of birth” or “for wealth hard won” or some other rot. I wonder how many times Andy Wightman has been told he is merely “jealous” of the Duke of Buccleuch?

What I am truly envious of is those countries where class, deprivation and the denial of opportunities are not an issue. In 1926 the Icelandic novelist Halldór Laxness wrote that “Culture is first and foremost built on the defeat of poverty and powerlessness. The increased education of the public is the only guarantee of democracy. Books are your university, people of Iceland!” Anyone who is lucky to have been to Iceland recently would have noticed that there is a small country which invests in its creative community because it knows that culture and the arts is a major driver of the economy and a real and substantial part of the national journey out of financial collapse and recession. Halldór Laxness knew eighty nine years ago that education, culture, poverty and powerlessness are all related. That in Scotland we cannot link them in order to liberate ourselves is part of our own on-going tragedy. The fact that the British State continues to embrace fascism through increasing police numbers and “anti-terrorist” laws while at the same time trying to supress trades unions and doing away with the right to strike, while we in Scotland remain powerless to do anything about it, is another part of that tragedy.

Tragedians, ironically, are optimistic: they are optimistic about the possibilities of human life if nothing else. To be a film producer in Scotland you have to be optimistic beyond the call of reason. It would seem reasonable, and financially prudent, would it not, for Scottish Enterprise, Creative Scotland and the Scottish Government to work out between them if they want a film industry in Scotland or not? Traditionally politicians’ attitude to the arts – and culture in general – is a cross between outright hostility, ignorant philistinism, ambivalence, amateurism and the opportunism of the dilettante. All of them will happily step into the bright spotlight of artistic success and let a little of the stardust sprinkle onto them in the hope of… well, who knows exactly? Could be tourism? Could be profile? Could be exports (of haggis)? Could be those “populist, envy-based, vote-hunting ideas which make our country crap” as so delicately expressed by James Blunt.

Wherever the fallout from this failure of engagement finally settles one of the most serious effects, besides the lack of actually making many (or any) films, will be the lack of technical training necessary to sustain a film industry in the first place. Like shipbuilding if film making in Scotland loses the trades and skills required to produce feature length films then it will be extremely difficult, if almost impossible, to re-invent them. This lack of investment and foresight cannot be compensated for by Scottish Enterprise and the Scottish Government focusing on the country – and the Highlands in particular – as a mere film location: our country aspires to be more than a film set. Scotland’s reality is its people, or it is nothing else.

The North Highland College of the University of the Highlands and Islands is about to set up a degree course in “Film and Television Production” in which the idea is to train local young people (and others) in the technical requirements of film and television so that they can produce films and television programmes – even in a guerrilla manner – locally so that we in the Far North can export that “local” and make it “national and international”. We see no reason why our stories cannot have a world-wide audience. This is a small manifestation of the optimism of the possibilities of human life. Time will tell if it is allowed to work. It could be that a modest degree course could change everything?

If the cultural managers and gate-keepers in Scotland want to make a haggis out of the nation’s cultural provision, participation and training in the arts, then they need do nothing more than keep on keeping on doing what they are doing, which in reality is nothing. That nothing will kill off the film industry in this country. The theatre and literature and everything else will follow it. Who then will be left to address the human and defeat poverty and powerlessness?

© George Gunn 2015

Comments (26)

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  1. Peter Arnott says:

    I don’t think we should even talk to the gatekeepers about cultural strategy any more. Strategy is so far beyond their remit as to raise barely a smirk. We need to take the opportunity now, in these changing times, to address their masters directly. And this piece is a really good start.

  2. Clootie says:

    I stress the initial comments are “IN GENERAL” as exceptions are always true.

    The best schools attract the best teachers and vice versa. This is not only regarding academic skill but as regard building inspiration. e.g. How many schools have applications for Oxford and Cambridge in the entrance hall (several private schools do).
    Good parents who can afford it will spend money on additional tutors to help.
    Good parents who can afford it will widen the educational experience of their children. e.g. holidays abroad / trips to museums / theatre etc

    … but what about the good parent who cannot get out of the poverty trap, who cannot move to a better catchment area, who cannot find the money for trips that broaden a childs experience.

