Edinburgh Book Festival: The war of the words

Ewan McGregor in Young Adam from 2003.
Ewan McGregor in Young Adam from 2003.
Share this article
Have your say

IT MAY have been the jugs of whisky, heroin fixes, or massive egos, but a conference 50 years ago on the future of Scottish literature turned into one big ding-dong, and became the prototype of the modern book festival, reports Stuart Kelly

On 21 August, 1962, in Edinburgh’s McEwan Hall, two men appeared in front of an audience to decide the future of Scottish literature. It was the second day of the first International Writers’ Conference, and most of the great and good of Scottish letters were in attendance: Muriel Spark, Edwin Morgan, Robin Jenkins and, presiding over them all, Hugh MacDiarmid.

Trocchi's work reached a wider audience with the film version of Young Adam. Picture: Getty

Trocchi's work reached a wider audience with the film version of Young Adam. Picture: Getty

Then just turned 70, MacDiarmid was credited with engineering the “Scottish Renaissance” of the 1930s. He had been expelled from the Communist party for nationalism and the Nationalist party for communism, living up to his own dictum to “aye be whaur extremes meet”. He had heard the name Alexander Trocchi before, and even met him briefly in Milnes bar, the haunt of the literati; but he had not read him.

Whether in a spirit of overgenerosity, or in the hope of precipitating the proverbial stair-heid rammy, the water jugs had been filled with whisky. As the speakers took their place, Trocchi was taking his first injection of heroin of the day. Their debate that day inflected Scottish literary discussion for a generation. Indeed, in ways which are as interesting as they are depressing, the debate about Scottish literature has barely moved a jot since: individual vs collective, nationalism vs internationalism, triumphantly local vs constrictingly parochial, shock-horror over drugs, double shock-horror over sex and drugs. This year’s Edinburgh International Book Festival will be commemorating the 50th anniversary of that conference. I hope they realise what they might be letting themselves in for.

Trocchi was 37 at the time, and his two most famous novels, Cain’s Book and Young Adam, had been published in the United States, but no publisher had dared to release them in Britain. The son of a Scottish mother and Italian father, Trocchi was not well known: even in 1996, the literary magazine Chapman could decry his marginal status – before his “existentialist” novels reached a wider audience with the 2003 release of a film version of Young Adam starring Ewan McGregor and Tilda Swinton. Edwin Morgan had been his tutor at the University of Glasgow, and remembered his “devilish”, satyrlike looks, and that he did not get the degree he was capable of since he had overdosed on Benzedrine before his finals (before lighting out to start a pig farm, and then head for Paris). Trocchi was there with the publisher John Calder, who had organised the event, the prototype and precursor for the modern book festival, and who intended to publish him (he was true to his word, though the book was immediately banned). Trocchi latterly succumbed to heroin addiction to the extent he would pimp his wife, and could only make a living writing pornography for the notorious and brilliant publisher Maurice Girodias, who swung between the high art of Nabokov’s Lolita and the cheapest of smut. Trocchi died in 1984, with a few voices – notably the poet Edward Dorn, who thought him comparable with Dostoyevsky – keeping alive his reputation. But Trocchi’s tinge of sulphur lingered as well. At a literary conference in the Lake District in 2004 another participant visibly blanched when I mentioned his name.

MacDiarmid must have already been concerned about the event. His former protégé, the concrete poet and sculptor Ian Hamilton Finlay, had apparently been granted permission for an “anti-MacDiarmid demonstration” outside the hall that day. MacDiarmid had been Finlay’s best man, but latterly claimed he wouldn’t even allow him to carve his gravestone. To say that he had a genius for the cantankerous would be an understatement. In his kilt and tweeds, with his pipe out of his mouth only when he was having a cigarette, he looked like a kirk elder, albeit one who had written hymns of praise to Lenin.

Sandy Moffat's painting Poets' Pub (1980), featuring George Mackay Brown.

Sandy Moffat's painting Poets' Pub (1980), featuring George Mackay Brown.

The opening sallies in the debate have an awful familiarity to them. MacDiarmid defended vigorous Scottishness over pallid Britishness, and there was some to-and-froing over whether Sorley MacLean was now the best poet writing; MacDiarmid’s own output having fallen away in the previous decade. Muriel Spark, in a wry and sly aside, asked what language it was that the Lallans writers thought in, with the words “any they like” shouted from another part of the hall.

The poet Sydney Goodsir Smith, a friend of MacDiarmid’s, was incapably drunk by lunchtime, although the papers reported he made a point about writers purifying the dialect of the tribe, in T S Eliot’s words, after waking up suddenly.

