There’s more to life than books you know, but not much more…

You rarely hear the question asked; ‘What is Scottish music?’ or ‘What is Scottish film?’ The same goes for theatre, painting, or even comedy. In all these examples the question of their Scottishness or otherwise has long since mattered less than the argument which begins ‘Is it any good?’ But with Scottish writing there is all too often that vexed question ‘What is Scottish literature?’ and it’s one which is, to be frank, a pain in the arse.

It’s a question that has complex roots. The problem is one of language, politics and education, all of which have combined to confuse Scots, because the problem mainly lies with self-perception. In his latest novel, the Saltire Award winning Kieron Smith, boy, James Kelman looks at the pre-teen life of a boy growing up in Glasgow in the 1950’s. It is a brilliant evocation of childhood, and Kieron’s experience in the classroom is one which, I believe, still holds true today:

Ye had to speak right all the time, Oh it is not cannay it is cannot, you must not say didnay it is did not. If it is the classroom it is not the gutter. It is the Queen’s English, only you must speak the Queen’s English. 1

These confusing linguistic standards are made even more apparent outside of school where Kieron’s mother tells him to speak ‘correctly’ while his father and his grandparents speak in exactly the way he is being told is some how inferior:

People that talked like me were just keelies and did not go to good schools. That was what my maw said. 2

Putting aside the political and social questions that arise from such a situation, it is one which is bound to cause cultural confusion, but here’s my attempt at working it through. Those of us educated in Scotland are taught English as literature and are encouraged to speak English in the school. The majority of texts taught to us are English in terms of literature and language. So when we are given a text that is Scots in terms of literature and/or language then the confusion is understandable. Is it just a piece of English lit with an accent?  Is it ‘inferior’ to those other texts we have been taught? Does the language used make it less aesthetically worthy? Is Scots a language or dialect? Is it only being taught to be politically correct? All these questions have been, or still are, applied to Scottish literature taught in schools, colleges and universities and such an attitude bleeds in to society in general.

This situation doesn’t arise with American literature, Irish Literature, Australian literature etc. The identity of native literatures is strong, and necessary, and few would attempt to say that William Burroughs or Jack Kerouac were not leading figures of American literature, or that Beckett and Joyce were not writing in the field of Irish literature. All four of these examples can be taught on Eng Lit courses as well as American Lit or Irish Lit courses, and there are few, if any, worries if the language used is English, American, Irish or purely dialect. They are taught because they are seen as having value. Is it any good?

But the attitude to Scottish literature is changing. The profile of Scottish writing is higher than at any time previously, both abroad, but perhaps more importantly, at home. Book festivals are thriving, readings are common place and, sometimes, well attended, and it appears as if literature is fully integrated into the nation’s cultural conversation as never before. In the last couple of years there has been The Ballad of the Books project which saw writers and musicians in collaboration. There have been theatre productions of Louise Welsh’s Tamburlaine Must Die, Andrew O’Hagan’s Be Near Me and James Hogg’s masterpiece The Private Memoirs and Confessions of a Justified Sinner and various Scottish novels have been made into films or TV series. You can argue the reasons for this new confidence in Scottish writing, when it began, or even if it exists at all, and perhaps we will in the months ahead. However it appears as if people are finally concentrating on the what, how and why; three of the most important questions to be asked (whether reading or otherwise), rather than worrying about who belongs where; to my mind one of the least important.

That’s what this column will be discussing. What is it, how was it written and why. And, of course, ‘Is it any good?’ On the first Monday of each month I’ll be looking at a different novel, writer, poet or short story collection with the aim of working out what the answer to those questions are, or at least enjoying arguing all points of view. I’ll concentrate on modern and contemporary stuff such as Ali Smith, Iain Banks, A.L. Kennedy and James Robertson as that’s where my own area of interest mainly lies, but I won’t ignore any writers without good reason. So if your tastes are more Sir Walter Scott or RL Stevenson than Alasdair Gray, Ewan Morrison or Andrew O’Hagan we can tear into them all. There’ll be no restrictions on what is under discussion, and any suggestions will be given due consideration, although I’m afraid this judge’s decision must be final.

The first novel I’ll be looking at is Alan Warner’s 1995 debut Morvern Callar (later made into a fine film by Lynne Ramsay). Warner became known as part of the ‘chemical generation’ of writers, a term that was used to market a group of  disparate novelists and poets as publishers tried to cash in on the success of Irvine Welsh’s Trainspotting, a novel that will be discussed in future.  Such categorisation really does Alan Warner no service, and I think he has gone on to write consistently interesting novels (something that cannot necessarily be said about Welsh, but more of that another day). Morvern Callar is a book that I developed a full relationship with, and, like many of my relationships, it was perhaps doomed from the start. At first I was smitten, recommending it heartily to all and sundry. Then after a few re-readings aspects of the book, particularly with reference to the title character, started to worry me until eventually I really began to loath the book. That journey from infatuation to outright hostility will be the basis of next month’s column, but suffice to say it’s a book that has had a profound effect on me so I’m pretty sure it will prove of interest to all that read it. I’d love to know what you think as fourteen years on from buying it, I’m still not sure if it’s any good.

Alistair

Notes:
1. James Kelman, Kieron Smith, boy Penguin Books Ltd 2008, page 207
2. Ibid page 301

Buy Morvern Callar here

Image Credit: Blazing Fruit

Comments

  1. Sorry for the confusion FranktheTank. There definately is Scottish Literature, the point I was hopeful of making was that we surely have got to the point that we don’t have to try and justify it. As someone who has taught the subject at Uni it is amazing that people still think Scottish Literature is Robert Burns and nothing else, or that Irvine Welsh, Walter Scott and Christopher Brookmyre are just to be covered in ‘English’ classes. That’s from Scottish students by the way, overseas students have no such problems.