    ….what about the bright child born to a family with parents lacking drive or ambition for their child.

    The answer is to give them a chance (A CHANCE!) to escape the poverty/negative trap – Free education is the only answer and that education should be wider than the course content. We need people within these academic centres who will enspire an interest in the arts. We need side events which bring the arts into the centres of academic education.

    I often wonder how many great minds were lost during the 17th/18th and 19th century because they were born into the “wrong environment”.

    I’m sure we have had many Newtons lost working in mills.
    How many sculptors like Bacon spend their life in a coal mine.
    How many Verdi’s worked on farms.

    It is not envy. It is simply fairness and a desire to avoid the great waste of the past.

    1. fermerfaefife says:

      Well said clootie – agree with all you said. Look at the Stirling Big Noise orchestra as an example – how many of those young kids would have even picked up an instrument before that initiative ….. now look at how many kids have the opportunity to progress through their music – not just because they can play but with the self confidence they have gained and the realisation that if they work hard at something , you can reap the rewards.

    2. Lawrence says:

      Clootie couldn’t agree more with every word, which is why we must keep education free for all, from primary to university.

  3. George Gunn says:

    It is true, Clootie, we do need to give all children a chance and education must be free or else what kind of society are we living in? If we do not, what value do we put on anything? Also – yes, Peter, I agree that strategies and the like are weighing the arts down. I have recently sat through two meetings with Highlands and Islands Enterprise where their cultural strategy and their strategy for the “creative industries” were gone through item by item until I lost the will to live. They had no resemblance to reality. When I pointed this out I was told that the documents were “levers”. I lever’d myself out of the door.

  4. David McGill says:

    I’m not sure what the writer means by ‘culture’ in relation to Scotland. I think its quite different from ‘… working in the arts.’ I seem to remember that ‘going to the pictures’ was part of our culture but I don’t ever recall seeing any films made/produced in Scotland, only occasional ones about Scotland. Nor do I recall any great public interest in going to concerts, art exhibitions, etc. Going to football matches in,large numbers was part of our ‘culture’. And even now our newspapers will have several pages on sport (football) for every one on ‘the Arts’
    I attended the Mackintosh School of Architecture in the ’70’s but I don’t recall anyone lauding Mackintosh and certainly no mention was ever made of his extraordinarily talented wife Margaret MacDonald. Students used to stub out cigarettes on the floor of what Brad Pitt recently described as ‘the most important building in the world’, or words to that effect. Similarly with the ‘Colourists’. Who they?
    I think we need to define what we mean by our ‘culture’. Its surely has to be more than just a job in the entertainments industry, where it appears quite a few from the ‘working classes’ have been international successes in recent years, inter alia Sean Connery, Robert Carlyle, David Tennant, Ewan MacGregor, Peter Capaldi, Peter Mullan, Alan Cumming,

  5. Darien says:

    George is right, alluding as he does to Scotland’s rotten ‘elite’ universities. Cash and asset rich, self-governing archaic institutions (with close unionist/political allegiances), these institutions teach mainly well-off students from outside Scotland, and their academic staff and leadership are also nowadays mostly recruited from outside Scotland. In short, Scotland’s ‘elite’ universities discriminate against Scots – both in terms of Scots students and development of home-grown academics. This is a national scandal. In an academic and educational sense it is not only discrimination, it resembles ethnic cleansing in the shift towards ethnically homogenous faculties. Bottom line is we are not educating and developing our own people.

    This raises important questions, e.g.: does Scotland really have an Education Minister responsible for higher education in Scotland? And does she know what is going on in her nation’s ‘elite’ universities? A simple study would yield interesting results.

  6. Jenny Riordan says:

    I’d love to read George Gunn’s poem. Where can I find it?

  7. George Gunn says:

    Dear Dave, what I mean by culture is what people produce and create by living together in a society – the arts are an expression of that culture.

    1. Clootie says:

      Examples of culture / art WITHIN society were evident during the YES campaign – from that stunning poster with the butterflies through the cartoons of Cairns and Moody to the video with “Lady GaGa”.

