Scotland Street Volume 16, Chapter 11: A modernist poet

“You can imagine what it was like to be interested in modernist poetry in Adelaide in those days,” said Matthew.

44 Scotland Street
44 Scotland Street

Angus frowned. “I’m not sure if I can.”

“Frustrating,” said Matthew. “The real literary world was elsewhere – thousands of miles away. While Eliot, Auden, MacNeice were pushing out the boundaries, quite a few Australian poets were still going on about gum trees. You know the sort of thing.”

Angus smiled. “And painting them too, I imagine.” He paused. Not every Australian painting of the time featured gum trees. “Sidney Nolan had started to change all that.”

Matthew nodded. “Yes, he was a much-needed breath of fresh air. Although he left the country.”

“Yes,” said Angus. “He absented himself from the forces during the War. He would have been sent to Papua New Guinea.”

Matthew was silent. Would he have gone elsewhere had he been faced with being sent to Papua New Guinea? Who amongst us could be sure? One should not be too harsh in the judgement of others, he felt.

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“You know he did thousands of paintings?” Angus continued. “Some great rubbish. Some masterpieces. I saw his Ned Kelly series in Canberra when I went there some years ago. Very atmospheric. Haunting, even.” He paused. “But in poetry? Fiction? It wasn’t the most exciting of times.”

Matthew shrugged. “Maybe not. Yet there were people who were making waves. In particular, a young man called Max Harris – a big champion of modernist poetry. He set up a literary journal with a backer in Melbourne. They called it Angry Penguins – a laughable title now, but quite the thing in those days. Angry young men, I suppose, was the idea. Anger over the conformism of the country, the pub culture, the cultural cringe – everything, really. Very different from Australia today – which is a terrifically creative place. The arts thrive there. And it’s the nicest country there is – after Scotland, of course.”

Angus laughed. “Wha’s like us? as they say.”

“Scottish exceptionalism,” observed Matthew. “Alive and well and all about us.”

Angus asked him what he meant. “I’ve never quite grasped the notion of exceptionalism,” he confessed. “When people talk about it, I just nod. Maybe it’s time to find out what it is.” He paused. “Unless you’re similarly in the dark, of course. You might be one of those people who uses words they don’t understand – or which we have understood wrongly.”

“Oh, I know about that,” said Matthew. “The other day I heard somebody say that somebody was a sight for sore eyes. I thought they were being uncomplimentary, but the opposite turned out to be true. I’d always thought that when you were a sight for sore eyes you were dishevelled, or something like that. But I think it can actually mean that you’re an attractive sight – a picture of perfection.”

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“It might be said ironically,” suggested Angus. “In other words – you’re a sight for sore eyes – not! The not is implicit in every ironical observation.”

“Not,” said Matthew. “When people use the word ironically these days, they mean oddly enough. They don’t mean to use it in that other sense.”

“Wicked,” said Angus, and laughed.

“What’s wicked?”

“I mean, that’s another example of a change in meaning. Bad has come to mean good. Fake has come to mean anything you don’t like.”

My truth,” said Matthew. “That’s a really sinister development. The false can be true if it’s yours. Magical thinking.”

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“That’s the post-factual world,” Angus observed. “The triumph of subjectivity. Was Allan Ramsay a great artist? Was Michelangelo? That all depends on what you think of them.”

Matthew sighed.

“The concept of truth lies at the very heart of civilization,” Angus continued. “Take it away, and what have we left. Anarchy. A fight for survival. The disappearance of all morality. Human life becomes a nightmare.’

“So when somebody in authority lies, then . . .”

“It’s the end,” said Angus. “If he or she gets away with it. It really takes away the foundations of everything, you know. Of civilization, for want of a better term.” He looked at Matthew. They believed in the same things, he thought. He was older than Matthew, but Matthew understood. “We were talking about Scottish exceptionalism. Enlighten me, Matthew.”

“Exceptionalism is the belief that you’re different. You think that the normal rules don’t apply to you. Or you think that your interests outrank everybody else’s. It’s a sort of divine right belief – but a bit different, I suppose.”

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“I’ve read about American exceptionalism,” said Angus.

“Yes, the Americans suffered from it. They thought America was quite different from everywhere else, and could do as it wanted. And so did the British – for a long time. Remember the British Empire? You needed a healthy dose of exceptionalist belief to create something like that.”

“Yes, I suppose so. The God is an Englishman view of the world?”

Matthew smiled. “Yes. And did we think He was Scottish? Did the French think He was French?”

Angus considered this. A French God would be a comfortable sort of figure – not too demanding in his proscription of adultery, for instance, and very accommodating when it came to overindulgence in the pleasures of the table. A Scottish God, however, would probably be Calvinist and rather strict. He would be a God of the weel, ye ken noo variety, not at all soft on sin. Closed on Sunday, more or less definitely.

“I think we make God in our image,” Angus said, “even as we assert that he made us in his image.”

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Matthew was looking at Angus intently. He was reflecting on the fact that there were certain questions we seldom asked our friends, and one of them was Do you believe in God? People found that question embarrassing – too personal, perhaps, like asking somebody about a medical complaint. He had no idea whether Angus had any religious belief, and yet surely it was important to know that about a friend – it was such an important part of a life, after all. So he asked him.

Angus took a sip of wine. “Yes and no,” he said. “I happen to believe there’s some greater purpose, if you will, in life. I’m not always sure what that is, but I feel it, you know. And since I happen to have been born where I was born, at the time when I was born, then a particular spiritual means of expression is available to me – is part of my story, so to speak. And so I participate in that willingly. I respect what it stands for and I respect those who profess it.”

“But inside?” Matthew pressed.

“Inside should, as far as possible, be the same as outside,” answered Angus.

© Alexander McCall Smith, 2022. Love in a Time of Bertie (Scotland Street Volume 15) is in bookshops now. The Enigma of Garlic will be published in November by Polygon, price £17.99