Comment: Gray painted blacker than remarks deserve

Alasdair Gray's opposition is to the consequences of decisions taken about the arts community in Scotland. Picture: Robert Perru
Alasdair Gray's opposition is to the consequences of decisions taken about the arts community in Scotland. Picture: Robert Perru
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Alasdair Gray is not anti-English, but anti some of the decisions of the arts establishment, writes Paul Scott

I was astonished by the sudden outburst of passionate denunciation of Alasdair Gray in your editorial of 18 December, in your sister paper Scotland on Sunday the day before, and in other papers. All of this is based on his essay in a book which has just been published by Word Power Books: Unstated, Writers on Scottish Independence. I have read his essay several times to try to discover what has provoked this fierce attack on the gentle and civilised Alasdair.

There are two such passages in his essay. The first is an account of the appointment by the Thatcher government of Glasgow as Britain’s first European City of Culture. Gray points out that Glasgow could have staged a drama festival of successful plays by Glasgow authors, and exhibitions of portraits by the Glasgow Boys and others. Instead they appointed a director who was “the best English arts administrator money could rent”. The result was that “hardly anything Glaswegian was presented in Glasgow’s Year of Culture”.

Gray’s other example is the appointment of the first director of Creative Scotland. Gray says: “The appointed director who was not Scottish, admitted to knowing nothing of Scottish culture but said he was willing to learn. Ain’t Scotland lucky.”

Since Gray wrote his essay there has been a passionate revolt against the director by many members of the Scottish artistic community and the resignation of Andrew Dixon as a consequence.

As Neil Ascherson says in his book Stone Voices: The Search for Scotland: “The cultural bureaucracy which was formed to manage Scotland’s arts was largely recruited in the South, as funding cuts blocked career prospects in the galleries, museums, theatres and orchestras in London and the Home Counties”.

Of course such people are unlikely to know much about the cultural history of Scotland, and they tend to think (as most people do of their own country) that anything English is vastly superior. Imagine their reaction when they are asked to pass judgment of a play in Scots.

In the same issue of The Scotsman as the editorial on Alasdair Gray, there is an article on Vicky Featherstone, the outgoing director of the Scottish National Theatre, in which she is quoted: “I often ask myself why so many boards in Scotland seems to assume that a person from England knows better.”

It is certainly true of the boards of such bodies as the Scottish Arts Council and its successor Creative Scotland and the board of the National Theatre. Scottish modesty or Scottish inferiority complex?

I have been deeply concerned for years of the effect on Scottish arts of the evident anti-Scottish bias of the Scottish Arts Council. In my autobiography, A Twentieth Century Life, I mention a conversation in 1986 with a friend, Willis Pickard, who was on the board of the Scottish Arts Council at the time. I asked him why they were evidently so opposed to the proposal for a Scottish National Theatre. He said “the atmosphere within the Council was unfriendly to Scottish work for the theatre”.

The attitude of the Scottish Arts Council to the proposal for a National Theatre had varied drastically, presumably as their staff on the drama side changed. In 1971 the council announced that they proposed, “along with the Board of the Lyceum Theatre, to establish a Scottish Theatre Company to produce drama to the highest standards and to explore Scottish tradition”, a potential National Theatre in other words.

This company was eventually established ten years later, but it had to struggle with inadequate funding. It had a notable success in Warsaw in 1986 where it won an important prize for Tom Fleming’s production of Ane Satyre of the Thrie Estaities, the last of this play which the Edinburgh International Festival has so far produced.

One of their directors, Brian McMaster, proposed when he was appointed in 1992 to have a production of it “every two or three years, as an element of continuity like Everymen in Salzburg”. The Scottish Theatre Company was soon after 1986 allowed to collapse because of inadequate funding by the Arts Council.

It was at this time that the Advisory Council for the Arts in Scotland (AdCAS), a body of which I was chairman, decided to hold a conference in May 1987 on the need for a National Theatre. Virtually every theatre in Scotland was represented. The directors of the National Theatres of Finland and Iceland encouraged us by their example. Writers, theatre directors and actors spoke, many of them, including David Daiches and Tom Fleming, with eloquence and passion. The demand for a National Theatre was urgent and unanimous.

Gerry Mulgrew, the director of the theatre company Communicado, said that he had been opposed to the idea of a National Theatre but had been converted by the discussion. The chairman of the Scottish Arts Council, Sir Allan Peacock, who was present, wrote to me afterwards. “No-one”, he said, “could fail to be impressed by the strength of the demand for a National Theatre”.

It took much campaigning and several other conferences to establish the National Theatre. It was eventually achieved, not by the Scottish Arts Council who continued to resist, but by the Scottish Parliament in September 2003.

My account of this has apparently distracted me from my defence of my old friend, Alasdair Gray; but it has been a necessary demonstration of the unexpected ways in which discussions of policies towards the arts become involved with personal matters and complicated by the nature of the relationship between us and our close neighbours, the English.

Since there are many of them in the organisations concerned with the arts in Scotland, disagreement with their actions may look like hostility towards them just because they are English. Alasdair Gray’s opposition in the two instances that he quotes is to the consequences and natures of the decisions and not because the officials are English.

Even when we achieve independence we shall still need friendly relations with our neighbours on the other side of the Tweed.