      I make the comment outwith politics. It was creative Art involved with the wider population demonstrating how their skills could provide another platform with a different perspective.

  8. Ali says:

    Is there a cyclical reasoning on what constitutes “a cultural event” here? Are we looking at figures that show that posh people like what posh people like, and bemoaning the low percentage of oiks who participate? Is football a “cultural event”? T-in-the-park? The cinema?

    1. Clootie says:

      I would say No – Culture is the characteristics of a particular group of people, defined by everything from language, religion, cuisine, social habits, music, poetry and arts etc.
      Opera is not above folk music
      Is a song in Gaelic less than one in Russian

      Even wider – is European culture greater than African culture?
      Is Eastern culture lesser than Americal culture.

      …it is certainly not for someone else to define what you consider to be culture!

      Sadly I have absolutely zero ability in this area 🙁

      1. lastchancetoshine says:

        “Sadly I have absolutely zero ability in this area :”

        You, like us all have the ability to create in some way, the lack of nurture and confidence that holds us back partly through the moneyterisation of creative acts and the Idea that without formal training we cannot create. ( an idea temporarily challenged by many an arts movement).

        The only way we can break out of this cycle of access for those who can afford it is by creating an atmosphere of confidence and inspiration right across society. (how I haven’t a clue). It’s not just a problem with the “arts” and if we leave it for those holding the official leavers, we’ll be sitting on our bums forever.

  9. deewal says:

    I don’t think English culture has got all that much going for it either but dictatorships tend to stifle that sort of free thinking, dangerous stuff.

  10. Frederick Robinson says:

    As one who benefited from Jenny Lee’s and the TUC’s commitment to the Arts in the 1960s, my sympathies are very much with the present generation of working class aspirants held down by the ubiquity of capital’s depressing influence; but I think there’s an irony in quoting Burns on the matter, since he would have experienced class and economic prejudice that would make today’s seem mild by comparison.

  11. tartanfever says:

    I would suggest that in regard to film and tv production you must include the BBC into your article.

    Historically, Scotland has produced very few feature length films entirely made in Scotland (money, crew, script, and distribution), we tend to be involved in a wider mix with other parts of the UK or co-productions with international investors. I have no doubt that this will remain the case for larger cinematic works.

    However, it’s often been said that the UK film industry resides within TV production – which you may or may not agree with, but one thing is for sure, there are easier opportunities to be had by getting BBC Scotland to invest in new talent.

    When I left filmschool, we had opportunities for tentative first steps through such projects as the BBC’s 10×10 series (10 minute short films made by new directors) or ‘Picture This’, a 30 minute Documentary slot again for first time directors. Although the budgets were minimal, what they did do was guarantee a broadcast slot on BBC2, which for us newbies, fresh from study, was like gold dust.

    BBC Scotland could easily do a series of 10-15 short films every year with a budget of £30k each and broadcast them. This would prove a massive boost for many young film makers and technical talent and more importantly, give some hope for those embarking into study that there will be something for them to aim for.

    £500k would cover all the costs (which is very little in BBC terms) and it could be set up right now if BBC Scotland decided to do so – no lengthy consultancy required, no new film studio investment, no government legislation – no hassle.

    Remember, nearly every great director, editor, script writer, cinematographer and so on started off by making short films.

  12. George Gunn says:

    I agree, tartan fever, the BBC is culpable but then it is just part of the general lack of energy evident in mainstream broadcasting. Until we have real power over broadcasting in Scotland I can’t see that changing. We can have as many film studios as we like but if there is no production money then what is the point? We have lovely lottery funded theatres with magnificent glass fronts and glorious interiors with nothing (much) on the stage.

    Yes, Frederick, Burns did live in a far harder age but for me he is an example of someone who knew that education in your nations culture is an avenue to freedom, even though he died tragically young.

    1. oldbattle says:

      Burns who ‘died tragically young’ in fact lasted longer than his romantic (near) fellow poets: Fergusson died in an asylum at 24, Keats @ 24,Shelley @ 30, Byron 36 and Burns 37.

