Alasdair Gray’s contention that there are too many English people working in Scottish culture jobs reveals a disappointingly parochial attitude
It’s terrible when the big boys start fighting like kids. It’s particularly terrible when the big boys are cultural giants, Renaissance men, people who have helped their compatriots to know and understand ourselves, who have inspired us and delighted us. But the writer and artist Alasdair Gray is in a scrap with the writer and artist John Byrne, and it is, as they used to say in Glasgow, and may well still, “a total redneck”. (trans: “very embarrassing.”)
Gray started it. In an essay he contributed to a book about Scottish independence, he accused English people working in the Scottish arts of being “settlers” or “colonists”, asking why so many of them secured jobs in Scottish arts administration. He mentioned in particular Vicky Featherstone, who became artistic director of the National Theatre of Scotland (NTS) when it was first set up eight years ago, and is about to move to the Royal Court in London. Featherstone has responded by saying that she has generally found anti-English criticisms directed at her to be upsetting. Byrne is the most eminent of artists so far to speak in Featherstone’s defence, praising her record at the NTS and saying that it is “healthy” to have English and Scottish arts administrators crossing the border. Byrne is right, of course. It’s appalling that he feels he has to make such points at all.
The sad thing is that the sort of parochialism displayed by Gray has been around in Scotland for a long time. As the child of a Scottish father and an English mother, I learned from an early age that my English blood made me an outsider. Resentment against the English was strong. At the age of five or six, I was told my mother was taking the houses and jobs that should by rights have been going to locals. At that time, my mum didn’t even have a job, or a house. She was a mother and housewife, living in a council flat with her family of three Scots.
But just by breathing Scottish air, she was, apparently, stealing something that wasn’t hers, playing her own small part in a process of pillage that had been going on for centuries, making England rich and powerful while Scotland stayed small and puny. The odd thing was that I accepted all this. I was an ardent nationalist, looking around at the opportunities that existed for me in Scotland, seeing few, and signing up to the argument that the English were responsible. I loved my English aunt, uncles and cousins. I loved my mum. But I hated “the English”. People did.
Scotland is a far more confident and vibrant country now than it was then. It has less reason to feel victimised, more reason to believe that you solve your own problems and deficits rather than throwing bitter recriminations at others. So it’s a shame that part of that expansion has been the inflation of accusations against the English thieves. In Gray’s eyes – and he has his supporters – they steal bigger prizes than council flats now. Gray’s fellow nationalist, the writer and publisher Kevin Williamson, has called for a “social audit” of arts admin jobs in Scotland, to see how many are being done by English people.
It was strange, growing up in a culture of blame, and it’s horrible to see that such eminent people still want to promote that atmosphere, especially when they did so much to challenge it. The Scottish arts did indeed seem moribund in the 1960s and 70s, and it was easy to point the finger of blame at the dominance of England.
But the first time I became excited by the idea that Scottish people could still say important things about Scotland, in Scotland, was when I was taken on a school trip to the Citizen’s Theatre in Glasgow, to see a play from Byrne’s Slab Boys trilogy. I loved all of it – the experience (my first) of professional theatre, the play itself, the programme, which carried beautiful illustrations of the play’s characters. Byrne, with that series of plays, inspired not just me, but a whole generation. Scotland was better off telling its own stories than it was just repeating the story of victimhood at the hands of the English that it loved so much – too much.
Likewise, I found a copy of Alasdair Gray’s Lanark lying around in a flat when I was about 19 years old. I’d never heard of the book or its author, but there it was – studded with praise, adorned with Gray’s own stunning illustrations, and, I quickly found as I started to read, mesmerisingly clever and brilliant. The best thing of all was that it soothed a worry that had nagged at me since I was quite young. I loved reading. But I’d ask myself again and again why Scottish people didn’t seem to write books for each other any more. The country had a huge literary heritage, but only Muriel Spark was producing contemporary literature, hardly any of it actually set in Scotland. Gray, like Byrne, was getting on with things, rather than blaming the English.
At that time, there was truth in the blame-the-English narrative. When Granta’s first Best of Young British Novelists list came out in 1983, it famously included many writers that would come to dominate the literary landscape – Martin Amis, Salman Rushdie, Ian McEwan, Julian Barnes. But there were no Scots on the list. Gray was by then already too old, as Lanark had taken him 30 years from start to publication. But James Kelman wasn’t. When you think about the number of world-class young writers who have emerged from Scotland since that time – Irvine Welsh (Kevin Williamson first published Trainspotting), AL Kennedy, Janice Galloway, Ian Rankin, Andrew O’Hagan, Alan Warner, to name but a few, you can only conclude that there was indeed a time pretty recently when Britain meant England, and the English weren’t peering up north much in search of talent and creativity.
They do now, though. Culturally, Scotland punches way above its weight. Like many Scots, I came south looking for experience and opportunity. I’m delighted traffic is now going in the opposite direction. Scotland was, for a long time, a country that people left – not just for England, but for Canada, America or Australia. The work of people such as Gray and Byrne started a cultural renaissance that had people heading for Scotland in search of inspiration, rather than having to leave in order to find it. That’s a fantastic achievement, in a few short decades, and it’s pathetic that Gray sees it as a problem to be decried, not a success to be celebrated.
Worst of all, at the back of my mind there’s a nagging worry that all this is personal. Gray, I know, was disappointed Featherstone and the NTS didn’t want to stage his Scotland-set reworking of Faust. I can’t help thinking that if she’d taken it on, and made a success of it, he’d have been less likely to single her out for attack. Likewise, it could be said that my own defence of Featherstone is inspired because she commissioned work from me, on the play Enquirer. Scotland is a small country. Sometimes, it seems very small indeed.