Monday, 7 January 2013

Unstated: Writers on Scottish Independence

It may be a coincidence that just as the post-ironic Creative Scotland crumbles a book is published that expresses the views of 27 writers on the cultural implications of Scottish independence but I can’t help seeing a connection.

Over half the writers are members of PEN (and the rest would be very welcome if they’d care to join). The 27 essays vary greatly in tone and in points of departure and arrival, but most state or imply support for independence. There is, however, a prominent note of scepticism: whatever the political gains and losses of a self-governing Scotland, it is unrealistic to assume that an improvement in cultural health will automatically follow. The record under the SNP aegis is not encouraging.

The book’s editor, Scott Hames of Stirling University, states in his introduction that the collection aims to ‘record what various Scottish writers really thought about the independence question, in a context free from the noise and enforced concision of the media debate’. Unfortunately, perhaps inevitably, the media debate has seized on the comments of two of Scotland’s leading writers, Alastair Gray and James Kelman, whose usefully (for the press) controversial depiction of English colonisation of Scottish culture has so far dominated response to the book. But Gray and Kelman should be read in the context of the other views expressed, many of which reach beyond the old resentments and complaints.

A phrase that comes up in many of the essays is ‘social justice’. To my mind, social justice includes the right of access to all forms of creative expression, as practitioner and audience. It includes the right of all our citizens, but especially our children as they will carry these expectations into the future, to read and write, to make and listen to music, to make and enjoy pictures, to dance, to design and construct all kinds of objects, to create in ways we haven’t yet imagined. Whether or not our writers win prizes emanating from the dubious activities of corporate organisations is hardly relevant to the literary health of Scotland. What does matter is that our citizens have access to the books our writers write, and are enabled to participate in the experience of reading and responding to their words.

The issues raised in these essays are important, now and for the future, and I’d urge all practising writers (and readers) to engage with them. For Scottish PEN, the relationship between government and artistic endeavour is crucial, and we need to be alert to the more insidious ways culture is manipulated and curtailed. Whichever way the referendum vote goes, we need to look both close to home and beyond our immediate neighbour for the means to sustain a vibrant artistic life. These 27 contrasting voices are a good place to start. Scottish PEN, with its international perspective and commitment to freedom of expression, has a key role to play in the coming months.

In the meantime, I recommend Unstated. It’s published by Word Power Books, But don’t hang about – the first printing is already sold out and there’s probably a queue for the second.

Jenni Calder

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