  13. tartanfever says:

    Agree with much you say George. However, Broadcasting doesn’t need to be devolved for something to change, a ‘ new directors’ series could be set up immediately and broadcast on BBC Scotland.

    While many scrabble around trying to make short films on shoe string budgets that end up in festivals being watched by a limited audience, the BBC could put together a structure that has an end goal in place – namely the delivery and broadcasting of a series of films. The clarity of having a defined budget and time -frame is one of the best enablers into good working practice for those just starting out in the industry in my experience.

    It’s merely a question of BBC Scotland prioritising what they want to do.

    Do they continue to spend money on series like Kenneth Branagh’s ‘Wallander using Scottish licence fee payers money to shoot a major drama in Sweden using a predominantly English/Swedish cast and crew or do they decide to spend that money here in Scotland commissioning programmes to be made by home-grown talent ?

    For decades now we have seen the majority of our licence fee money being spent on tv productions that do not originate from here and many of those choices have been made internally by the executives at BBC Scotland.

  14. oldbattle says:

    BBC & others please

    The biopic is trending (my grans taught me that one).
    I want to see a biopic series but leave Bella readers with a challenge: cast the lead role< submissions please.

    My list of urgent filmic projects are: Burns: Keir Hardie: Wendy Wood: Jimmy Reid: Wm Wallace: Hugh MacDiarmid & Margo MacDonald. Magic!
    Series Title :Servile Chains No More!

  15. barakabe says:

    It isn’t just the entertainment industry we see a class monopoly at work in the UK mono-culture; it operative throughout all sectors, where the privileged few (who represent expensively procured private education), have embedded themselves into the very bedrock of all organizations- the consequence of this class nepotism is blanket conservatism, a sterilisation of creative imagination & an overt emphasis on conformity to the established order. This is not something that would particularly bother me if we had a parallel balancing process whereby people from underprivileged or from lower strata’s of society were on an equal footing in terms of competing for positions in organizations; but the lower classes more or less need to be exceptionally talented in order to compete ( & sometimes even that isn’t enough).
    In a monetarist system we see money ( or at least its supply) itself being used as a means of censorship. The capital class, who more or less make up all the film producers, are not going to equip their enemy with the arsenal explode the iniquitous system that props them up on their pedestals of privilege- that is what you become if you’re a real artists: an enemy of power. Instead what we get is friendly art cosying up to money like a soft kitten & are left more or less with the production of mediocrities. Art is meant to set fire to the world.

  16. Alastair McIntosh says:

    When I first got involved in land reform in the 1990s – that was when I first met you, George, on Eigg – I used to puzzle why landowners kept accusing me of envy. The four of us who started the original Isle of Eigg Trust were told, repeatedly, that we were only trying to get it for ourselves. The idea that we might be trying to get it as advocates of community and social change never seemed to enter our critics’ minds. It took me a number of years to realise what was happening. These folks, who felt their privilege in society as holders of landed power (or sycophants towards it and its privileges) were projecting onto us their own motives. Their attacks then transformed to revelations. “Oh? And what evidence do you see that I’m envious? Why do you see me through that lens? Where is it coming from?”

    I am very glad to see the arts establishment being challenged in this way. These are not people who will readily relinquish their own control over things, because these are not people standing with the people. I am from a middle class family background, and it worries me greatly when I see a high proportion of people from such backgrounds dominating the cultural scene. Too often we are not aware of our own blind spots. We don’t realise that going to meetings, which might mean just jumping in the car for us, might mean a journey and time by other means that can be ill afforded by those less privileged but no less creative. We aren’t aware of our own volume – the subtle ways in which our social class (I am talking middle class, not even upper class) constellates power and authority in ways that are intimidating to those who have not been born to it.

    A true artist in the broad bardic sense of an artist who speaks to the condition of the people must become aware of these things, otherwise their work will be a waste of resources and worse, a toxin to the soul, because it will misrepresent the collective soul. Self awareness, and social class awareness, is therefore prerequisite to any claim to be a Scottish artist. This does not mean we should be ashamed of whatever we might have been born unto. It does mean we render ourselves accountable, and in service, in that wider sense of the democratic intellect. Furthermore, that we work politically to encourage arts administrative structures that are not – whether consciously or unconsciously – slanted towards the already privileged, as therapy for the relatively well-to-do.

