donal mclaughlin

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On Writers and Writing…

‘On Writers and Writing I Wouldn’t Be Without’ – Donal’s introduction to Scotland – the edge is everywhere, his Special Scottish Issue of the Indian journal SAMPARK – is reproduced below. In this online version, an electronic Postscript is added – four-and-a-half years after the original essay was completed.

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On Writers & Writing I Wouldn’t Be Without

[1]

My family emigrated to Scotland in 1970.

What struck me most about the Scotland we arrived in was the language: the widni-kidni-didni stuff. Though I love it now, I hated it then. It was worse for my mother who needed an interpreter. Even going to the shops – sorry: doing the messages – was an ordeal. Across the fence was another nightmare: your woman next door with her skelpins and leatherins. We’d to meet people properly to hear other examples. Ben the room, they’d say; or: Just go through. Talking to them, listening to them, it sounded like loads of folk in Scotland wanted out. The step-we-gaily & but n ben stuff, they couldn’t see far enough. London was the dream. The Scots, it seemed, didn’t feel about their country the way the Irish felt about theirs. Not in the ’70s, anyway.

Maybe it was the (Catholic) school I went to, but at school they taught you nothing about the country you lived in. They didn’t teach you the language(s). Didn’t teach you the history. The General Strike, for example, sounded like it only happened in England. Even in the trendy essays, when you got to be imaginative, the crowd you’d to do your agent provocateur stuff in was in Peterloo.

To ‘no language’ and ‘no history’, add ‘no literature’. In two years at primary school and six at secondary, I didn’t see a Scottish book. Didn’t see a Scottish poem. The ‘Scottish play’ was as far as it went: hubble-bubble, toil & trouble, and all that. Back home, at St Columb’s College in Derry, things would’ve been different: the Irish language & (a version of) the country’s history & literature would’ve been drummed into me. In Scotland, I’d completed a B.A. in Languages & started a Ph.D. in German before I realised I’d read nothing – not a single jot – written in the country I was living in.

But that, like Scotland, was about to change.

For me, it began to happen in the early 80s. Barely old enough to vote, I joined a writers’ workshop. The Public Library in Paisley was the venue – and before long Jim Kelman, author of the soon-to-be-published not not while the giro (1983), replaced the original writer-in-residence. The difference with Jim was: Monday night after Monday night, he recommended books; authors. Soon, I was devouring his suggestions.

I remember the first time I strayed from the GERMAN section: to read Bernard’s ‘Miraculous Candidate’ between the ENGLISH shelves. Secrets (1977) & Cal (1983) went straight home with me & the rest of Strathclyde Uni was denied Mac Laverty for months. At the much-missed Third Eye Centre, I later heard Kelman & Lochhead read, ‘Laughter & Literature’ the session in question. A Chancer (1985) had just appeared & hearing it alerted me to stuff I’d missed on the page; things I’d failed to recognise; things I hear daily round about me. The realisation sent me reeling: I’d have to learn to read such work. Poetry, also, hit me like it had yet to when Liz read ‘What the Pool Said’.

Back at the uni, in the Common Room at the back of the cafe, the students, often mature students, doing ‘European Literature in Translation’ were a revelation, too. Des Dillon was one, creasing us up with story after story. These guys also did Scottish options. It was in that Common Room I first heard about Sunset Song and The House with the Green Shutters and The Confessions of a Justified Sinner and Gillespie. Docherty didn’t do for me what it did for others – but I read it.

Soon, I was reading everything. Buying it, too. My bookshelves started with Kelman, Lochhead, Mac Laverty & Gray. Alasdair I first read by the lake in Zurich – in a Firebird I’d bought for a long short story by Bernard. ‘The Liberation’ made me realise where home was. My lecturers may have harped on about the universality of literature(s), but with Alasdair, I was encountering where-I-now-came-from. Shaking with excitement, I re-read & re-read ‘The Liberation’, still seated at that spot by the Züri-See.

The momentum continued. Something was happening – and not just to me. Before I knew it, it was official: Glasgow was the City of Culture (1990). There was a new confidence around – to the extent that the writers responsible for the culture boycotted the special events. Through in Edinburgh, meanwhile, the Book Festival now existed & the age of Meet the Author dawned. Waterstones had opened, too, & while Bob McDevitt & Neil Johnston were responsible, at least, great readings abounded, with lively discussions following. Also in Edinburgh were Polygon & the Edinburgh Review, with & without Peter Kravitz, then Gavin Wallace & Robert Alan Jamieson; Joy Hendry & Chapman; Raymond Ross & Cencrastus; Elaine Henry & WordPower; – not to mention WordPower’s annual birthday bash and, in due course, those now legendary birthday events for Norman (85), Sorley (85), Iain (70) & Hamish (80).

