Arts & Culture - Opinion

2007 - 2021

Finnegans Waking?

James-Joyce-9358676-2-402Closely after Burns was enlisted to support a Yes vote (followed by a scurry of slightly desperate denunciations) along comes James Joyce. Placing Scotland on the periphery of Europe (but in a good way) in Cultural Weapons (1992) Christopher Harvie writes ‘What we have going for us is, on our side James Joyce’s ‘silence, exile and cunning’. Maybe less of the silence these days but the point remains that being outside the default centralism of functional European bureaucracy, and beyond the degenerative grip of Westminster Mondeoism leaves people more hungry.

This is Joyce’s birthday. Writing in the Guardian Richard Barlow charts his connection with Hogg, Stevenson, MacDiarmid and others, noting:

MacDiarmid’s Joycean aesthetic was part of an ideological programme aimed at cultural and political transformation in Scotland. As Margery McCulloch has noted, early 20th-century Scottish artistic resurgence was designed to revivify the entire national fabric: “What made this post-First World War literary revival movement unique among Scottish cultural movements was the belief of those involved that any regeneration in the nation’s aesthetic culture could not be separated from revival in the nation’s wider social, economic, and political life.”

This holism, or generalism, survives. It’s the complete opposite of the strangely anodyne piece by Robin Hodge we wrote about earlier in the week, where the same authors were cited as an example of the Union’s cultural vibrancy.

What ‘cultural commentators’ need to get to grips with it that the reason the cultural movement in Scotland is backing Yes is that it’s political, and confident. This despite efforts to depoliticise our very existence. This goes back to before Brown. Ross McKibbin wrote:

The aim of the Blair Govt is to depoliticise political action. That legacy of its predecessor, whose aim was also depoliticisation under the Conservatives the average voter w as conceived as a customer, a client, a consumer, an investor  – anything but a politically active citizen. Depoliticiization was to be achieved by a central state whose powers were not only undiminished but in many ways increased. In this respect too, the New Labour is very much the child of Old Labour, many of whose deepest attachments were to the British state and its constitutional apparatus.

What people find really refreshing about the new and renewed cultural voices, from Unstated to the National, is that they are a break from this relentless commercialism. It’s Carslsberg art.

It’s cultural revival that can lift people more than the perplexing search for facts as outlined by Tom Hunter’s poll. It’s culture and arts that will give people a story that will break through more than fact sheets, hyperbole and disinformation. Who tell’s the best story matters. Too tall a tale and nobody will believe you. Too old a tale and no-one will listen.

A few weeks ago Alex Salmond tried to head-off the hyperbole in an interview with James Naughtie by saying ‘there won’t be three taps in your house for oil, water and whisky’. For some of cautious mind the Yes campaigns assertion that we’d be the 8th wealthiest country in the world seems unfathomable. If this is true – so Lesley Riddoch has argued – this leaves people feeling remarkably stupid. It is in fact an obstacle to real change, as it presents people  with a psychological hurdle. Nobody likes to be made to feel foolish. For many people then, putting up the shutters and agreeing (tacitly) with ‘UK:OK’ (‘everything’s fine’) is preferable to saying, this really doesn’t work any more, what are we actually going to do?

So one reason that Yes sounds ridiculous is we don’t want to face up to that lost opportunity, that realisation that we’ve been duped, that feeling like we’ve been stupid. On the other hand the reason that No feels and looks ridiculous is their deliberate inability to articulate a positive message. This is a deliberate tactic. While Yes and the wider indy movements attempts essentially an assets based approach, No is operating a simple scorched earth plan. In this, methodologically they are new school versus old skool.

There is however some commonality between the Scottish and the Anglo-British psyche, and to slip momentarily into Jungian psychobabble, both are rooted in unexpressed, unfulfilled identity, both mired in entities which lack confidence and self-esteem., both doomed to leap from gloomy introspection and triumphalism. The difference, and this is crucial, is that Scots are faintly aware of this condition.

This  oscillation between great and awful (Alba/Albania) is found in ‘Britain-England’ too. The great but curiously absent Tom Nairn has noticed that:

Scotland and Wales have always been known as edgeland dumps peopled by half-humans unable to ‘manage on their own’. Except (that is) when they were being the greatest wee counties upon earth, responsible for nearly all inventions (including the British Empire) and capable of occasionally trashing the ‘old enemy’, on or off the sports-ground. The cringe and the chest-beating went hand-in-hand. Sometimes one was encouraged to pretend this was an interesting way of life.

While, writing in the Independent in (April 2001), Anne McElvoy has written:

The British are either a Cool great power still cruising the grand large, or ‘the worst, the most depressed and self-abasing country going: a blasted landscape of bestial epidemics, rail disasters, fuel crises and the over-long winter’.