    Ouch! Sorry. But if those of us who understand middle and upper class power from having seen it from the inside don’t speak out, we become collaborators and not solutions to the problem; and as Freire saw so clearly where he talks in “Pedagogy …” of liberating the oppressor as well as the oppressed in the name of the full humanisation of all, we remain enchained of soul. Such understanding is not to be confused with trying to ingratiate ourselves. It is about getting real, socially real, and without such realism, there can be no community, and no community writ large as nation.

    1. Alastair McIntosh says:

      Ps. Before anybody says it – OK – I over-generalise about “the arts establishment” – but those within it who see the problem and are working to bring about change from within will “forgive us our debts….”

      I’m writing this off the back of having attended a Burns supper in a hard-pressed part of Glasgow last night – a dry Burns supper, because so many of the folks there had a problem – and there was just such living culture in that room; a culture that leaves one so proud of Scotland with the piping, the songs, stories, poetry and human warmth. And yet, some of the finest artists there busk on the streets, get constant hassle with their benefits, and don’t apply for anything in the formal arts world because they just don’t feel it’s their world. I know there’s good community artists in the area working to try and change that, but a much deeper shift of attitude and resources is needed. I compare a lassie or a lad here who’s got virtually nothing but a pipe band, with the kids of upper middle class friends where life between the private school’s homework is a constant birl of ballet classes, drama performances, and sports, and there’s just no comparison. This is not envy. I’m not asking it for myself. This is just saying that the arts must embrace the depth to which they are politically constellated so that our culture can unblock its asthmatic airways.

      I am talking about people who need the arts to breathe the air of life.

  17. George Gunn says:

    Dear Jenny Riordan
    you can find the poem in Sting, published by Chapman. Or else get Bella to send you my email and I can send it to you. GG

  18. John Tracey says:

    A most interesting discussion – well stimulated with the original article.
    I read it as someone who came from working class background, was blessed with the opportunity of free education from primary school through to higher education. I am now very much middle class.
    Well here’s the thing. Am I middle class because I own my home and have the trappings of relative well-off wealth?
    I wonder if a closer check of starting points of this list would have all of them starting in a single-en with shared outside toilet? Sean Connery, Robert Carlyle, David Tennant, Ewan MacGregor, Peter Capaldi, Peter Mullan, Alan Cumming. Not all – indeed knowing some of their backgrounds, some would have had a very definite advantage over others.
    I worked in schools for 38+ years and tried very hard to integrate arts and culture into my teaching (a Geography teacher who included poetry about the weather) and later, when in school management, throughout the school curriculum. Opportunity was provided but there were always those pupils who could not take the opportunity fully or take the next step because of their home circumstances. Here is the real challenge – not providing opportunity but providing the means for all to take the opportunity. This is not as imple as funding.
    Perhaps seperate to this is the ‘establishment’ around arts and culture. Still much of the decision-making is taken by a small group of people far removed from the vast majority of the popoulation, be they working or middle-class. A group of upper middle-class?
    Credit to those who work at community level in the arts and culture. They are wonderful!

    1. Darien says:

      “A group of upper middle-class?”

      Invariably many of the folk who run Scotland’s key institutions are not Scots either. The PC brigade would no doubt ask – does that make a difference? It does, if you ‘import’ too much, or most of the time. In effect you discriminate against your own folk and limit their development. Alistair Gray referred to it as colonisation. Some would call it a form of ‘cleansing’.

      Tam Connery was poor; like me he ‘did’ the milk. Ye widnae see a posh boy fae Heriots gang in fir Mr. Universe during the 1950’s! As for the more recent ‘stars’: Scotland’s ‘Royal Conservatoire’ is for the posh and well off, and mostly not Scots either.

      Mr. Gunn tells it like it is. SNP Meenisters might like to parade their ‘nationhood’ at Burns suppers, but they have yet tae get a grip on a’ this institutionalised discrimination.

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