Lately, I’ve been thinking about this famous exchange between Thaw and McAlpin in Alasdair Gray’s first novel:
“Glasgow is a magnificent city”, said McAlpin. “Why do we hardly ever notice that?” “Because nobody imagines living here”, said Thaw. McAlpine lit a cigarette and said, “If you want to explain that I’ll certainly listen.”“Then think of Florence, Paris, London, New York. Nobody visiting them for the first time is a stranger because he’s already visited them in paintings, novels, history books and films. But if a city hasn’t been used by an artist not even the inhabitants live there imaginatively. What is Glasgow to most of us? A house, the place we work, a football park of golf course, some pubs and connecting streets. That’s all. No, I’m wrong, there’s also the cinema and the library. And when our imagination needs exercise we use these to visit London, Paris, Rome under the Caesars, the American West at the turn of the century, anywhere but here and now. Imaginatively Glasgow exists as a music-hall song and a few bad novels. That’s all we’ve given to the world outside. It’s all we’ve given to ourselves.” ~ Alasdair Gray, Lanark (1981).
Living in a place, imaginatively. It has struck me for a while that Gray’s observation is pertinent well beyond the precincts of the Dear Green Place. Back when I was composing my masters thesis – on gendered representations of the Faculty of Advocates – I found myself plundering every which school of scholarship I could find, for scraps of pertinent thought on the themes I was trying to deal with : about class, gender, nationality, place. I shan’t go into it in much detail, but I found that most of the familiar, dominant images and accounts on these themes proved singularly inadequate to my task.
I found helpful and fascinating scraps in studies in sociology, history, literature, film: the commentary on these foundational ideas was essentially dispersed, fractured, germinal. Bringing it all together was immensely enjoyable, and trying to think through these ideas, but everywhere I was struck by the relative thinness of our civic conversation, the all too often hackneyed inadequacy and crudeness of our dominant images of class, gender, nation, place which I was trying to deploy. Representations of Scottish masculinities, for instance, overwhelmingly stress the familiar “hard man” of de-industrialised West Central Scotland – a conception which may be entertainingly, but not terrifically productively, juxtaposed with the bewigged and gowned characters of a male-dominated bourgeois institution based in Edinburgh.
Even the capital itself proves difficult to account for. The thought that Edinburgh is “not really Scottish” goes back a good while, and – to the chagrin of some of its members - representations of the Faculty strongly locate the Bar and its members in Edinburgh, with all of the attendant associations that has come to imply. Between the dominating Clydeism and the invisibility of Scottish bourgeois masculinities, it was immensely difficult even to begin to imagine, never mind to conceptualise and write about these issues. This telling silence, these lacunae in our collective imagination, are significant, and strange. Not even the inhabitants live there imaginatively.
To anticipate an objection, I’m not attempting to draw any unfavourable contrasts with our near neighbours, nor to imply that slighting evaluation should be drawn, setting a thin Scottish civic life against a rich, elaborated British discourse. I’m not interested in that. What does interest me, however, is the way in which the independence referendum represents an imaginative challenge to all of us, far broader than the narrow question, to be independent or to remain within the United Kingdom. However the Scottish people vote, the process represents an astonishing collective challenge: to imagine different Scotlands, to attend to complexity, to begin to work up more nuanced imagines, finer-grained, fairer imaginings. And here I part way with Gray’s Thaw: you don’t have to be an artist to set the cogs of imagination spinning. Why be pessimistic and despair of threadbare myths and crude sketches? Produce your own sharper pencils. Start to fill in the colour.
There are many reasons to be cheerful about the formation of Women for Independence. As an independence partisan, I’ve been banging on about the gender gap for a goodly while. At the last count, female support for independence sat 17% points behind men’s: a disparity which must change if we’re going to have even a snowball’s chance in hell of carrying this referendum. In another sense, the emergence of the Women for Independence group adds more welcome texture to the campaign, another locus of activity, another bundling of folk together. It also reminds us – and at the minute, YesScotland needs reminding – that Scotland is made up of many publics, who will be more and less receptive to different arguments for independence. The logic of the party line, the unbroken ranks, the in-step discipline in word and deed and argument, will make for an uneasy governor of the sort of coalition of views we’ll need to pull together to convince Scotland that it’d be better off as a independent state.
Even if we cannot achieve that, the referendum represents a stark opportunity – a challenge even – to entertain a serious conversation about our public life, the gap separating the world as we’d wish it, and our civic life as we find it. The voices of women in Scottish public life ought to be, must be, a vital part of that conversation, that imagining. It may well prove a tricky conversation at times – reticent, stammering, struggling to find the right words – but by gum, I’m looking forward to it.