Andrew Eaton-Lewis: Celtic Connections cures cultural cringe

‘The guiding principle, it seems to me, is that Scotland is a gateway to the entire world – on its own terms’

‘The guiding principle, it seems to me, is that Scotland is a gateway to the entire world – on its own terms’

LAST week, I found myself leafing through a London newspaper’s guide to 2014’s cultural highlights. Scotland on Sunday ran its own guide the same day, and the difference was striking. In the other paper just two out of 100 choices were in any way Scottish – the film Under The Skin, and an exhibition by Martin Creed, presumably included because the show, like virtually every other event in the list, is in London.

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This is fairly typical of the UK media, who can seem comically oblivious to their myopic obsession with the city they mostly live and work in. But it was particularly galling to read, in the Scottish edition of one of the UK’s “national” newspapers, a list of 2014’s cultural highlights that feels no need to mention, say, Generation – this year’s hugely ambitious, 60 exhibition survey of 25 years of Scottish contemporary art – or anything at all in the Glasgow 2014 programme.

The Scottish playwright David Greig made headlines last weekend by suggesting that this year’s independence referendum, whichever way it goes, should provoke questions about the UK’s “top down” power structure. “I think that the British state is far too centralised,” Greig told the Guardian. “London is essentially an entirely different economy, an entirely different society.”

Greig was talking about political and economic power, not media priorities, but it’s all part of the same picture – how a nation talks about itself reflects, and shapes, how it sees itself. I can think of countless times, in my years as arts editor for the Scotsman and, latterly, Scotland on Sunday, when significant cultural events in Scotland – things I would put on a magazine front page without hesitation – were virtually ignored by the London media, while things of little relevance to anyone outside London were lavished with attention. A frequent source of irritation for me was that I always had to deal with “regional” PRs, while the London media all got to talk to “national” ones – meaning my interview requests were filed alongside those from small local newspapers.

For saying all this, I’m likely to be branded a chippy, jealous Scot. Actually I grew up south of the Border. I was initially drawn to Scotland because it seemed to share something of the sensibility of northern England – a sensibility partly shaped, I have come to realise, by being marginalised by a political, economic and cultural establishment all run from London.

As an antidote to this, let’s welcome this week’s return of Celtic Connections. In the early days of this fine festival, there were grumblings that by including music from across the globe, the event somehow wasn’t staying true to its “Celtic” moniker. I was one of the grumblers, and I’m quite embarrassed by it now. Unconsciously I had bought into the idea that Scottish culture is – should be, even – only concerned with itself, the idea that while London-based culture was outward-looking and “national”, Scottish culture was parochial, inward-looking, even “regional”.

This is the cultural cringe so expertly spoofed in Armando Iannucci’s famous sketch Except For Viewers In Scotland. It’s lost some of its sting in recent years thanks to a long list of Scottish cultural success stories – many of which, notably, have involved Scots bypassing London to build international careers from north of the Border – but it still seems deeply rooted in the national psyche.

And Celtic Connections is part of the cure. The crucial word in the festival’s name was always connections, not Celtic. This year it has Amadou and Mariam (from Mali), AR Rahman (from India) and Boban and Marko Markovic (from the Balkans), among many international stars. And the guiding principle, it seems to me, is that Scotland is a gateway to the entire world – on its own terms.

A parting thought: which is the bigger comedy reunion of 2014, Monty Python or Still Game? I suspect even a lot of Scots would say the Pythons – and this, to be fair, is probably due to the show’s longer history more than any cultural cringe. But consider this. The Pythons are to play ten dates in a 20,000 capacity venue, Still Game has 21 dates in a 12,000 capacity venue – performing, potentially, to 52,000 more people. Still Game wasn’t deemed worthy of a mention in the 100 highlights for 2014. Monty Python has two entries.