I remember doing the bookshop test on The trick is to keep breathing (1989). Book by book, all of Janice followed. The same went for Night Geometry & the Garscadden Trains (1990): all of ALK followed. I remember a 70-year-young Eddie Morgan & his Collected (1990) in Aberdeen: the reading, an interval, then spontaneous requests – an hour’s worth! – from his Art Centre audience. I remember Duncan reading from Bucket of Tongues (1992); the freshness of  it. Remember reading Electric Brae (also ’92) – and reaching the last page & going straight back to the first. Remember, having moved to Edinburgh, catching up with the writers there – Dilys & Brian being my first points of contact. I remember the first Dream State (1994) – which I bought at Waverley Station en route to my dad’s 60th. Remember the thrill of discovering David Kinloch, Raymond Friel, William Hershaw and Donny, the editor, himself. Remember properly discovering Alan Spence (with Stone Garden in ’95) & Tom Leonard (with Nora’s Place in ’90 & On the Mass Bombing of Iraq and Kuwait in ’91) later than I should have. I remember my first visit to the old Poetry Library and – even better! – the new one. Remember discovering WORD in Aberdeen; events in the A K Bell in Perth; the Ceilidh Place Bookshop in Ullapool. Remember hearing more & more poets read: hearing Kathleen Jamie read; Don Paterson read; Roddy Lumsden read; Meg Bateman read; Gael Turnbull read; David Kinloch read; Donny O’Rourke read & sing. Remember first spotting stories by Suhayl (Saadi) & Anne (Donovan) & Ciara (MacLaverty) in anthologies & magazines I, too, was beginning to publish in – and immediately being hungry for more. Remember, in 1997, seeing Peter Kravitz’s Picador Book of Scottish Fiction & buying it & holding it & thinking it captured something amazing; it summed something up.

[2]

Or to put all of the above another way:  The last two decades of last century gave rise, in Scotland, to what critics & reviewers were quick to call a literary renaissance, with Alasdair Gray’s Lanark (1981) viewed as the major milestone which marks the beginning of the boom.

The renaissance, it is often suggested, had its roots in political setbacks. In the wake of both the failed referendum on devolution in March 1979 & Margaret Thatcher becoming Prime Minister in May that year, Scotland’s writers – like their film-maker, painter & musician colleagues – invested in their art, rather than succumb to the double whammy delivered by the political arena.

These political disappointments are not to be underestimated. Many writers & artists had helped campaign for devolution – but while the majority of citizens who voted voted YES, the 40% hurdle, introduced by the then Labour government, was not cleared. The general election result only weeks later soon meant Scots were experiencing what poet Norman MacCaig famously called ‘the indifference / of a remote and ignorant government’. As huge Labour majorities in every election between 1979 and 1997 reflect, Scotland consistently & unambiguously rejected the Conservative government of that era.

The very considerable fruits of the artists’ response to this state of affairs soon gave rise to the theory that Scotland had achieved cultural (if not political) independence. Politics, Cairns Craig even suggested, had been reduced to a mere side-show in Scotland. It might nonetheless be argued that the cultural confidence inspired & instilled over two decades by those selfsame artists bore political fruit when, in September 1997, in the referendum promised by the newly elected New Labour government, Scots emphatically said YES both to Devolution, and to higher taxes to pay for it. The country, as a result, now has its own Parliament again. May it yet do what we hoped for.

Those observers who identify a literary renaissance in Scotland tend to focus primarily on the country’s novelists & short-story writers. Whether such commentators live & work in Scotland itself, or look on from their London bases, or even from continental Europe and beyond, the consensus seems to be that it all started in Glasgow with a group of writer friends – James Kelman, Tom Leonard, Alasdair Gray, Bernard Mac Laverty & Liz Lochhead – who’d met at a writer’s workshop at Glasgow University in the 1970’s. (Leonard & Lochhead, it should be noted, are poets; Lochhead, the only woman, has the closest contact with the theatre world.) Kelman, having seen how Leonard used the everyday language of Scotland in his poetry, began to use language in similar ways in prose. Gray, too, became known for the Scottish rhythms in his syntax. United in their rejection of T.S. Eliot’s notion of ‘The Voice of Literature’, these writers set out to use a whole palette of voices in their work; to show what could be expressed using the language and voices of ordinary people round about them; to show that it was possible to write literature in the language of their community.

Such democratisation of literature was to find expression in other ways, too. To overcome the elitism associated with literature, writers strove to take literature out of the classrooms, the universities, the sometimes forbidding libraries. Readings were held in outlying districts, and workshops created to encourage people to write. From such workshops emerged, in due course, writers such as Agnes Owens and Jeff Torrington.

