2007 - 2021

FROM THE PROVINCE OF THE CAT #42: False Beards and Rustics

Shetland_home031The on-going canard, perpetrated by certain sections of the press and media, of their being an “anti-English” tendency at the heart of our new, evolving Scottish democracy – more specifically in the SNP – has to be brought out into the open and dealt with. So perhaps we should all thank Keith Bruce (Herald, July 25th) for mentioning it in relation to the on-going changes at the National Theatre of Scotland. His assertion that Vicky Featherstone (now director of the Royal Court Theatre in London) was subjected to “anti-English abuse” during her time as Artistic Director of the National Theatre of Scotland needs to be examined a little.

I was in frequent dialogue with Vicky from when she first took up her post to the time she left; prematurely, in my opinion. The result of our conversations was that the “Home” production in Wick was one of the most successful of the series of geographically scatted productions which constituted NTS’s debut project. We also collaborated in bringing the NTS’s “Transform” project to Thurso High School and the resultant production is still talked about by those who saw it and pupils who performed in it, some of whom are now, sadly, “adults”.

Over all these years, in all these conversations, I never once heard her say anything about “anti-English” abuse, although I am aware she might have felt it too sensitive an issue to mention. The pair of us certainly enjoyed a robust dialogue about what we thought theatre should be in both its subject and object. She always respected my views, even though she didn’t agree with them and I always respected her right to ignore them and to do what she felt she had to do as the director of the National Theatre of Scotland. She used to laugh when I told her that, in Grey Coast, I had the “National Theatre of Caithness”.

I know that in the theatre business we do live in a bubble but I cannot remember having heard, within the confines of my contacts in Scotland, anyone who had a bad word to say about Vicky Featherstone. She is quite simply a very likeable and approachable person.

The question I have is this: why does Keith Bruce feel the need to raise the spectre of “anti-Englishness”, alleged or otherwise, in relation to a story about a Welshman and a Scotsman going to join an Irish theatre company, even if it is from the NTS to the legendary Abbey Theatre in Dublin? Was this the most important aspect to the news story? He must have thought so because he began his piece with it under the headline “Nationality an irrelevance at our national theatres”. Perhaps the headline should have read “Subjectivity an irrelevance at our national theatres”?

This was always my argument with Vicky Featherstone at the NTS: what are you putting on the stage and why? Her reply to me was that everything was judged on purely artistic merit; that was the only criteria. I never accepted that then and I still don’t. Why is this important? Because “artistic merit” is a bogus subjective argument and is nothing but a smokescreen behind which lurk some seriously dubious cultural attitudes, a couple of which, I would assert, are to be detected in Keith Bruce’s Herald piece.

Theatre does not live in a cultural or historical vacuum. The word “national” in the title of the Scotland’s principal theatre company indicates that its reach and object should be to illustrate and stimulate, draw from and promote the entirety of Scotland’s rich cultural legacy in a dramatic form and present that work to the audience of the nation. This is a cultural criteria and the artistic merit of the resultant work can only be judged by those in a position to judge when it is ready (or not) to go before an audience. In any case the audience will offer the ultimate validation on whatever “artistic merit” is going. This, I would suggest, is an active and objective cultural process. Judging a play, or whatever, on purely artistic criteria is a passive and subjective decision taken, usually in Scotland, by one person: an artistic director.

Keith Bruce broadly hints that those who complain that the top posts in our cultural institutions are habitually filled by “non-Scots” suffer from “the so-called Scottish cringe” and that those who so express this view somehow suffer from “blinkered bigotry”. It always amazes me when people who should know better say these things that they do not recognise the “cringe” within. What we are all involved in, post-referendum, is in building a nation despite the political restrictions placed upon us. We face the comic situation whereby the very forces that proclaim loudly that they are defending the Union (the Tories) are doing their utmost to destroy it. David Cameron acts as if the Union is over. Nicola Sturgeon, on the other hand, is acting as if Scotland is already an independent country, even though constitutionally it is not. So perhaps both being in the Union and being independent are a state of mind? The National Theatre of Scotland is part of Scotland’s state of mind and is a vital component in how we, as a people, define and perceive ourselves. In many ways it should be our dream-shop.