Trocchi’s intervention was blistering. Part of MacDiarmid’s genius was to fashion himself at the same time as a cultural arbiter and a perennial outsider. For him to be the subject of an attack, from a younger author, was unheard of. Calling MacDiarmid “an old so-and-so with a few rather old-fashioned quaintnesses”, Trocchi went on the offensive. The debate was “turgid, petty, provincial, stale, cold-porridge, Bible-clasping nonsense”, he said, adding, “of what is interesting in the last 20 years or so in Scottish literature, I myself have written it all”. The McEwan Hall was not quite big enough for both egos.

In The Scotsman the next day, Magnus Magnusson, then the chief arts and features writer, gleefully reported the contretemps. Under the headline “Scottish Writers Stage Their ‘Civil War’”, he wrote “the Scottish literary world put on a little domestic comedy for the benefit of visitors yesterday … It was a familiar scene where the protagonists throw crockery at each other, where father-figure speaks of tradition, adolescent son flounces out to play Teddy-boys … and the neighbours look on in embarrassment. Good clean knockabout stuff”. The reality was rather more vehement, and not of the sort that a newspaper would report in douce 1960s Edinburgh.

Trocchi went on to claim that all his novels were inspired by sodomy; MacDiarmid retorted by calling him “cosmopolitan scum”. Seeking some kind of consensus, MacDiarmid said that he wanted no conformity to Scottish stereotypes. “Neither do I,” shot back Trocchi, “not even a kilt”, while pointing at MacDiarmid’s usual costume. Despite the skilful mediation of the chair, the critic David Daiches, Trocchi stormed out.

The novelist William S Burroughs, another guest, writing to Paul Bowles in Tangiers, mentioned “When asked what he thought of The Edinburgh Conference, an elderly Scotch journalist named Hugh MacDiarmid snapped: ‘An outrage – all heroin and homosexuality – these people belong in jail not on a lecture platform’ – by these people he meant me and Trocchi – well fun and games what? – looks like we have burned down Edinburgh”.

MacDiarmid was sufficiently riled that he hijacked the next day’s discussion on political commitment to claim he was the only author in the room with any political commitments. What must have absolutely riled MacDiarmid was that Trocchi was applying to him the very epithets and prejudices he had applied to the sentimental Kailyard writers of the past. In Trocchi’s mind, the avant-garde had seamlessly become the establishment, and were just as narrow-minded as the establishment against which they had once railed.

The aftermath of the debate was to cast the Young Turk Trocchi and the old guard MacDiarmid as representing internationalism vs nationalism. When his work was reviewed in the Glasgow Herald (“frightful, sometime nauseating, lavatory wall detail and language”) Trocchi detected “the long moral rifles of John Knox” being wielded by MacDiarmid and his supporters.

The two men reached an uneasy alliance, more through Trocchi’s solicitations than MacDiarmid relenting. When the 1964 Writers’ Conference was banned by the city fathers – in part because the 1963 conference had featured a naked model pushed around on a BBC lighting trolley – Trocchi wrote to MacDiarmid “While there have been and will be aspects of life and art which we cannot be in accord, it seems to me there must be a few vital issues upon which we can hardly fail to be in agreement, and I, for my part, am most sorry that the circumstances in which we first met one another were such as to bring the former into prominence and distract our attention from the latter. Amongst the latter is our common revolt against the smug philistinism of our countrymen”. MacDiarmid should take “[his] rightful place at the head of our shock troops” and Trocchi was “not in the least anxious to continue a public sniping match with a man for whom I have always had the profoundest respect”.

Andrew Murray Scott, writing in 1996 about Trocchi, claimed Trocchi’s tongue was firmly in his cheek at this point.

The legacy of the MacDiarmid/Trocchi debate is still with us: it is present when Alexander McCall Smith wrinkles his nose at Irvine Welsh, or when Ian Rankin points out that James Kelman characters don’t read James Kelman books. Even back in 1962, a lot of this seemed tired: Magnusson referred to “this long interior monologue that Scottish writers have been making in public for years and years”.

At its heart is one intractable and infuriating problem: how Scottish is Scottish literature? Does it have a coherence over and above geographical accident? Should it reach out to literatures from any part of the world, or reconstruct its own hidden or buried histories?

The debate will hardly move on until we accept that both Trocchi and MacDiarmid exemplified the Scottishness of Scottish literature. There is something almost nostalgic about the sincerity of their anger and their seriousness of their commitment. The Edinburgh International Book Festival is right to be staging various events to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the conference.

Getting back that flyting spirit and fiery conviction, shaking up some of the staid complacencies, would be a fitting commemoration. Getting Scottish literature to a point beyond endlessly repeating those debates would be transformative.