The example of these writers in the West of Scotland triggered further success – both there & elsewhere. In Glasgow itself, in the late 80’s & early 90’s, two major female writers emerged: Janice Galloway & A L Kennedy. Aspiring writers elsewhere in Scotland followed suit, learning from e.g. Kelman’s work. In the East, in Edinburgh, Irvine Welsh produced Trainspotting (1993). Similarly, Duncan McLean, from the North-East, used language and settings from that area in his work. And in the second half of the 1990’s, Alan Warner did the same for the North-West in novels such as Morvern Callar (1995) and The Sopranos (1998). In sharp contrast to the decades before the 80’s & 90’s, new writers, it seemed, were emerging all over Scotland.

The plaudits & prizes rolled in. One measure of recognition came in the form of nominations for the Booker Prize for Fiction, the major annual literary award in the UK. James Kelman was nominated for A Disaffection in 1989, before taking the prize in 1994, with How Late It Was, How Late.  Authors such as George Mackay Brown, Bernard Mac Laverty, Ali Smith & Andrew O’Hagan have also since been shortlisted. Column inches devoted to Scottish fiction in the London & New York press, in addition to academic studies & translations produced around the world, also testify to the significance & staying-power of this renaissance. More tellingly & encouragingly still, now that literary Scotland is more confident of its own voice, the voices of Scotland’s minorities are beginning to be heard, as demonstrated by publications, initially in literary magazines & anthologies, by Irish Scots, Asian Scots, & Italian Scots. An even more vibrant literary scene is the result, with authors such as Des Dillon, Leila Aboulela & Suhayl Saadi publishing book after book & garnering much praise.

Fiction writers, of course, do not enjoy a monopoly on success. From the 1990s onwards, their poet colleagues, too, have been shortlisted for, and won, major literary awards – with Kathleen Jamie, John Burnside & Don Paterson leading the way. To make this observation is in no way to underestimate the contribution of older generations; the oeuvres of men such as Norman MacCaig, Sorley MacLean, Iain Crichton Smith, Hamish Henderson & Edwin Morgan. Nor should the generation of poets now (only just) in their fifties be overlooked: Brian McCabe, Dilys Rose, Andrew Greig, Ron Butlin (all associated with Edinburgh & prose writers, too). Two volumes of the poetry of younger generations augur well for the future: the original Dream State anthology of 1994; and the expanded second edition of 2002. What’s more: the Scottish Poetry Library now has a beautiful new building, next to the Parliament. And as of 16 February 2004, Scotland has its own Poet Laureate – its Scots Makar – in the much-loved Edwin Morgan.

The one puzzle in all of this is why playwrights appear not to share the profile & status enjoyed by their poet and novelist colleagues? The success of writers such as David Harrower (Knives in Hens) & Gregory Burke (Gagarin Way) – to name but two, much translated & staged abroad – is surely changing that. The recent success (one hopes) of the campaign for a National Theatre should also give the stage in Scotland a much needed boost.

In short, there’s no doubt about it: for twenty-odd years now, a great deal’s been happening, in literary terms, in Scotland. Some will challenge the term renaissance. Others balk at talk of ‘Scottish literature’, disputing the existence of such a homogeneous beast. What of middle-class experience? still others object, irritated by the focus on working-class writers. Others still will contest the dominance of Glasgow; or prefer to focus on Scots & Gaelic; or rue the emergence of the M.Litt. culture & question whether Scotland needed it. Fair enough. These are points to be debated. There’s one thing, though, I do know for sure: it’s been an honour & privilege to live through this period; to follow the progress of the many & varied writers; & to join enthusiastic audiences for many a memorable reading.

[3]

Previous special issues of SAMPARK have focused on Bangladesh, Israel, Italy, Slovenia and Sweden. The model is always to combine essays on different aspects of a country with fiction and poetry from that country. The essay section in this Scottish issue includes contributions on history, politics, society, education, publishing and Scottish writing in translation. ‘Fiction & Poetry’ in each SAMPARK normally includes a section for new & emerging writers. In the Scottish issue, these authors simply take their place alongside more established colleagues as the work is arranged thematically. Given that this year marks the tenth anniversary of the Robert Louis Stevenson Memorial Award, it is pleasing to note that past winners such as Dilys Rose & Chris Dolan are represented in this issue; as are all three 2003 winners (Louise Welsh, Donal McLaughlin & Gavin Bowd); and – as it turns out as we go to press – both 2004 winners (David Kinloch & Gerry McGrath).

In the age of the internet & Google searches, ‘Notes on Contributors’ can seem a needless use of space which might otherwise be devoted to fiction & poetry. Readers are therefore alerted to the following websites.

http://boslit.nls.uk (Bibliography of Scottish Literature in Translation)
http://www.contemporarywriters.com
http://www.scottishbooktrust.com
http://www.slainte.org.uk/scotwrit
http://www.spl.org.uk (Scottish Poetry Library)
http://www.visitscotland.com/library/Scottish Writers

A number of authors in this volume also have their own website – as the usual search engines will help readers discover.

