Kirsty Gunn: Screen-based activity is not the only cultural expression that matters

The BBC Scotland HQ at Pacific Quay. Picture: John Devlin
The BBC Scotland HQ at Pacific Quay. Picture: John Devlin
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I don’t watch a lot of television. I haven’t for a long time. We keep getting sent TV licence bills up in Sutherland with dreadful threats attached for non-payment and every time I get on the phone to tell them why they should stop, an incredulous voice on the end of the line goes: What? Really? You mean you don’t have a television…at all?

So it means I’m not directly affected, not personally, one way or the other, about the latest decision by the BBC to devolve programming and create a special Scottish TV provision. Out of the £320 million raised in other people’s licence fees only 55 per cent is spent on Scottish-themed programming, we’ve learned… Well, that’s kind of interesting, but not that interesting, is it?

I wonder what our percentage of housekeeping is spent on, say, Perthshire raspberries in summer versus cherries from Russia? Or clothes made here, or books and paintings and music, versus those jackets and novels and CDs coming from other places? We make choices based on…choice, don’t we? Whether we like a thing or not? Not where it’s come from.

There’s an argument, of course, for supporting cultural activities here with funds from the centre – in this case the centres being the BBC and Holyrood – in order to generate fresh product and create an aesthetic for the particular world around us. There we are to be on TV screens throughout the land – shown to ourselves with all our own range of colours, accents, and mores. No more RP and Knightsbridge townhouses! No more endless banging on about English prisons on the news when we’ve got our own to bang on about etc etc. Yes, I’m all for anything that breaks monopolies on conversation and culture. In the same way I would be delighted to see more support generally, for the small and the different and the avant garde over the endless monoculture that comes from Hollywood, for example, or global publishing houses and what the writer China Meiville has called their “relentless privileging of the known over the unknown”. That we might break the tyrannies of a capitalist ideology as expressed in mass media with its accompanying misogynies, racism and infantilism of the populace, can only be a good thing.

And then there’s that phrase we’ve been hearing, too, about how great the extra air time will be for Scotland’s “creative industries” (a phrase that’s popular around universities these days, with its nasty economising of the creative principle in that word “industries”) – and no doubt there will be plenty of opportunities now for screenwriters and directors and actors and the like, as well as for journalists and reporters. All another good thing, we might say: To have everyone on hand to create and generate that all-important “Scottish content” as they call it.

But this TV talk does serve to remind me about how much provision is always made, not only in Scotland, but across the UK and beyond, to any screen-based activity – as if that’s the only cultural expression that’s important. Oh yes, and sport. As it is, Creative Scotland afford the bulk of their spending for film and screen ventures; literature and music and painting and sculpture and theatre and everything else must compete hard to gain even a fraction of the budget that goes to the movies.

But perhaps the person who doesn’t watch TV shouldn’t be commenting on all this. I write novels and short stories and continue to be excited and educated and deeply engaged by what happens when we sit in a room with a page of writing in our hands. So what could I know? I love films, good films, I’m just not so film and telly-minded as our culture wants me to think I must be.

Yet isn’t it true for most of us, screen-centric or not, that pleasure taken from any aspect of culture comes down to the quality of the work? Which is quite a different issue from where that work is set and where it comes from. To me, nationalism as a driving feature of art isn’t interesting. And it seems to me that this is a time, more than ever, when Scotland should be looking outwards, not inwards. There are many other things in life apart from, as it’s to be, five solid hours each night of Scottish news and entertainment with all the social manipulation that might imply – as irresistible and effective as that coming out of America with its trivialising and sexualising of women, domestic hypocrisies, and the ongoing glorification of violence and war and gun culture. That’s not to say we can expect any of those horrors coming from the Glasgow studios. But five hours non-stop of what advertisers call “wallpapering” – not giving us the option to see or think about anything else – certainly presents opportunity enough for a political, national agenda to play its hand and guarantee attention for certain beliefs and ideas about what kind of country Scotland is or should be.

So bring on the pages of writing in a quiet room, I say! The other night, in London, I heard the great Scottish poet Robin Robertson read from his work, after having been introduced generously and with great humour by his dear friend and publisher, another Scot and poet, Don Paterson. It was a very swanky do, in a private club just off Leicester Square, jammed with big name authors who were out in force to promote books being published over the coming year. Robin’s reading shone out through the evening, though, as something utterly different from the rest. There were two terrifyingly visceral poems about passion and lust and desire, one from an early collection, A Painted Field, and the other as yet unpublished, Coille nan Easgann (Wood of the Eels). Both poems were rendered in a voice that was so attuned to their words that it sounded both animal and lyrical, a strange and compelling kind of music that many in the audience didn’t know how to respond to, so laughed nervously, or shifted uncomfortably in the crowd. Of course what was happening, in this moment of poetic reality, was that we were being taken out of any notion of “five solid hours” and deposited instead into another kind of space where we had to react, respond and think. It’s a shocking moment. When we have to get off the sofa and turn off the TV, because it’s only us then, left in the room. Once Scottish TV has ceased broadcasting for the night – who are we? What have we become?