Kirsty Gunn: We're creating a culture that's no merry ding dong but divisively clashing and clanging

There are bells and there are bells. Last week I heard bells the like of which I'd never heard before.
Christmas bells with red ribbon and pine twigsChristmas bells with red ribbon and pine twigs
Christmas bells with red ribbon and pine twigs

A whole set of them – I think it was a whole set, I couldn’t see from where I was sitting – rung from high up in the organ loft at St Giles’ Cathedral and golly they were something.

They pealed out the whole first passage of “Ding Dong Merrily On High” as part of the Edinburgh University carol service and, given that that tune is already one of the most devlishly difficult of all carols to sing, set, frankly, a somewhat elevated bar towards which the voices of the congregation could only strain. All those “Fa-la- la-la- la-la- la’s”!

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Still, we felt resolved, I think, to keep up, and made a fine festive go of things. The whole service was magical, actually. The church itself, the crowds massed outside and in, Edinburgh at its twinkly pre-Christmassy best. And there were

the Edinburgh University Singers, under the expert guidance of their master of music, conductor and organist John Kitchen, all of them beautiful and youthful and resplendent in their red gowns. No wonder the atmosphere seemed so charged. Dr Kitchen must be pleased. I heard him speak, later in the week at the Usher Hall where the choir were singing again, about setting Christmas music of all kinds to the organ and what fun it was – and I thought then, again, as I so often do, how lucky we all are to have committed artists in our lives.

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Not only do they add a whole layer to our day-to-day experience that is rich and sustaining and memorable – for who could have walked away from the service last week not affected by the power and mystery of music and a shared musical experience? – but they work with young people too, to make practising cultural behaviour viable and and collaborative and a 100 per cent total lark. If only Fiona Hyslop, the Scottish Culture Secretary, could have heard Dr Kitchen describe working with the choir and seeing the expressions on their faces as he did so – delighted and pleased and amused – it might have shown her that culture is a whole lot more interesting than her narrow political remit would have us believe. There’s nothing cool or contemporary about being in a chamber choir, you might say – and yet here were a bunch of cool and contemporary young people being part of just that. Politicians need to learn that you don’t create culture for people. That’s patronising and limiting. Artists create environments people can then be part of – and they in turn become the culture. It’s aspirational that way, art.

I was talking about this sort of thing with Alan Taylor – a journalist, critic and publisher of the Scottish Review of Books. We were meeting to talk about his terrific memoir of Muriel Spark, whose centenary we celebrate next year with, I am hoping, massed bunting and champagne in the streets of Bruntsfield and Morningside.

“Do we properly acknowledge Muriel?” I heard myself say, in somewhat determined tones to Alan over a cup of tea. For it seems to me that the high mistress of modernism, despite the championing of her work from pre-eminent critics such as Taylor and Gabriel Josipovici, still goes largely unread in her city – and country – of birth.

Alan’s book, Appointment in Arezzo: A Friendship with Muriel Spark, makes clear how deep Scotland runs in Spark’s life and work – yet the artist herself, and the novels, sits slant, it seems, of the canon of modernist fiction. Why?

“I believe I have liberated the novel,” Spark tells Taylor in an early chapter, “I have expressed something I brought into the world with me... showing how anything whatsoever can be narrated.”

And yet we don’t seem to have noticed her or her extraordinary novels – “windows and doors in the mind” that have been opened, as she puts it – as though we don’t care. In the same way that, when the lone bagpiper appears on the tops of the new V&A museum in Dundee, to celebrate that grand building’s place in the world, instead of a great piobaireachd or salute being played, the musician – the “official piper” for The Scottish Parliament, by the way – gives us “I’m Gonna Be (500 miles)”.

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A song by The Proclaimers my family happen to like, incidentally, but which is hardly part of the great repertoire of music celebrated by our ancient and distinctive national instrument. Is it really that we can’t acknowledge what we’ve done,

culturally, or can state, in our art, who we are that we let so much be lost or become the butt of jokes or simply ignored? Or is it the politicians having their way again and dumbing everything down so we just don’t know anymore about what’s truly interesting and valuable about the nuanced history of our society? At a supper party in Dundee, a good friend who is German and who has lived in Scotland for most of her adult life told me that since the referendum it is her English husband who feels unwelcome here, not her, post Brexit – despite the fact that she’s being asked to swear allegiance to the Queen, take a language test and pay a whopping fee to do so, and all the rest of it.

“He feels ostracised at work, just going around the place, day to day,” she said. “He has to describe himself as English so that the Scots know that they can deride him, [he tries to] offset what feels like unpleasant nationalism with humour.”

What has happened to this country? We both asked each other that question, the German linguist and university lecturer who has lived here longer than she ever lived in Germany but now must pay to stay and the New Zealand-born Scot who doesn’t sound Scottish so therefore – according to some of her Scottish friends, even – doesn’t count. What ghastly rhetoric has so informed our thinking that all has become divided now, opposites clanging away and understanding diminished.

As well as singing pitch-perfect unaccompanied carols, including James MacMillan’s ravishing contribution to the Advent repertoire “O Radiant Dawn”, the red-gowned choir remind me that life will go on, despite our

worries for contemporary society and its ills. Spark’s entire set of novels is to be published over the next year by Polygon, giving us a sort of university in itself, educating and enlightening. At the Tonic Bar in Dundee, young writers read in public for the first time in a spirit of collaborative support while local poet Jim Stewart is remembered and honoured. Communities, individuals, books and choirs, music, ideas. So the world turns.