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Alasdair Gray attacks English for ‘colonising’ arts

Alasdair Gray cites former NTS director Vicky Featherstone, below, as an example of a colonist. Picture: Universal News and Sport

Alasdair Gray cites former NTS director Vicky Featherstone, below, as an example of a colonist. Picture: Universal News and Sport

  • by TOM PETERKIN
 

ALASDAIR GRAY, one of Scotland’s most respected ­authors, has launched an ­attack on the appointment of English “colonists” to influential and powerful positions in Scotland.

In a critique of English ­immigration north of the Border, the writer says the largest influx of new residents into Scotland can be split into ­either long-term settlers, whom he approves of, or short-term colonists who come north to advance their career.

Gray’s anger is directed mostly at senior arts administrators, saying that is his area of expertise, but he adds: “I think Scottish folk in other professions will know settlers and colonists with similar ­attitudes.”

As examples of colonists he names Vicky Featherstone, the former artistic director of the National Theatre of Scotland, and a number of other senior managers working in the arts field, whom he accuses of downplaying Scottish talent.

Gray, 77, concedes that some of his remarks may suggest an “anti-English prejudice” but adds that it must be remembered that “these colonists were invited here and employed by Scots without confidence in their own land and people”.

The author’s comments are included in an essay – “Settlers and Colonists” – within a new book on Scottish independence published last week. In the essay – in Unstated: Writers on Scottish Independence – Gray says: “Immigrants into Scotland, as into other lands, are settlers or colonists. English settlers are as much a part of Scotland as Asian restaurateurs and shopkeepers, or the Italians who brought us fish and chips. The colonists look forward to a future back in England through promotion or by retirement.”

He added that some arts administrators, who were invited to Scotland by Scots, could be classified as colonists because “their work for institutions originally created to encourage art in Scotland actually depressed it”.

Gray’s most acclaimed novel, Lanark, was published in 1981 and led Anthony Burgess to call Gray “the best Scottish novelist since Walter Scott”. He has since produced a number of other works of ­fiction, plays, poems and artwork.

But politicians across the parties took issue with Gray’s views on English colonisation. Patricia Ferguson, Scottish Labour’s constitutional spokesperson, said: “This sort of language is not helpful and most people will not recognise this description of either English people or those who work in the arts world.

“I believe we have a healthy flow of talent within the UK.”

The SNP MSP Nigel Don, who was born in England, said: “Just as the world has benefited tremendously down the generations from the skills and ingenuity of global Scots, Scotland has been hugely enriched as a nation through those who have come here to live and work and raise their families – from England and further afield.

“As the late SNP MSP Bashir Ahmed said, it doesn’t matter where you come from – what matters is where we are going together as a nation.” Without identifying Dixon, and writing before his much publicised departure after an artists’ revolt against the way the agency was being run, Gray says Creative Scotland appointed a director who “was not Scottish, admitted to knowing nothing of Scottish culture but said he was willing to learn. Ain’t Scotland lucky.”

Gray also classified Featherstone, who led the NTS from its foundation in 2006 and commissioned Gregory Burke’s acclaimed Black Watch play, as a colonist. She is leaving Scotland to take up a new position as artistic ­director of the Royal Court Theatre in London.

An NTS spokeswoman said: “Vicky Featherstone has achieved a huge amount during her eight-year tenure as artistic director of the National Theatre of Scotland. While the company welcomes productive debate amongst artists around national identity and culture, Vicky is far from being a ‘coloniser’ as Mr Gray asserts.

“She has collaborated with, and encouraged partnerships amongst, hundreds of Scottish theatre-makers to produce exceptional work for audiences the length and breadth of the country. The success of the company’s highly innovative model has embedded in Scotland a ­national theatre which is ­already the envy of many across the globe.”

In response to the suggestion that some people might find his views disagreeable, Gray said: “I can’t help that. I mean I don’t feel that I am 
anti-English. If one says anything that is at all critical of Israel’s foreign policy a lot of people would call one anti-
semitic. In the same way that if one does indicate, and I ­really do believe it, that a lot of people are given jobs for instance in the BBC here, because the BBC is afraid of Scotland becoming too much in the hands of Scots.

“All I can say is that my mother’s people were English – very nice folk and many of my best friends are English.”

Gray said it was “inevitable” that people would disagree with him. “If one works carefully to ensure that you write something that won’t offend anybody, the thing will be so bland it will be nae use to anybody.”

Twitter: @TomPeterkin

 

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