The truth is – horrible cliché alert – somewhere in between. What we don’t want to be, but would be far better aspiring to, is the status of an ordinary functioning contemporary European democracy. Okay, qualifier, there’s a lot wrong with many ‘ordinary functioning contemporary European democracies’, but it would be a good start.

The No campaign is destroying itself from the hopelessly gloomy picture it paints. This just doesn’t tally when people look about them and see clever interesting innovative people with a full set of faculties.

What we are now seeing is the No campaign’s slow and steady decline, which is likely to accelerate as the cultural void opens up. With few storytellers (Darling?) and a fragmented and badly timed tale about Devo Max – an option not available – the Unionist plot is twisting in on itself.

Joyce was right, there’s a new Celtic spirit about. We will write poetry with it.

Comments (7)

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  1. Iain says:

    I worry a little about the lack of change since devolution regarding the arts. It is no good saying all will be different after independence, or that we don’t now have the funding we will then What concerns me is that politicians at present seem unwilling to give the lead and promote the ‘high’ arts, as they do in Europe. This does not require funding, only people prepared to lead. Why can’t they behave as if it is a vote winner to back opera, ballet, or literature; painting or classical music?

    1. umbra13 says:

      To be fair to the White Paper, Chapter 9 does contain some such recognition: “We have maintained funding for orchestras, the National Theatre of Scotland, Scottish Opera and Scottish Ballet, which all develop and showcase Scottish talent on a world stage”. More broadly it recognises that “Scotland’s creative communities – our artists, writers, poets, dancers, directors, musicians and designers – provide new insights and drive forward new ideas.” However despite assurances about “not measur(ing) the worth of culture and heritage solely in money”, and talk of diversity, nurturing and nourishment, there is an appearance of “creative industries”, that dread term that obliges anyone in the vicinity of a funded project to squeeze into a suit and posture as a job-creating market-building competition-shredding entrepreneur. The White Paper passes hastily on to broadcasting, lest anyone settle on the shambolic institution of Creative Scotland…

      1. Alasdair Frew-Bell says:

        We could be the richest country on the planet but without renewal of our cultural identity, culture in the wide European sense not the narrow confining British term “the arts”, we could be among the poorest. Our indigenous cultural patrimony is rather frail. For centuries disparaged by the purveyors of anglocentric Unionism as provincial and, in their partisan view, lacking in the qualities associated with a sophisticated cultural expression and consequently marginalized or cringingly ignored by the social element with the resource to promote and develop it, we occupy a cultural space largely occupied by second-hand product. Our minds are “entertained” and de-stimulated by a flood of overwhelmingly anglo-american couch-potato pap with little merit other than it passes some of the time between birth and death. Our national renewal must encompass an intellectual and cultural restoration (rebirth?) of the elements that have made us uniquely Scots. A nerdy, geeky specialist minority knows what those elements are. Thanks to an education system designed to clone compliant Ukanians the majority don’t. The 19th and 20th centuries offer us examples of national reawakening among minority peoples, especially in Europe. As bleary-eyed latecomers to the process we have plenty of models. Kicking the dependency of the toxic 300 year Brit habit and weathering the fantasy-fears of cold-turkey will be the challenging, and thrilling part.

    2. Thom Cross says:

      The Firing of R. Burns

      A VAT Office somewhere in Ayrshire

      Jean: His highness wants to see you. Did you hear me Rob? Take off them dammed ear-phones.

      Rob: Sorry, Angelique Kidjo makes Monday mornings feel like Friday.

      Jean: Look, you have your mints in your desk drawer? Take two; you still have last night’s whisky on you. Be careful he’s Monday-morning crabitt!

      Rob: Thanks for last night. You were superb.

      Jean: Hush! That was last night. Go! And there is another around: a ghosty-man fae south o’ Berwick!

      Rob: Thanks.

      Jean: The mints!

      (SFX Door knocking)
      Wilson: Come!

      Rob: You wanted to see me?

      Wilson: Sit. Rough weekend? Peppermints? I heard a buzz at the Golf club. Your name was mentioned plus a big word, ‘voluptuary’. I had to Google it. You doin’ Jean?

      Rob: You wanted to see me or is this a sermon from some salacious Salcoats golf-club ?

      Wilson: Look! Burns I take 100s of phone calls a day from various angry Ayrshire non-vat paying plonkers. But this morning it was Edinburgh. I absolutely loath indeed I get volcanic when I have to take calls from Edinburgh. Not one but two from the arse-side of Scotland. Two on a Monday morning with your name in both! And now I have some phoney fire-man all the way fae bloody Whitehall! He’s freshing up, just aff the morning shuttle. In my office!! Cause o you!!

      Rob: Mind your blood-pressure.

      Wilson: You have disturbed some disturbingly important people….Edinburgh kind of people: even London ones. One in particular who was once second in this nation, wi the eyebrows, who once I would have called comrade, burnt my ear off this morning about some idiot rhyming letter fae you on Saturday in some posh paper. Not that I read that shite. Watch your tongue with London –man, yu hear me?

