Cultural understanding is crucial
I find myself in almost total agreement with Bill Jamieson’s column about Alasdair Gray’s comments and the reaction to them (Perspective, 20 December).
The idea of Scotland is indeed profound and our culture and language is not that of a region of the UK but that of a historically separate country.
Even through the years of Union, our law and education systems have been radically separate from those in England, and religious differences (although less fundamental nowadays) have contributed to this feeling of detachment.
This has nothing to do with independence, or anti-English bias or bigotry. It is a simple fact. Appointments to leading positions in arts and business should take note of the applicants’ understanding of this historical difference, and should be made with reference to it.
As we can see, some appointments like Vicky Featherstone to the National Theatre of Scotland, and John Cox’s directorship of Scottish Opera in the early 1980s, were wholly successful, as these English administrators took note of the artistic environment in which they worked.
Other appointments have been much less successful, and Alasdair Gray and Kevin Williamson have drawn attention to these. The disparaging references to Messrs Gray and Williamson as “independence supporters” (ie sort of cultural backwoodsmen) in your coverage of this discussion is profoundly unhelpful.
This is a cultural issue, not a Yes/No campaign issue, and it is to Bill Jamieson’s credit, as someone far from an SNP mouthpiece, that he should draw attention to this matter.
We may all wish Mr Gray had used less inflammatory language in his original piece, but we need to get past the hyperbole to understand the validity of his point.
I hope we can continue to discuss these questions in an adult way, in your pages and in other areas of debate. Otherwise, the next two years will be desperately dull instead of life-affirming and thought- provoking.
It is good when voices as disparate as those of Bill Jamieson, Hugh Kerr and Joyce McMillan unite in defence of Alasdair Gray’s right to say disagreeable things.
My own tuppence worth in this synthetic little spat would simply be that, in using the term “colonist” Mr Gray was incorrect in a purely semantic sense. The more appropriate word would have been “sojourner”.
A colonist is an individual engaged in the policy-driven expansion of a particular imperium in another land, where all the apparatus of state is deployed for the furtherance of the mother country’s colonising objective.
A sojourner is simply a person from somewhere else who, of their own volition, chooses to spend part of a career in a land other than their own with the intention of going back home some day. Scots have been doing this for centuries. Besides, the essentially democratic relationship between Scotland and England can hardly be compared to the colonising adventurism which ended with Harold Macmillan’s “Wind of Change” speech.
The contribution of many sojourners can be entirely positive. Vicky Featherstone’s tenure at the National Theatre of Scotland is a case in point, and is in the best theatrical “sojourner” tradition, which began when Jim Haynes, among others, founded the Traverse Theatre in the 1960s.
I don’t think Jim was colonising for Louisiana, though he certainly helped to release us from the gloomy crypto-Calvinist bondage which then characterised cultural life in Edinburgh outside the Festival.
Nor should we forget that it was an Englishman, Oliver Barratt, and an Irishman, the late Desmond Hodges, who valiantly fought against philistine planning proposals which would have wrecked much of the city’s historic centre.
In any event, this is an old canard. I recall discussing the issue with the journalist George Rosie at around the time Timothy Clifford had been appointed director of the National Galleries of Scotland. This later became a subject of much discussion under the heading “The Englishing of Scotland”. The hypothesis, however, had nothing to do with bashing the English; rather, it focused on Scotland’s apparent inability to produce, and retain, individuals with the experience and expertise necessary to run our state institutions.
Besides, this is, and always has been, a two-way traffic. It was a Perthshire lawyer, William Murray, who, as Lord Mansfield, became one of the greatest Lord Chancellors of England, while it’s a Glasgow-born Edinburgh lawyer, Neil MacGregor, who currently serves as one of the most successful directors the British Museum has ever had. I rest my case.
As one of the “settlers” squarely in Alasdair Gray’s sights (I have lived in Scotland for more than half my 68 years) can I make a plea for the “shock/horror” merchants – who probably haven’t read his recent essay – to leave the poor old buffer alone?
The saddest thing about anti-English prejudice in Scotland, and anti-Scottish prejudice in England – or anywhere else, come to that – is that we either deny it exists, or recoil in horrified disbelief when finally forced to face it.
Prejudice against the members of another tribe is probably an evolutionary acquired characteristic that was once (and can still be) useful – just live with it.
What does depress me is the increasing tendency for Mr Gray to be presented by some as a caricature of the sort of person he probably likes least – a sort of Colonel McBlimp: that’s disrespectful, and he’s worth more to us than that.
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