Peter Jones: Nationalism and great art? Not here

Some Scottish endeavours come close but nothing matches the intensity of a Quebec verse, writes Peter Jones

887 as performed at this year's Edinburgh International Festival. Picture: Colin Hattersley
887 as performed at this year's Edinburgh International Festival. Picture: Colin Hattersley

GREAT theatre not only grips you with a story shedding light on somebody else’s world, it illuminates your own as well. A question which has always intrigued me is why has Scottish nationalism, a political movement of great passion, not been accompanied by artistic work of equal intensity?

Of course, there is quite a lot of art, mostly literary work and a few examples from the visual arts, which has drawn inspiration from the nationalist movement. But nothing I can think of (and I’d welcome my attention being drawn to examples) quite matches the intensity of Michéle Lalonde’s Québecois poem Speak White.

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I confess I didn’t know of the poem until I saw Robert Lepage’s 887 at the Edinburgh International Festival. Reviews of it applaud its technical mastery and Lepage’s brilliance at holding audience attention during a monologue lasting just over two hours. They also get one part of his story – how memory is wrapped up in identity-forming personal experience and intimately associated with social and political context.

But somehow they miss the complexity of interwoven parallel stories, particularly the depiction of a passion that has formed an entire society. The central motif of Lepage’s story is how he is asked to recite Speak White from memory at an event commemorating artistic outpourings some 40 years ago around the upheavals caused by the awakening of Québec’s Francophone people and their struggles to throw off Anglophone cultural and linguistic oppression.

Lepage is horrified to discover he cannot memorise the poem. He only does so after he has searched through his own past (887 is part of the address of his childhood home) and linked the poem to his own and his family’s experiences and what he recalls of what was happening around him.

Recounting this with a dry, laconic humour, you begin to sense an angry passion building within him which finally erupts, almost shockingly so, in his ferocious recital of Speak White.

The poem tells you all you need to know about why Québec nationalism exists and why the Front de Libération du Québec (FLQ) bombed and kidnapped in the early 1970s.

Speak White was a racist term, borrowed from US southern plantations and used by Québec English-speakers to denote not just the inferiority of Francophone culture and language but as an instruction to French-speakers that they should not use their own language if they wanted to interact with, and get on inside, the “superior” Anglophone world.

The poem was originally written mostly in French with English intrusions. While you can find English translations which do manage to convey something of the angry heat in the original, the French version is so intense that you don’t actually need to understand French to comprehend its rage. Nevertheless, here’s a few (translated) lines which convey something of its intensity:

“Speak white

It is a universal language

We were born to understand it

With its teargas words

With its truncheon words.”

There were various Scottish arts luminaries at the performance I attended, including Brian Cox. I talked briefly with him afterwards. He thought 887 was “magnificent”. Its commentary on drama education – its demands for conformity to established rules decades ago and how it now seems reserved for the wealthy – reverberated particularly keenly with him, giving it with its many other commentaries, he thought, a universal and not just a particular appeal.

What struck me was, while our own nationalist struggle is often compared with that of Québec’s, we have nothing which encapsulates the essence and root of our political conflict in quite such a brief and revelatory way as Speak White does – the poem is a rainbow captured in a bottle.

Yes, there are some works. The Cheviot, the Stag, and the Black, Black Oil, which has been (uneasily, I think) co-opted into the nationalist canon, is the outstanding example. But I think (and I am willing to be proven wrong) that if you were to try to assemble artistic expressions of Scotland’s nationalist cause, you would struggle to approach anything of the enduring luminosity of Speak White.

Discussing the poem and the play afterwards with my wife, we came up with two reasons why that might be.

One is that the Scotland in which the SNP has thrived experiences little of the cultural oppression that Francophone Québec did and, in a limited way, still does. The suppression of tartan-related iconography ended before the SNP was born and while both Gaelic and Scots-speakers have experienced Speak White-style attempts at linguistic extirpation, that has not been true for some decades.

When it was true, it affected only a small minority of Scots and aroused protest from a still smaller number. Currently, though writers such as Irvine Welsh rail at a certain English literary superiority complex oppressing writing in Scots, the vast majority of Scots have cheerfully and willingly assimilated themselves into Anglophone culture.

A second reason is that while Scots have been enthusiastic protestors, historically there has been little to distinguish our protests from those of others. Either we have been engaged in workers v bosses or ban the bomb marches much the same as the world over, or supporting others’ causes such as anti-apartheid.

Certainly, the referendum produced popular meetings of a different nature, but the Yes campaign was built around economic claims of greater prosperity/less austerity and cultural continuity (the monarchy, the pound, EastEnders, the British social union). It was hardly the kind of inspirational demand for the ending of gross injustice and creating a radical new order which would cause a vibrant artistic upwelling.

Perhaps it is there and I just haven’t seen it. As I say, I’ll be interested to know about it. But the final lesson from 887 about Québec is that a political movement which does provoke significant art does not necessarily succeed. Québec is still part of Canada and, judging by recent election results, likely to remain so for some time.