Be that as it may I think we have to look a little beyond all this “ant-English/anti-Scottish” bu-baa-ism if we are to see the situation plain: we need to get the idea of what kind of Scotland we want and what kind of cultural institutions we desire out onto the threshing floor of historical experience. We have to begin to realise that freedom is never something which is granted from above; it is always attained from below.

In 1988, in a letter to the Scotsman on the subject of bilingualism, the poet and folklorist Hamish Henderson cited the example of the Sardinian communist Antonio Gramsci urging his sister Teresina to let her son Franco speak Sardinian. Gramsci writes further, in relation to all his sister’s children, “let them develop spontaneously in the natural environment they were born into”. Hamish Henderson follows this up, in his letter, with this question

“What is culture if not our human consciousness of the natural historic ambience into which we are born, and whose colours and sounds we have inherited?”

In many ways Hamish Henderson is stating what most Scottish people have been denied or been taught to value as inferior. Whether our cultural institutions are run by an English person, a Welsh person, an Irish person, or lo and behold! – a Scot – a sympathy for and a knowledge of Scottish cultural history should be a prerequisite. In Scottish theatre, in my experience, a blissful ignorance of this is seen as an asset. Anyone who has read George Davie’s book “The Democratic Intellect” will come to the conclusion that the British establishment may know little about the Scottish academic (or cultural) tradition and care less, but it has a flawless nose for potential opposition. In our current cultural institutions – our “national” companies – I would contend that this opposition to native Scottish intellectual energy still resides.

To get beyond and beneath this even further it is instructive to return to Antonio Gramsci. For Gramsci “history”, in fact all meaning, derives from the relation between human practical activity and the objective social processes (history) of which humanity is a part. Any idea cannot be understood outside its social and historical context. How we organise our knowledge of the world does not derive primarily from our relation to things, to an objective reality, but rather from the social and economic conditions (or “bearers” as Gramsci would have it) which give rise to these ideas and concepts. In other words there is no such thing as an unchanging “human nature” because philosophy and science cannot reflect a reality independent of humanity and no idea or theory can be said to be “true” unless it expresses the real development of the human situation in historical time.

As the Westminster comedy turns into farce and then, inevitably, into tragedy, how are we in Scotland going to splice the Gramscian threads of human practical activity and the objective social processes of history into the rope of our political future, our civic future, our cultural future? Can Scotland’s social superstructure afford to sit and wait for statehood when, for example, in his recent budget George Osborne proved that two wrongs don’t make a right but that three, for him, do? How can we hope to protect our weak and vulnerable people when we are yoked to a parliamentary system where the Labour party, the opposition, abstain on the most draconian anti-social security bill seen to pass through the museum of Westminster? Where in Scotland’s creative community can we expect to find an imaginative expression of the real opposition to this reactionary and cruel legislation? In the work of the National Theatre of Scotland; on any of Scotland’s stages?

A changing of the guard from one national institution to another, whether one be in Scotland and the other in Ireland, is surely not the most significant aspect of dramatic provision which should obsess our journalists. It is interesting that Keith Bruce concludes his Herald piece with the following

“Anyone who cannot appreciate that all this traffic across the stages of theatres throughout these islands is dramatically positive should exit stage left, pursued by their fears.”

Surely Mr Bruce means “bears” not “fears”? This made me think of one who indeed knew how to “expresses the real development of the human situation in historical time” and one who was fond of having characters exiting pursued by bears, and often by fears. In Shakespeare’s “The Winter’s Tale” in Act 4, Scene 4, he has that god-gifted champion of thievery and rascality, namely Autolycus (the lone wolf) – who is in disguise – and who meets a clown and shepherd on a road. Autolycus has this short, brilliant speech:

“Though I am not naturally honest, I am so sometimes by chance: let me pocket up my pedlar’s excrement. (Takes off false beard) How now rustics! Whither are you bound?”

