Kirsty Gunn: what’s the issue with living in two places at once?

It's no surprise poet William Letford's star has risen. Picture: Andrew O'Brien

It's no surprise poet William Letford's star has risen. Picture: Andrew O'Brien

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I live in two places and am at home in both – and that seems to trouble a fair number of people. Why? I wonder. Here I am in Scotland where I teach and have a house and where my sister and extended family live, and in ten days’ time I will be in London, where I also live and write and have a house and where my husband works. We live in both places and we love both. Yes, when David retires we’ll be more “up here” than “down there”, probably quite a lot more “up” than “down”, but my publishers are in London and a lot of our friends are, many of whom are a bit “two-places” themselves, actually, with family north of the Border, and jobs in the capital, making the most a lot of opportunities there, in the way a world city has those kinds of opportunities . . . What’s the big deal?

Yet some people do get hot under the collar about being betwixt and between. It’s there in the word “Brexit”, too. Because we’re supposed to “commit” somehow, to one place or the other, in order to show what side we’re on. That was the story of the Referendum, of course – I know that, because people like me and my family didn’t get a vote at all because we were too betwixt. We weren’t committed, you see. It felt rotten. My older daughter and husband were born in Scotland, my father’s family have lived in the same part of Caithness for more than 400 years and haven’t budged, my sister lives down the road from where my granny did, and I’m just across the hills with a permanent job at a great university down in Dundee... Still. No vote. The house in London scuppered that.

I guess if Nicola Sturgeon has her way with what is now widely being called “IndyRef2”, as though it’s some kind of fun computer game, we’ll get knocked back at the ballotpost again. But it may not happen. The Brexit debacle, after all, is just that – depressing as anything, but also a classic example of British bungling on all fronts, cobbled together and gone off half-cocked. It wouldn’t surprise me one bit if Holyrood gets to weigh in after all, and bring the Sewel Convention into play.

The talk of “The Scottish People will be demanding it”, another referendum, all the talk of “Scottishness” altogether, like Trump’s “Let’s Make America Great Again” makes me nervous anyhow. Why must it be always all this or all that? Either for America or against it. In Europe or out. Everything about life is uncertain and contingent and confused. Why can’t we all think of being in two places at once, in Scotland and in Britain, in Britain and in Europe, in Europe and in the world, and the world a place with safe passage across the sea for everyone, wherever they have come from, for whatever reason leaving, wherever they are going?

If Scotland had the same immigration tensions as exist in the brownlands and industrial backwaters of England we know our vote here wouldn’t have been so beautifully and overwhelmingly in favour of remaining in Europe as it was. Scared people vote badly; propaganda works. And we’re all of us fed-up with Westminster politics, irrespective of which way we voted in July.

I’m sickened that we’re out of Europe, as we all are. But not because we’re Scottish. We voted Remain because we’re not scared, in the way the people who voted Leave were. Anyhow, all the Scottish Remain lot down South, they were all having Burns Suppers in London last week – David was asked to three – while I was up here where I wasn’t invited to a single one. “Scottishness”, eh? I might have to tell the SNP about that. I want my Burns Supper in Scotland, please! Nicola Sturgeon, I want an IndyRef/Burns Night, HERE! Make it a rule, will you? Like putting the Tesco petrol signs in Gaelic? That if Scotland is to be “Scottish” we “The Scottish People” jolly well need Burns Suppers across the land! No good having the suppers down in England, Miss! Or in Australia, where my father was to pipe in the haggis, dressed in full kit, in sweltering Australian heat... We need those Burns suppers here now! In Burns’ Land. In SCOT-LAND!!!!

Anyway I’m not going to get beaten up about not getting any haggis because this year I got to talk with the fabulously-erudite Professor Christopher Whatley about the poet himself last week in Dundee, just before Burns Night, when we thew a groovy interdisciplinary literature and history event about his “Immortal Memory”. That might make up for a few lost suppers – for the book is a treat.

Underlying all the detailed history – showing the way Burns has been used consecutively by dominant political and economic interests, first to control then reflect then manipulate large swathes of the disenfranchised and later industrialised and then unemployed working classes – was a reminder of the commodification of a great poet, and the way Burns is being used, yet again, as a way to be “Scottish”.

We had to have a dram or two after that. Nothing like the number of drams that were downed by my husband and chums down South, no doubt – but then, I could console myself that we had William Letford up here, to recite a poem for this paper, to celebrate 200 years of record and report, of journalism and editorial... To celebrate the day and the age we’re inhabiting now in new and creative and intelligent ways. Two hundred years of a paper I am also happy to be at home in. I remember I first read William’s work some years ago as an anonymous manuscript I was marking as external examiner at The University of Glasgow – a sheaf of poems that just shone off the page. It’s no surprise his star has risen. He’s wasted no time, William, just in getting on with doing what he does and doing it well. For why make rules about this or that when it holds us up, so? Real Scottishness is about what we do and how we do it, not who we’re told we have to proclaim ourselves to be. Great poets know that. We all do, really.

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