Book review: The Glass Half Full: Moving Beyond Scottish Miserablism

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IS “MISERABLISM” a particularly or peculiarly Scottish phenomenon?

This extended essay seeks to consider its literary and cinematic manifestations here, and although there are some striking readings of the texts, I find myself uncertain as to whether there’s an especially Caledonian twist to tales of protagonists mired in pessimism, unable to ever attain happiness and ground down by a remorseless, unremitting universe.

Yule and Manderson present a list of 17 tell-tale signs of miserablism: basically it can be summarised in the Pet Shop Boys’ lyrics of their song Miserablism, a parody of Morrissey: “Meanwhile your life / is still directed as a drama / with realism / on the sparsest of sets / Every performance / tends to reach the same conclusion / No happy endings / but a message to depress / saying life / is an impossible scheme / That’s the point / of this philosophy.” That the source for the word is not Scottish ought to alert readers to a strong strain of English miserablism, from the films of Mike Leigh, to Ken Loach’s Cathy Come Home and Terence Davies’ Distant Voices, Still Lives, to the novels of Sillitoe, Hines, Wain and Braine. Perhaps class rather than nationality is a more fundamental aspect of this kind of narration. Looking wider, any discussion of miserablism ought to consider the novels of Theodore Dreiser, Emile Zola and even Victor Hugo.

McIlvanney, Kelman and Welsh in literature, and the films of Lynne Ramsay, Bill Douglas and Peter Mullan are all held up to be exemplars of Scottish miserablism. The best parts of the book involve a deconstruction of the myth that miserablism’s opposite – the Kailyard – is unsophisticated and sentimental: there are good readings of the films I Know Where I’m Going and Brigadoon (although oddly it is not mentioned that the precondition of Brigadoon’s enchantment is the self-sacrifice of the local minister). There is also an interesting analysis of Alasdair Gray’s Lanark, although Gray’s vision of a future that looks strikingly like his childhood can be seen as a kind of utopian nostalgia, not dissimilar from some Kailyard traits. Another “anti-miserablist” film that gets subtle consideration is Gregory’s Girl, though it is a pity that the consideration was not extended to Bill Forsyth’s other films That Sinking Feeling and Comfort And Joy.

As the old maxim goes, “to a man with a hammer, everything looks like a nail”. Having focused on miserablism and its opposites, everything is put on a spectrum ranging from grim to twee. To do so means to ignore a great deal of Scottish cultural production, and creates a distinctly partial account of our current cultural situation. Where would one place Andrew Crumey’s metafictional puzzle-boxes, Alice Thompson’s gothic fantasias or Denise Mina’s politically engaged crime novels? The authors restrict themselves to film and literature, but could have looked at the visual arts – a comparison, for example, of Ken Currie and Peter Howson with Alison Watt and Nathan Coley would have been instructive. Likewise, is there a musical miserablism?

In the final chapter, offering solutions to this aesthetic canker, there is a very bizarre interlude on Andy Murray, who is held up as an example of “wholeheartedness” which can cure miserablism. Perhaps a future edition can deal with his fourth round exit this year (and I raised an eyebrow fairly high when he was compared to “Ulysses, Theseus or Perseus”). The authors claim: “Vulnerability is the key. Admitting one’s own sense of shame, failure or lack of self-esteem, and allowing oneself to experience the resulting pain and sorrow – to feel it as well as comprehend it – opens the person to the possibility of renewal and success.” What is striking about this diagnosis is that, in the literary world certainly, the authors have already healed themselves.

There is a major theme across a range of Scottish fiction and memoir about the recovery from trauma: it is central to AL Kennedy’s The Blue Book and Day, to James Robertson’s The Professor Of Truth, to John Burnside’s memoirs and novels of forgiveness, to novels such as Stonemouth and The Quarry by the late Iain Banks, to Ali Smith’s irruptions of cleansing chaos, to Jackie Kay’s sensitive treatment of adoption and rejection. It is even there in classic “miserablist” texts such as James Kelman’s The Busconductor Hines or Jeff Torrington’s Swing, Hammer, Swing.

In seeking to undermine the ascendance of miserablism, Yule and Manderson actually accord it more importance than a broad overview would suggest it really has.