Arcades – The 1940s and 1950s
If a strictly non-professional historian looks back from the colourful, complex, multimedia-supplied early years of the twenty-first century, the two decades of British history stretching over the 1940s and 1950s tend to be obscured by a kind of smog. In this slightly 1066 and All That view, there are the hectic 1920s and 1930s – depression, bright young things, the threat of war – and then the 1960s, the heady days of les évènements, the Age of Aquarius, the Beatles. In between lies a repressed grey world. News of the great events in World War Two and the Cold War is doled out in cut-glass accents on the radio, and later, grudgingly, on black and white television, to a population queueing for rations, utility goods and snoek or other such fish (or processed meat) substitutes for the food they were used to pre-war.
If such a view of history is inaccurate, the parallel view of Scottish literature during the 1940s and 1950s may be almost equally ill-judged. These two decades are often given fairly short shrift in literary histories, as if, after the great days of the Scottish Literary Renaissance in the 1920s and 1930s, Scottish literature is waiting for the outburst of new writing which began in the 1960s and swept onwards from there. A second wave of the Renaissance is acknowledged during the 1940s and 1950s, but there is a difference:
Renaissance values seemed to many to come dangerously close to many aspects
of German National Socialism of the ’30s and ’40s […] Suspicion […] persisted
long after 1945, and this, together with disillusion and scepticism stemming
from the prevailing drab urban greyness of the ’50s, led to a rejection by writers
of the values and beliefs of ‘Renaissance’ writers.1
Great works like Neil Gunn’s The Silver Darlings (1941), Sydney Goodsir Smith’s Under the Eildon Tree (1948) and MacDiarmid’s In Memoriam James Joyce (1955) are thus seen as singular landmarks in a rather depressed and uneventful literary scene, in the ‘drab urban greyness’ of a world recovering from war.
But in fact there has seldom been a livelier or more varied period in Scottish literature, and that is true in all the genres – poetry, fiction and drama.