America’s publishing scene is a bit like the current Scottish one, in that regard. It likes to see itself in its books. Whereas in the past, we in Scotland have prided ourselves on how international we are, in literary terms, associating our publishing output with European literary traditions and exploring themes that are universal before they are local, now it’s a case, more and more, of being “Scottish” through and through.
It’s what a lot of us feared would happen when the great Dr Gavin Wallace of Creative Scotland, formerly The Scottish Arts Council, died. A whole literary sensibility seemed to die with him. A new agenda-driven notion of Scottish letters seemed to rise up in his wake, politically motivated and not so much interested in what’s out there as what’s in here.
That’s not necessarily a bad thing. Smaller countries need to stand up for their writers and artists – though I do wonder sometimes if, in our desire to protect and promote, we may be losing sight of what’s really, really good in favour of what’s really, really “relevant” – to use the sort of terminology employed by the various funding bodies there to support education and the arts.
But America has no excuse for that, being so enormous and so culturally dominant already. Still that phrase “Great American Novel” seems to say it all. Even here in cosmopolitan Manhattan, where I’m staying this week, there’s that feeling of the great weight of “Amm-URRICAH!” – as the poet Ezra Pound had it – at one’s back. An America that has a Donald Trump roaming around in it sending out brass band announcements and tweets all the way through the so-called “Land of the Free”, setting off a whole wave of America-this and America-that in the bookshops and across the media in general, as though the country dare not risk thinking about anything else lest one’s either unpatriotic or not paying attention enough to all the dangers he’s setting off.
It’s turning my thoughts back to Dundee, this kind of thinking: about whether it’s important to blow one’s horn or not, whether one should go about trumpeting one’s identity from the rooftops. Or whether the very best things tend to show up anyway, it’s just that they’re not part of some dominant culture or other, they’re just excellent for their own sake.
One of the very, very best things about Dundee – in a city that has so many wonderful things including a fabulous new museum that is now taking shape down on the waterfront and looking every bit as magnificent as the Discovery, the famous ship that went to Antarctica and back and that sits beside it – goes untrumpeted, as far as I can see. The Average White Band.
My family and I had Pick Up the Pieces turned up as loud as it would go the other day and were dancing in the kitchen to a whole welter of their fabulous songs – and really, how many people in America even know The Average White Band aren’t American? People I’ve asked here, on the Upper West Side where I’m staying, and downtown too, all think they’re from Detroit or Chicago. They sound so damn funky that, at their height – and just before the tragic death of their amazing and utterly self-effacing drummer, Robbie McIntosh – the same song we were dancing to in the kitchen, as well as the album it had come from, had topped the Billboard charts across America.
Even James Brown and his band came a-calling after them; couldn’t quite believe those dudes with the big sound and beat on-the-one weren’t his fellow black soulsters from South Carolina, not a bunch of white Scottish guys from Dundee.
I’ve been asking my university for as long as I’ve been in post if we can’t give all the remaining Average White Band members an honorary degree! For goodness’ sake, I say, we gave old Nick Cave one – and when I made my speech to him, one graduation ceremony a few years ago, yes, I talked about what a poet Nick Cave is, and about his dark and wonderful imagination – but Alan Gorrie and Malcolm Duncan and everyone in The Average White Band are poets, too, of the dancing feet and rhythms of syncopation variety.
Those tracks of theirs are as groovy now as they were back in the 70s and just think what they could do for Dundee, as representatives of our university and city, is my cry. We trumpet their wonderfulness for them, is the idea, since the band themselves has always been so modest and retiring that no one seems to know, even when they’re turning up the volume of “AWB” that this music didn’t grow up on the banks of the Mississippi but was born down by waters of the silvery Tay.
Our past rector at the university, Brian Cox, would have helped me in this mission, I know. I saw him – another famous Scot who doesn’t keep shouting about how fabulous he is though everyone knows he’s one of our most important actors – in Manhattan earlier this week as there was the premiere of his film about Winston Churchill. My word but he is good.
I know people talk about actors “inhabiting the role” – but a lot of them really just act the part of themselves, or do they same sort of thing, over and over. Brian Cox is that strange, genius protean creature: the character actor. His Winston Churchill really is, well, Winston Churchill.
“You’ll be telling me he’s from Dundee next,” one of my American friends asked, just after we’d been playing Work to Do and singing along to what I am now calling, here in America, the Tayside sound.
“Well, yeah” I replied, about Brian. “Actually, he is.”