BOOK FESTIVAL REVIEW – Alasdair Gray

Alasdair Gray, Baillie Gifford Main Theatre, Tuesday 14th August 2013, 15.00

By Mark Bolsover

The event, in the Book Festival’s main Baillie Gifford Theatre was well-attended and very much-anticipated.

The chair was the somewhat brusque and business-like Director of the Edinburgh International Book Festival, Nick Barley. Gray, as ever, was charming and eccentric.

Whilst the event provided the opportunity to discuss Gray’s recent and forthcoming publications and artwork, in essence it focussed on the fraught subject of the controversy surrounding his recent essay [.], in which he made the, now infamous, distinction between English people living in Scotland falling under the broad aegis of two terms: ‘settlers’ and ‘colonists’, largely in response to the debate surrounding the structure, purpose and governance of Creative Scotland, the resignation of Andrew Dixon as its chief in 2012, and the question of the appointment of English people to top arts management positions in Scotland over their Scottish counterparts.

The structure of the event took the form of a preliminary interview regarding the essay, followed by a broader interview regarding Gray’s work and a final question and answer session with the audience, covering both subjects (but, again, primarily the controversial essay). Though the transitions were rather curt and abrupt, this structure worked well.

When asked by Barley if his use of the terms ‘settlers’ and ‘colonists’ had been intended to be deliberately incendiary, Gray answered with a simple and emphatic ‘no’ and denied the legitimacy of the controversy surrounding the essay.

Barley asked Gray to provide a clear, simple definition of the terms and Gray responded by defining as a ‘settler’ anyone from England living in Scotland, who has an ‘understanding’ and interest in the ‘promotion’ of (Scottish) culture’, with, by an implied contrast, a ‘colonist’ being anyone with lack of understanding of, or interest and investment in Scottish culture.

… There remains an implication in Gray’s definition of (Scottish) ‘culture’ of something (of some thing) unique, singular, self-identical and self-contained that could be seen to leave him open to charges of essentialism. Indeed, as he spoke, the question arose of the relation of ‘colonists’ to culture. Gray gave the example of ‘The Cheviot, the Stag, and the Black Black Oil’ by—Liverpudlian—John McGrath. He argued that this was an example of his definition of the ‘settler’: a work of art deeply concerned with Scottish political and social history, written by a ‘non-Scot’. However, this raises the question of whether ‘The Cheviot’ (and, by extension, perhaps, McGrath himself?) does not simply become a part of Scottish culture, altering its fabric and trajectory by participating in it.

And what then of ‘colonists’ who, according to Gray’s criteria, fail to ‘understand’ and invest in Scottish culture, seeking only to further their own interests by taking work in Scotland. … —Even a disinterested (or condescending) participation in a given culture will have an effect on its nature and trajectory. So, do even opportunist ‘colonisers’ not therefore become part of culture? Is the category of ‘colonist’, then, somehow a specifically moral judgment on the intention behind participation, or is it perhaps more a question of the duration of participation.

What if culture is conceived of, not as (as would seem to be implied) a singular and self-identical phenomenon, but, instead, as an endlessly unfolding, indistinct, incomplete and often simultaneously occurring series of events, forces and processes, onto which name (of unique, distinct, etc.) ‘culture’ is merely projected, retroactively and continuously?

This would, in its turn, raise the issue of the ownership of a culture.—Can ‘Scottish culture’ (could it ever) be considered something self-identical and static, contained within the (ultimately arbitrary) geographical boundaries of the country, or perhaps only truly accessible to somehow ‘true’ (born, racially pure?) ‘Scots’? The issues of nationhood, (potential) insularity and race at stake here are genuinely troubling.

Gray was at his most inspiring when he explicitly rejected the terms of the implication of insular self-identity and defined as a ‘Scot’ any adult person with voting rights living (or voting) in Scotland, expressing his hope for a democratic independent Scottish Republic, with a parliament freed from the current party political system dominated by a small number of major parties through the introduction of proportional representation.

This is and, with the Independence referendum looming, is set to remain a divisive and controversial issue, drawing on spiky perennial philosophical problems concerning the nature of culture and of identity (and, interestingly, clearly demonstrating their unavoidable relevance to political debate) and it would have been unreasonable to expect a single discussion to resolve them in any meaningful way. Nevertheless, the feeling remains that there was far more to be said even given the constraints of the context, and Barley’s questions could have been far more considered, incisive and thoroughgoing than they were. Gray was simply not allowed the opportunity to answer the question.

Nonetheless, the event, somewhat abruptly, moved on. Barley and Gray discussed the design and intricacies of Gray’s quite recent work on a mural for Hillhead train station in Glasgow.

Gray is, perhaps, at his most sincere, thoughtful and incoherent when discussing his artwork, and the genuine charm of his eccentricity stems from the sense of the depth of thought and feeling which clearly underpins his attempts to explain his work. It is genuinely touching.

Of particular interest was Gray’s discussion of the history of mosaic, and the contrast between ‘representational’ (particularly Greco-Roman) design and the—opposing—artistic tradition, particular to cultures which, for primarily religious reasons, forbid direct representation, of the ‘geometric’.—With the intricacies and fragmentation of structure in his fiction (based ostensibly in an idiosyncratic form of realism) and the bold lines of his graphic art in mind, it is easy to wonder if the effectiveness of Gray’s art in fact stems from his (innate?) capacity to somehow bridge and to reconcile these two apparently opposed traditions…

After a brief mention of the volume of his short fiction released toward the end of last year, Barley and Gray moved on to a discussion of his current work translating Dante’s Divine Comedy. The audience was treated (and it was a treat) to a reading of Gray’s translation of one of the more notorious passages of the Inferno.

Interestingly, Gray stays close to Dante’s own poetic philosophy, and renders his translation in everyday (often Scots) vernacular. His delivery was typically rambunctious and energetic and it will be an impatient wait to see the completed Comedy, hopefully replete with Gray’s own illustrations.

Having drawn the discussion to a close, Barley then opened the floor to questions from the audience. He was particularly curt and quite dismissive of the audience pushing rather too insistently for brevity.

The issue was raised of Sir Jonathan Mills recently and bizarrely timed and pitched announcement of a ban on Independence-themed productions at next year’s Edinburgh International Festival. Though it appeared that Gray missed the reference, it was interesting to hear him point to those who appoint heads of organisations and events (‘bankers’, businesspeople and financiers) as those who set the agendas for those organisations and events.

Other highlights included a particularly disturbingly framed question from one member of the audience on the length of stay of residence in Scotland as criteria for considering contribution to Scottish culture, complete with a crude and regrettable reference to ‘pure-born Scots’ and Gray’s observation that the appointment of English people to top positions in Scotland is, in part a problematic issue, because it is not reflected by a comparable appointment of Scots to management positions in England.

Though charming and fascinating (as always) on his work and on art more generally, and though it was clear that he has indeed been misconstrued by both his critics and supporters in the controversy surrounding his essay, the event itself was far too curt, and Barley too glib and casual in his questions. The controversy, and more especially the ongoing political and philosophical debate of which it forms a part, felt rehashed here somehow, rather than furthered or extended in any way. The event represented an opportunity to clarify that, frustratingly, did not live up to its obvious potential.

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