One of the main draws to me of the Edinburgh Independent and Radical Book Fair was a talk titled Arts of Resistance: Poets, Portraits and Landscapes of Modern Scotland, by Alexander Moffat and Alan Riach. Alexander Moffat is a former professor of painting at the Glasgow School of Art and Alan Riach is the present occupant of the chair in Scottish Literature at Glasgow University. Their talk was about their book of the same title, and they authors began by explaining it’s birth.
Both on a trip through China with other artists and poets, they were asked by an Arts College to talk about Scotland as a cultural idea. The hall, full at 9pm, had an audience that continued to grow throughout the night, and the two found themselves still discussing Scotland and its culture at midnight. A quite amazing experience, and one I am sure you will not find in Scotland. This talk inspired Moffat and Riach to try to rebalanced the understanding of Scottish culture within Scotland.
The aim of the book is to bring the main figures from Scotland’s culture into much greater focus and it does not treat the arts in isolation. The book looks mainly at visual art and poetry throughout the modernist period, with Hugh MacDiarmid as the catalyst of a cultural renaissance in Scotland, a renaissance that some may argue has not yet finished.
Moffat and Riach both felt that one of the main reasons why Scots themselves remain so ignorant of their own diverse and different culture is due to a lack of Scottish art, culture and history on the curriculum. While I would in no way argue with this assessment I would also add that particularly in contemporary Scotland that the media is just as big, if not bigger influence.
As the UK media is in the large part London based, very little that we watch on television, listen to on the radio (apart from “regional” stations), or read in or papers acknowledges the cultural diversity in the British Isles. The most recent condescension to regionality is on the news. Presenters have started saying “in England and Wales” after every headline, which only serves to remind Scotland (and Northern Ireland) how badly they are catered for by “national” news programmes. The BBC currently spends 3% of the license fee on Scottish programming while we have 9% of the population. The very fact that there is Scottish specific programming i.e. no one outside of Scotland is interested in Scottish culture (similar for other “regions”), tells us a lot about the mindset behind these decisions.
However this complaint is not, as some would have you believe, a nationalist one. I know plenty of people from the North of England, or from areas such as Devon and Cornwall, who feel equally frustrated about having their individual cultures at worst ignored, at best the butt of the joke.
I found the talk inspiring, and was slightly disappointed that the question and answer session had to be cut short, if only we were in China, it could have gone on until midnight.
Riach and Moffat managed to create a picture of Scotland in the last hundred of so years which was teaming with creativity and inspiration. A Scotland which was much more than a small country in isolation, but included international influences. And, more importantly, a country that can still mine this rich seam into the future, hopefully developing more talented writers and artists who are resistant to the homogenisation of culture.
With a head buzzing with ideas afterwards one comment has stuck with me. Alexander Moffat, the visual artist of the two said that the artists were jealous of the poets, after all how do you pain in Scots. However the conversation always started with the poets, because in Scotland’s culture it is the poets who have always taken the lead.
Poets of Scotland, you have a lot to live up to. Start living!