We Scottish rustics are bound for the future of our own making where peddling Chancellors and venal Prime Ministers cannot rob us blind along the road and tie our political hands behind our backs, and where the self-denying arguments of those who would see boogeymen and bears where there are none are revealed for what they are: the false beards of history.

©George Gunn 2015

George Gunn’s book “The Province of the Cat” (£9.99 plus postage and packaging) will be published by The Islands Book Trust later this month.

Comments (8)

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  1. Hugh Kerr says:

    Wonderful stuff George and spot on. Vicky Featherstone was of course a surprise appointment because as she admitted when she left she knew little about Scottish culture or theatre when she got the job. She relied on her associate directors for local knowledge and indeed the NTS biggest hit Black Watch. The question of course was why wasn’t a Scot appointed then when many able Scots applied including Kenny Ireland.
    The question has to be asked again about the appointment of her successor Laurie Sansom who likewise knew little about Scottish culture. Again many able Scots applied including the late great David McLennan. Perhaps he was judged as too left wing by the Board of the NTS a majority of whom come from business and not the theatre.
    Of course the NTS is not the only Scottish arts institution to suffer from the cultural cringe.The Edinburgh International Festival has never had a Scottish director in its 70 year history and indeed the previous director Sir Jonathan Mills ( for services to the union!) showed little interest in Scottish culture.The Traverse Theatre has never had a Scots director in its 50 years history although I am sure my theatrical friends will tell me this doesn’t matter! Many other major arts organisations have non Scots at the top including Scottish Opera the National Gallery etc.
    However most striking of all is the most important arts body and arguably the most important job the CEO of Creative Scotland has only been filled by English appointees. The first one when appointed said he was looking forward to finding out what was going on in Scotland! Since he didn’t know he appointed consultants at a cost of £250,000 to tell him what to do, they recommended an internal market for the arts (very Scottish!) abolish long term funding for companies. This resulted in a national uproar and he was soon on his way compensated by a further £100,000 of our money! You would think the board of Creative Scotland ( again the great and the good from business!)would have learned a lesson but no after ignoring many applications from Scots they appointed an English ballet dancer whose main claim to arts administration was in charge of the arts in Welwyn in Herfordshire. Realising she knew little about Scottish arts they kept her away from the press for 6 months till she had done her homework. However even this didn’t succeed as at her first press conference she was asked about the future of the Byre Theatre (closed due to funding cuts by Creative Scotland’s predecessor!)she said ” I am afraid I don’t know where that is!”since her appointment she has cut funding to Scotland’s most successful theatre the Lyceum and the Traverse but increased massively the grants to ballet ( she was a ballet dancer!).
    So we need to look again at the cultural cringe but we also need to democratise the boards of the major companies and get people who know about the arts and Scotland.Finally just to avoid the accusations of the Keith Bruce’s of the world the people appointed don’t have to be Scottish the late great John McGrath was a Liverpuddlian but he knew and loved Scotland and in 7.84 helped to shape its culture. It’s not too much to hope that in the new SNP led Scotland that we appoint people in charge of Scottish arts that know about Scotland.
    Hugh Kerr

  2. Douglas says:

    George, great stuff as always.

    I would say we need to be far more active, we need to go out and meet them in the joust and stop shirking. If anybody thinks my antipathy for post-imperial Anglo British cultural hegemony is the same thing as being anti-English, then fine by me. I am not going to apologize for being a cultural anglophobe. The only thing I get embarrassed about is the number of so-called Scottish nationalists who are exactly like their English brethren on that point.