[4]

The ‘virtual’ existence I’ve led in the past year or two meant that contact with authors had to happen by email – Latvian, French & Swiss gremlins permitting. Attempts to find email addresses for writers I hoped to include did not always succeed. For this reason, the following poems & stories must now – with regret – be suggested as ‘Further Reading’:

Meg Bateman, ‘Because I was so fond of him’, ‘Lightness’, ‘Home Again’
John Burnside, ‘Out of Exile’
William Hershaw, ‘Januar – Winds of Revolution’, ‘Comp’
Kathleen Jamie, ‘Arraheids’, ‘February’, ‘Prayer’, ‘Bolus’
A L Kennedy, ‘Not anything to do with love’
Gordon Legge, ‘The man who believed in love’
Liz Lochhead, ‘What the Pool Said’, ‘Bairnsang’, ‘Sorting Through’
Roddy Lumsden, ‘Then’, ‘Yeah Yeah Yeah’, ‘Lullaby’
Irfan Merchant, ‘National Colours’
Don Paterson, ‘Bedfellows’, ‘An Elliptical Stylus’, ’11:00: Baldovan’, ‘Imperial’
Robin Robertson, ‘Aberdeen’

For further ‘Further Reading’, check out the Poetry Map of Scotland currently being prepared by the Scottish Poetry Library. Access via http://www.spl.org.uk

[5]

Acknowledgements
While this issue made its way from the selection of contents through to production, I was honoured to be Scottish PEN’s first-ever écrivain sans frontières in Riga (Latvia); a winner of the Robert Louis Stevenson Memorial Award – which took me to Grez-sur-Loing (France); the first-ever ‘Scottish Writing Fellow’ in Berne (Switzerland), thanks to an exchange with the City of Glasgow; and a writer-in-residence at Ledig House (Ghent, New York). To all of the individuals and organisations behind these awards, my grateful thanks. Thank you, too, to Sunandan Roy for the invitation to guest-edit this issue; to the Scottish Arts Council which assisted with funding; to Neil Paterson who, as always, solved my computer problems; to John Cardie who helped me access photographs at scottishviewpoint.com; to Lizzie Macgregor of the Scottish Poetry Library and Ron Turnbull of the Edinburgh Review who assisted with material; and to my sisters Martina, Gemma & Donna who located & forwarded files to various foreign places. Last but not least, my grateful thanks to the authors and their publishers, as well as to the painter James Hawkins, for their generous support of this project & incredibly encouraging emails.
My own work on this volume I dedicate to the memory of my father, Danny McLaughlin (1934-2003), the first ‘Labour teacher’ at St Eugene’s Primary School in Derry, whose belief in education set not just me up for life. This is also for you, Mum.

Donal McLaughlin
Ledig House, Ghent, New York State
September 2004

[6]

POSTSCRIPT – April 2009

Various delays, in India, meant that the Special Scottish Issue of SAMPARK was printed four years later than originally intended. By the time it was finally at press, there had been a change of government in the Scottish Parliament – with a minority SNP government replacing  the Lib-Lab coalition. I would have liked, of course, to reflect this in the Essay section of the journal; to arrange an additional article or two. But four years, and many many sets of proofs on, a line, most definitely, had to be drawn.

Part [4] of my original introduction includes a list of authors whom I was not able to contact back in 2003 / 2004 when my selection was being made. The titles of work I would have liked to include are also given. Four-and-a-half years on, yet more authors and work have caught the eye – hence this Postscript. I am thinking of Maggie Graham’s novel Sitting Among The Eskimos (2000) – I wish I’d read it sooner! Of Simon R Biggam’s impressive first novel, These Are Only Words (2006), and of Ewan Morrison’s short-story debut, The Last Book You Read & Other Stories (2005). I am thinking also of poems by Gerry Loose, e.g. in From Kyoto to Carbeth (2008), his poems & plants from the hills, a collaboration with the Japanese artist Takaya Fujii. Am thinking of Brian Whittingham’s return to his ‘Industrial Deafness’ sequence in Bunnets n Bowlers. A Clydeside Odyssey (2009). Of fine, challenging work in Peter Manson’s Between Cup and Lip (2008). Of New Zealand-born Gerrie Fellows and her collection Window for a Small Blue Child (2007). Of  short-story writer Ciara MacLaverty’s poems in Seats for Landing (2005). Of other debuts by poets, e.g. Jim Carruth (Bovine Pastoral, 2004; High Auchensale, 2006) and Andrew Philip (The Ambulance Box, 2009). And, last but certainly not least, of work by writers from other countries and cultures who have come to Scotland – collected in e.g. exile / mërgimtari (daemon): Ghazi Hussein, Ayad Alhiatly, Mahmood Farzan, Shahin Memishi & others.

– Time for another anthology, in short!

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