      Rob: My tongue is tired this morning.

      Wilson: You were telt… don’t get involved! We took you in aff the social. You sit in a warm office drinking free Government tea and my PA to entertain you. Just keep you heed outa politics this year, was all I asked. But no. You are being paid by the British Government to write wee letters warning Ayrshire bastards tae pay their Vat. Instead you write some shite about dignity and sovereignty!

      Rob: It was a dead poet’s birthday Saturday. I sent out a public birthday card.

      Wilson: You have enemies to fight and a family to feed! Oh, here he comes.

      Smith: Good morning.

      Rob: Morning

      Wilson: This is Mr Richard Smith from Head Office London. I’ll leave him to deal with you.

      Rob: Welcome to Ayrshire. Brought your golf-clubs?

      Smith: Mr Burns, I have a plane to catch. You will have to excuse me if I seem to cut to the chase and be quite frank.

      Rob: Be who you want to be Richard.

      Wilson: Burns!

      Smith: We have a file here. Quite a fat file of your eh writing with your name attached. We also have this red-file with other eh stuff of a more strident political nature that has other names attached that we believe might have come from your pen or lap top or PC or and we are examining this office server as we speak.

      Rob: I…

      Smith: Allow me to finish then you will have time to defend yourself.
      Rob: Defend! Can I call my lawyer? How about my union rep?

      Smith: There have been a series of letters in the Scottish press, some of them in a poetic mode… troubling but harmless. However these are from the big-boys’-London media indicating a more determined political neo-seditious approach, suggesting public action against the policies of our elected Coalition Government ….in Westminster. Are you this Jock Thompson the author of this trash?

      Rob: No comment.

      Smith: Then we have here on my personal I-Pad a very recent essay length piece found in some neo-seditious on-line rabble –rouser called Bella Caledonia, penned or clicked under the pathetic pseudonym of Bob Rivers: you of course: along with other writing of a neo-seditious nature from others Small, Gunn and others of that ilk…

      Rob: I…

      Smith: I will finish! This particular scurrilous piece is dedicated to one J. Reid who was known to the authorities!

      Rob: It was a tribute to the great-man on his birthday!

      Smith: In which you praised his illegal neo-seditious activity!

      Rob: But…

      Smith: This is no ordinary year Mr Burns as you are well aware. Your association with this Yes movement is quite evident. Yet you take our British shilling.

      Rob: But…

      Smith: But now we see you are on the platform of some neo-seditious Radical Independence bunch of eh radicals in Glasgow. This is your pic, are we right?

      Rob: We are right! My neo-seditious friends asked me to speak at this neo-seditious meeting attended by thousands of folk from across neo-seditious Scotland many of whom read (neo-seditiously) Bella Caledonia as part of a neo-seditious Scottish tradition called the agency of the democratic intellect.

      Smith: We are familiar with agencies, Mr Burns. You have accepted authorship of this political activist neo
      Rob: Seditious!

      Smith: Neo–insurrectionist writing! We will inform your Scottish office of our review and let Edinburgh take its own disciplinary action. Good morning. (Door closes)

      Wilson: You idiot! Write shite! You are suspended immediately, while investigations continue. If we find your writing on our Government’s computers, you will be fired. Let politics pay your bills! Let your’ comrades gie you charity!

      Rob: I am worried about you. Who are you? Look, don’t worry. I’ve fired myself…OK? There’s a job I have to do. Bye.

  2. Paddy Scott Hogg says:


  3. Iain says:

    Some great stuff. Though anyone who uses the term ‘creative industry’ ought to be condemned to identify a ‘non-creative’ one, thus exposing their ignorance.

    However the point I wanted to make has not yet been properly addressed, that is, that UK politicians feel unable to appear at the ‘high’ arts for fear of losing votes. My kind of independent Scotland would be a country – like for example Lithuania – where politicians appear at such events to show they want to win votes, and to demonstrate their belief in the redeeming power of the arts.

    In addition, they must show that the arts are for all – just as Nye Bevan did in 1947 when he insisted that the Royal Opera and Ballet would be subsidised conditional on a sufficient number of seats being available at half-a-crown each – anyone else remember that coin?

  4. Ken MacColl says:

    I was making my way back to the bus after the Calton Hill rally in September when I paused for a rest on the low wall outside St Andrew’s House. It was there on the large monitor close by that I heard and watched Alan Bissett reciting his poem “Vote Britain” -if you have not heard it google it .When he finished the cheers of approval could be heard from the hill and spontaneous applause broke out from the crowds close to where I was sitting. and the It brought back to me the vision of Hugh McDiarmid of Scottish crowds rushing to purchase the latest poem from a prominent bard.
    Alan Bissett repeated that performance to an enthusiastic crowded St Andrew’s celebration in Oban in November.
    There is hope for us yet!

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