    English culture was once a great thing. Chaucer, the man who uses the C word throughout “The Canterbury Tales” – lauded by England despite that, James Kelman damned for the same reason – is one of my favourite writers of all time. Then Shakespeare, Ben Jonson who walked to Scotland to meet William Drummond. (Can anybody imagine any English writer even taking the train to Scotland these days?) All the way up to the Romantics. Mary Shelley anybody? A terrific writer TO THINK OF A STORY she says in the prologue of “Frankenstein”. Exactly, Mary….to THINK!

    But from about 1850 England turns into the Empire. You have to be very aware that the culture of England today is a post-imperial culture, and it pays lip-service to the great English culture of the past, barring Shakespeare, and what it does, it tries to assimilate. We are living in a post-imperial cultural setting, and there is not much of Scottish culture left outside of books and the universities. You have to fight it, you have to read and to think against it…you have to fight for Scottish culture!

    What are chapman billies?
    On which island is the wood at Hallaig?
    Who paid for the gravestone of the young Robert Ferguson, dead at 24 in an Edinburgh asylum?

    That’s three questions off the top of my head. Could Keith Bruce answer those without googling? Could Janet Archer?

    And if they are calling us narrow and parochial, let’s say it in Spanish:

    ¿Quienes son los paletos, quienes son los incultos, quienes son los que no leemos idiomas? No van a ser nosotros, sino ustedes, que llevan en una mentalidad imperialista desde más o menos la derrota de Napoleon.

  3. Douglas says:

    You have to harness every single element from English and European culture to fight against this post-imperial garbage which is today’s culture in the UK. When was the last great English writer? If you discount those from the former colonies – Rushdie, Zadie Smith – if you discount the Irish and the Scots, Joyce, Beckett, RLS, then what is it we have? Julian Barnes, Ian MacEwan, Martin Amis….decent writers, not great writers by any standard. Writers completely obsessed with social class and snobbery!!!! Take away their sense of privilege and they wouldn’t know what to write!!!! How ironic it is to be poor, Mart!!!

    …the fact is that Shelley, Byron, were radicals and would have been right behind the spirit of Scottish independence. So I would frame it that way, George. I would say, you know, we are in a cultural fight to the death with the Anglo-American Empire. Make no mistake, it is to the death.
    Either Scotland wins indie in the next 20 years or it will be dead culturally, a mere figment, and a place name on maps to denote mountains….

  4. Douglas says:

    As for the SNP’s art appointments….I hold the SNP in the highest and most utter contempt the human mind is capable of stretching to….why doesn’t Fiona Hyslop not just move to England? That’s where all her friends are after all…

    We Scots cannay dae it, eh Fiona? We’re jist a bunch a eedjits, guid electoral fodder an aa that? Eh Fiona? Whit about wee Eck on the Andrew Marr show? Eh? That was barry, eh? He gied it tae him, eh? Oh aye, wee Eck, Nicola, and Fiona….we´ll aa jist dander on doon the road and let you Masters o the Universe take care ae it…

    …if these are our friends, what do our enemies look like?

  5. Douglas says:

    SNP – Scottish National Philistine Party…..

    1. John Mooney says:

      What an abject and pathetic post Douglas,you lash out without purpose indulging in petty juvenile rants,time to take a chill pill man!

      1. Douglas says:

        Let’s hear your defence of the SNP’s culture policy John Mooney? We’ll presume you know what you are talking about until you demonstrate the contrary….

  6. Douglas says:

    And, please, friends, can we have a completely different tone on the illiterate ramblings of Creative Scotland web page?

    Can we get serious?

    Is it just me?

    Can we please take Scottish culture seriously?

    It is not “What we do” or “who we are” – that insidious first person plural – the bullshit advertising language of people trying to sell you something….we don’t want you to be nice and smiley and equal to all…we want you to support and promote Scottish culture unashamedly and with the earnestness and duty and work-rate – the weight of the past, the ghosts at the feast – requires.

    Creative Scotland is a national disgrace. They can’t even fuckin write a sentence. Can Fiona Hyslop? Naw, she must be away having her cereal….eh folks?

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