Alasdair Gray has been unfairly accused of anti-Englishness, but his points are valid
I had prepared myself to experience some discomfort before I read “Settlers and Colonists”, the essay by Alasdair Gray that appears to have loosened the corsetry of Scotland’s delicate arts and media establishment. Gray’s work is included in an anthology published by Word Power Books nine days ago entitled Unstated: Writers on Scottish Independence. Such has been the apoplexy it has engendered among the nation’s cultural Sanhedrin I imagined he must have called for some sort of anti-English Kristallnacht, or worse: demanded the lowering of the Union flag on all Scottish government buildings, save on David Beckham’s birthday.
Here I must declare that Alasdair Gray and I have a bit of form between us. The shadow of his majestic 1981 novel Lanark: A Life in Four Books hung over my utterly feckless university career and probably helped put it out of its misery. What was I doing drinking and empathising with other duffel-coated dilettantes when I ought to have been saving Glasgow from the tide of greed, corruption and lust that Gray had prophesied in Lanark? No other book has unnerved me as much as this one nor conveyed such a powerful sense of time and place. It haunts me still and, despite several re-readings, I expect I will go to my grave never having unravelled all the threads of its dark magic.
The settlers and colonists referred to in the title of Gray’s essay are some English senior administrators who have flourished in Scottish public life, principally in the arts, and whom he holds responsible for a failure to “help creativity shine at home and abroad”, an epithet contained in the lofty mission statement of Creative Scotland. Gray constructs a thesis that draws important distinctions between “colonists” and “settlers”. Colonists are characterised by their refusal to engage fully with Scotland, accompanied by a demonstrable aversion to promoting indigenous Scottish art; settlers by their long-term commitment to Scotland and an eagerness to stimulate growth among Scottish artists.
For venturing such an opinion, Gray has been branded a “disgrace” and stands accused of being “anti-English” and fomenting racism. Yet how can he be branded “anti-English” for declaring his desire to see more of them, not less? “English settlers,” he states, “are as much a part of Scotland as Asian restaurateurs and shopkeepers or the Italians who brought us fish and chips.”
Anti-Englishness in Scotland depresses me. Whenever it occurs, I feel that our country is diminished by it and is made to look as though it is insecure and too eager to blame others for our misfortunes. I love English culture and English sport and, virtually without exception, I have found the English people I have encountered to be generous, humorous and affectionate, qualities I rate higher than most others. They do not take life too seriously. If Scotland is to become independent, it is my sincere wish that many more will choose to live and work here. Often, they save us from ourselves. Gray’s essay is not in the slightest anti-English; to detect even a hint of it you would require the services of the Jodrell Bank telescope.
Indeed, there is very little in it that could even be construed as criticism of English “colonists” in the arts, the sector of which Gray has most experience. Instead, he reserves most of his disgust for those Scottish local politicians and municipal chief executives who have deemed no Scots to be capable of administering our most significant arts institutions. If WB Yeats and Lady Gregory had displayed such a high-handed dismissal of native talent when they established Dublin’s Abbey theatre in 1904, argues Gray, it is doubtful if Irish art and culture would be anywhere near as vibrant as it is today.
Perhaps the fiercest criticism of Gray has arisen from his decision to cite Vicky Featherstone, the outgoing director of the National Theatre of Scotland, as a salient example of an English “colonist”. Featherstone has been a splendid chief of this body during her six-year tenure, in which she has been responsible for staging work that has resonated globally. Yet her post makes her a high-profile figure and she is simply being naive if, as she revealed in an interview last week, she felt “embattled and defensive” at previously aired criticism of her perceived lack of enthusiasm for Scottish work. She is an admirable and gifted woman who will get over it.
Gray is not suggesting that all of Scotland’s top administrative posts must be filled by Scots. Indeed, a senior appointee who has not emerged from the turbid waters of Scotland’s cultural expanse will thus arrive bearing no malice nor be compromised by tribal loyalties. He is simply asking why so few Scots have occupied the plum positions and expressing a preference for English candidates who want to stay for the long haul.
When I first read Settlers and Colonists I felt a growing sense of shame, but not because it in any way defiled Scotland. Instead, I was reminded yet again how little I know of my country’s artistic and cultural heritage. The most important ballot in which any of us will ever participate is only two years away. We won’t be able to change its outcome back and forth every five years. As such, it demands of me that I increase my knowledge and understanding of what Scotland is, what it might become and my place in it. And it summons me to engage in the difficult and emotional issues that, of necessity, must be addressed.
Alasdair Gray’s essay elegantly and succinctly introduced a crucial question that Scotland must debate: how important to the health and wellbeing of the nation is it to provide the means and the opportunity to express ourselves artistically and culturally?
Among those who railed against Gray last week were people I know and admire and I am assuming each of them read his essay in its entirety. So I would simply ask that they reread it with a little more care and due diligence. And I would entreat them this time to leave their agendas to the side.