14 August 2012

Living in Scotland — imaginatively...

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.


  1. In the 70s and 80s we had arenas for debate like Cencrastus, the Edinburgh Review, and Radical Scotland Now we have online forums of much greater potential reach - but what about people who don't or won't use a computer? Who is reaching out to them? Are they to be abandoned to the pro-Unionist media's lies and distortions? are there any voices in print nowadays?

  2. My brother, after retirement, thought he'd take himself off to Venice to live.

    How romantic I thought, the city of the Doges, the Republic of Music, the cuisine of Italy...

    He stayed less than a year.

    Apparently it has problems with it's infrastructure, smells a bit and gets clogged up in the summer with tourists.

    Just like dear Auld Reekie...

  3. why does your blog have a page 3 model on the logo?

  4. I never understood Alasdair's comment about Glasgow - he is one of the most fearsomely well-read persons you can meet, yet his comment is debatable at best.I suppose he had some didactic intent, but even as an east end schoolboy in the 50s I was aware of Alexander Thomson's great lines on Glasgow -

    'City! I am true son of thine;
    Ne'er dwelt I where great mornings shine
    Around the bleating pens;
    Ne'er by the rivulets I strayed,
    And ne'er upon my childhood weighed
    The silence of the glens.
    Instead of shores where ocean beats,
    I hear the ebb and flow of streets.'

    and there is a whole raft of middle-class novels on Glasgow, now mostly submerged by the mists of Buckie and what Tom Leonard (himself a fine poet of working class life of course) called bunnet-hustling.

    Writers get forgotten. James Campbell wrote recently in the TLS about Fred Urquhart, whose short stories about working-class (and gay) life in Glasgow were praised in the highest terms by the likes of Orwell and V S Pritchett - try mentioning him to your book-loving chums - few have ever heard of him. So it goes. His works are available POD - I strongly recommend them. Orwell was right, Urquhart is a master of the short-story form.

  5. Groundskeeper Willie15 August 2012 at 13:40

    '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.'

    It's the thought of what public life would be like in an independent Scotland that makes me reject the notion, rather than anything to do with the economy or any concept of Britishness or the Union.

    And the advocates of independence just reinforce my concerns.

  6. One of the oddest things about current political narratives is that they are heavily focused on the future: what Scotland we dream of. This stands in stark contrast to earlier nationalist narratives which were primarily about re-envisioning the past. ('Back to Dunbar' or, more crassly, Braveheart.) Of course there are good reasons for this, but any imaginative nationalism has to do both. (And, at the moment, what I've previously described as 'Jetsonism' is winning out.)

  7. I must admit I agree, the independence debate is currently driven by view of the future which is either 'anything but Westminster angst' or the minutiate of how Scotland should be governed. There is little on the sort of Scotland we want to see which is not articulated by the professional Scots churning their own line, based on UK political view points and old politics - Gerry Hassan is a case in point.

    It is time for the rest of us, new to bloging and exercising our view of our Scotland to be heard. Then maybe the 'Groundkeeper Willies' of this world would understand what there is to gain and move away from their sterile 'its aye been' and 'It'll no get better if you pick at it' arguments.

  8. Groundskeeper Willie17 August 2012 at 15:59


    Attempting to patronise those who don't agree with you isn't going to help your cause, quite the opposite.

  9. That "imagining different Scotlands" passage is a lovely turn of phrase, really inspirational words Lallands.

  10. Ampocarbuile,

    It's a tricky one. According to government statistical reckonings, a high percentage of Scots now have internet access - but lower amongst poorer folk, and the elderly. That said, despite their shrinking circulations, the Scottish print press clearly enjoys a much wider circulation than blogs like this - and I'd guess others operating on the same scale.

  11. Conan,

    I went to Venice a few years ago. A strange, hollow place in many ways, reeking of its yesterdays and spent vitality - save for the legion shuffle of tourists. I'm sure it made for a queer place to stay.

  12. Lazarus,

    Whether or not we agree, I'm very keen on your christening of it "Jetsonism". Fun. You've not yet blogged on thus theme on the referendum, have you? As I recall, the Jetsons were last invoked vis-a-vis same-sex marriage, with myself and Gerry Hassan cast in rhetorical jetpacks?

    I'd be most interested to read the argument as it applies to the referendum, in any case.

  13. Well, that's two of us looking forward to the debate. Damn the political tactics of limitation and let the spirit shape the soul of a new nation.

  14. LPW
    '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.'

    Yes - we should all be for different and 'fairer imaginings' and in so doing we have to acknowledge that our past is often not what we would wish it to be. Ask many Scots men of a certain age what their football memory of the 1960s is, and they will smile and say 'Jim Baxter playing keepy-uppy' against the English. Few also remember that he did exactly the same thing against Celtic, or that when he tried it against another national team he got booted off the park.

    Or take another looming memory from the past, Bannockburn. Once Bannockburn was a simple reimagining, a national victory against the English. Yet as Andy Wightman has shown, it was also part of the process of a land grab by our barons. Not so simple after all.

    To return to the forgotten Fred Urquhart, the only fault Orwell found in him was the homosexual theme - one of course, not a matter of joy for many Scottish critics up until recently. Scottish heroes didn't fall in love with sailors, they welded ships and read Marx. But as fans of Rosemary Sutcliffe know, we are legion.

  15. I think for many people the imagining would be fairly prosaic, just about day to day stuff and a longing for security and stability.

    Many people are just keeping their head above water now – and only just, struggling to balance mortgage payments and other monthly outgoings with wages that are frozen or cut. Will that ever end?

    Parents worried about their children’s future – will there be jobs? Will there be houses they can afford to live in? What kind of future lies ahead of them?

    People coming up to retirement are worrying about their pensions. Is it going to be their bad luck to end up with a crap pension because of the vagaries of a moronic market? And when they get old and sick will they still get free personal care and will the NHS still be there to look after them and make their final days as easy as possible?

    And I think for many people the whole climate change thing is starting to look a bit more real now and that is worrying too because our infrastructure – our drains, our housing, our transportation systems – were not built for this kind of weather. How much is it going to cost us to adapt?

    There are lots of worries out there and the thing is they can’t all be solved by reimagining Scotland, we would need to reimagine the world.

    That’s not an argument against independence of course. When the world has become an increasingly worrying place, independence make more sense than ever.