    The problem is a confusion between English as a language and England and Scotland as places. Just because the majority of Scots write in English or close to it doesn’t make them ‘English’ Lit. As I say Americans study American writers proudly, and would balk at them being thought of as English. I hope Scots have, or soon will have, the confidence in their rich and varied literature to do the same.

    Hope that clears up a bit. I genuinely beleive that there is still an idea that because it is ‘Scot Lit’ it is somehow inferior. But I hope I’m wrong, and I think that is changing for the better.

  2. I’m hoping you can address my question in a future column… whatever happened to Gordon Legge? One of my favourite writers and he seems to have dropped off the face of the planet.

  3. Ok I see your point. I think. It’s an interesting issue with wider implciations. Looking forward to grappling with this concept next time

  4. Aye Billy, Legge’s ‘The Shoe’ was a terrific novel. He was never as popular as Welsh, Warner and Banks but I think his stuff, particulary the short stories, were as good as anyone else writing in Scotland in the 90’s. The last I heard he was writer-in-residence at Edinburgh Royal hospital. I was thinking of looking at some of the lesser known ‘chemical generation’ of writers at some point in the future, including Legge, Duncan McLean and Kevin Williamson amongst others, so keep ’em peeled.

  5. Just went to have a week look for Morvern Caller at my local Borders bookstore and was told that its only available online and that it might not be published in the US? So I just bought it used from the amazon link from $0.74!!!

  6. I would imagine that may be the best source for many of the books that we look at. I hope you enjoy Morven Cheryl.

  7. looking forward to hearing your thoughts on Morvern Callar. For mind Warner was criminally ignored in his work after it (at least in the diaspora) where Welsh was embraced as the voice of young Scotland.

  8. Couldn’t agree more eggy. For me Warner was always the more interesting writer, but the global impact of Trainspotting, both book and film, was such that everything else was kinda overshadowed. I’ve had students from Japan, Norway, Poland and elsewhere who came to Scotland to study because of their love of Trainspotting. The nice thing is that you can then introduce them to other writers who are at least the equal of Welsh. But all of Warner’s work is worth reading, wheras Welsh’s mid-late stuff is, in my opinion, not only poor, but actually pretty dodgy. I think there’s a few reasons for this, but that’s for another day.

  9. Just bought Morvern Callar online, excited for the post mortem on ‘ere. If may, I think we should call this segment of the site “Scottish Fiction” a song that fused scottish band Idlewild with Eddie Morgan’s excellent poetry circa 2002(?)

    Cheers!

    PS Alistair, my best mate at School’s Dad may well be in your department – Richard Cronin, say Hi from Allan Rooney – I actually met Eddie Morgan at one of Richard and Dorothy’s parties (I was a wee lad, probably the year of Arun and I’s Highers).

  10. Hi Aldo, that particular collaboration apparently was the inspiration for the ‘Ballad of the Books’ project from a couple of years ago. I’m sure you are aware of it, but if not it’s really essential to check out for lovers of music and literature. It brought together some of our finest musicians (King Creosote, Norman Blake, Emma Pollok, James Yorkston and many more, including Idlewild) and paired then with a selection of Scotland’s best writers such as Alasdair Gray, Louise Welsh, Ian Rankin, A.L. Kennedy amongst others.

    If there was the demand I could do a column which dicussed the project and looked at those involved in greater detail. If you haven’t heard any of the resulting tracks then you should be able to still sample them @http://www.chemikal.co.uk/ballads

    Richard Cronin is up the road from me in the EngLit department, but we sometimes cross paths and if I see him around I’ll pass on your best. As for the name change, I’ll take your suggestion under consideration; but no promises as I’ve already grown quite fond of the original.

    Cheers, and enjoy Morvern

  11. Looking forward to more of these columns. I was also a fan of Gordon Legge and was wondering what happened to him. I know he was writing for the Scotsman at one point but, if I remember correctly, his peg was made shoogly because he only want to cover Bairns games (a win at last today!!).

    Anybody else think the Sopranos was Warner’s best work? Not as “cool” as Morvern, but just … better?

    As for Welsh, I look forward to a future column discussing why he never quite re-scaled the peaks of Trainspotting. For the record, I think Trainspotting is a phenomenal piece of work.

    1. Because he was off the smack?

    2. Because he put a solid 10 years of inspiration and effort into Trainspotting? The old second-album problem?

    3. Because he believed the media when they told him why he was good and so amped up the controversial shit instead of focusing on what he was actually good at – characters?

    4. Or it is simply, as Rents says in the movie, summarizing Sick Boy’s unifying theory of life, that “we all get old and then we can’t hack it any more?”

    p.s. I did think the Kingdom of Fife novella was a return to form of sorts, but nestled in between some right keech.

  12. You’ve definitely got a point about The Sopranos, and I’ll touch on that when looking at Morvern Callar. But briefly; I think it’s because you beleive the characters and their voices in The Sopranos. I think one of the problems in the first book is that it’s Warner’s voice in the mouth of Morvern. By the time he gets to The Sopranos (which I agree is probaby the more enjoyable read) that is not the case so much, although there are still problems… but I’ve said too much. I look forward to gabbing about it after the next column.

    As for Welsh, I couldn’t have put it better myself. Trainspotting is one of the best books of the second part of the 20th century, but his decline is marked. In order of relevance I think 3, 2, 4 and 1. But that discussion is perhaps for another day.