Magazine article The Spectator

By All Means Criticise

Magazine article The Spectator

By All Means Criticise

Article excerpt

SCOTLAND is, I'm told, 'cool'. This comes as rather a surprise, but it seems to be the case. Edinburgh, abandoning her generations-old impersonation of a maiden aunt, is hailed as one of the most exciting cities in Europe. Visitors flock here, especially young ones. Hogmanay in Edinburgh is now so popular that you require a ticket to enter the city centre after 4 p.m. on 31 December. It's true that what some young Europeans are most impressed with belongs to the shortbread-tin and tartantammy Scotland that we are supposed to have left behind as we enter the brave new age of devolution. Two charming girls, both students, one German, the other Swiss, assured me recently that eightsome reels and Strip-the-Willows were 'in'. So was getting married in the kilt. `Do Bavarians get married in lederhosen?' I asked; they giggled at the absurd suggestion.

So, is this new 'coolness' evidence of a Scottish cultural renaissance? Some would say so, rather loudly. It is not, they would tell you, just a matter of the books being written, paintings painted, parliaments built, films conceived (and sometimes made) in Scotland; it is not just a matter of Scottish rock bands and rock stars, standup comics, models and celebrity chefs, though all these can be supplied to order. More important is that the national mood, which has brought about devolution and may lead to quasi-independence within the EU, is culture-led.

There is something in this. While it would be wrong to claim that Scottish culture is now self-standing, indifferent to London opinion - for one thing, most of the best Scottish writers are published in London, not Edinburgh - the old feeling that a Scottish artist needed to be validated elsewhere, usually in London, before he could be granted recognition at home, has gone. This is a sign of self-confidence.

It doesn't yet run very deep, however. Its fragility is demonstrated by the feebleness of criticism in Scotland. Oral criticism in bars and pubs is sharp enough, but what gets on the page is mostly as mild and cosy as afternoon tea in a hotel lounge. It is as if the Scottish artist is still thought to be such a rare and delicate plant, he must be tenderly nurtured. No writer, painter or actor is likely to get any criticism of value here at home. The results may be seen in the careers of writers like Irvine Welsh and Alan Warner. Both began with works of some originality which were excessively praised. Both have gone on to write worse books which are still praised. Warner's third novel, The Sopranos, has just been awarded the Saltire Book of the Year Prize; it is a feeble little thing. But why work at writing better when you get prizes for such stuff?

Talk of a cultural renaissance suggests there was an earlier death in the family. It's hard to see when that was supposed to be. There are good Scottish writers today; there have been good Scottish writers for a long time. It would require more bravado than judgment to argue that Scottish poetry is in a healthier state than it was 50 years ago, when MacDiarmid was the sun around whom notable planets like Sydney Goodsir Smith, Sorley Maclean, Robert Garioch and Norman MacCaig revolved. There is no short-story writer now to match George Mackay Brown, and, as for the novel, whatever we have done in the Eighties and Nineties doesn't surpass the achievements of Linklater, Gunn, Mitchison, Spark, Kennaway and Jenkins in the Forties and Fifties. …

Search by... Author
Show... All Results Primary Sources Peer-reviewed

Oops!

An unknown error has occurred. Please click the button below to reload the page. If the problem persists, please try again in a little while.