Tom Pow, poet and writer, gave the introductory address at the Literature Review summit meeting held in The Lighthouse in Glasgow on 30 July 2015. The afternoon meeting was attended by over a hundred people from the literature community across the whole of Scotland. Read Tom’s full address here:
‘I have ten minutes to introduce this hugely complex, thorough and ambitious review. I want to reflect briefly on where we have come from, as well as where we are now and where we might go. This is a rather breathless personal take on that journey.
In 1968, when I went to university, there was not one chair of Scottish literature in the whole of Scotland; one of the reasons perhaps why at the time I could barely tell a MacDiarmid from a McGonagall. Hopefully, the new Scots Scriever and the new Scots Language Policy will help to sort that sort of ignorant nonsense out! I’d never met a living writer and the only way to meet one at university was to import one yourself – Norman MacCaig, Robert Garioch, Alan Jackson and Pete Morgan, the finest performance poet of his and many another generation. It was a time when, as MacCaig commented, Scottish poets were, most commonly, ‘men of sorrow acquainted with Grieve’. Before Liz Lochhead’s Memo for Spring, man and poet in Scotland were almost synonymous terms.
In the suitcase of the Scottish novel, writers tended to be represented by one novel each rather than by a body of work: Sunset Song, The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie, The Cone Gatherers. Interesting to note that the film of Sunset Song, to be premièred in Toronto in September, had its harvest scenes shot in New Zealand – I mean, tell us Robyn Marsack, what can a New Zealand summer offer that a Scottish summer can’t?
Back then again, the ‘literature ecology’ was given oxygen by committed activists – Joy Hendry regularly sold copies of Chapman in the Abbotsford from a postman’s sack (at least that is how I remember it) and engaged passionately with all-comers about Scottish writing. Meanwhile, Callum Macdonald publishing his own imprint and the magazine, Lines Review, was a forerunner of Hamish Whyte and Gerry Cambridge in terms of meticulous standards and steady commitment.
Looking back in this haphazard way, personal hotspots come to mind: among them, Tom Leonard’s first Glasgow poems; the publication of Sorley Maclean’s Selected Poems; the appearance of Lanark; Edwin Morgan’s Sonnets from Scotland; Liz Lochhead’s Mary Queen of Scots Got Her Head Chopped Off: the vibrancy of a culture asserting itself post 1979. At Polygon, Peter Kravitz was working with Janice Galloway and AL Kennedy and especially James Kelman. Kravitz said later that it had taken him ten years to get Kelman’s voice out of his head.
There were other voices too: Jeff Torrington, Duncan McLean, Agnes Owens, Irvine Welsh – Scotland was finally writing itself. At the same time, Canongate Classics was turning the suitcase of the Scottish novel into shelf upon shelf. Moreover, different kinds of hotspots were coming into being – ones that reflected confidence and that gave support: the Edinburgh International Book Festival, the Scottish Storytelling Centre, the Scottish Poetry Library. All of these organisations – the RFOs – in fact, every bloody hotspot you can think of – has depended on vision, generosity and sheer stubbornness. Such were qualities Tessa Ransford had in abundance. She is gravely unwell. I’m sure such a wide gathering of all concerned with Scottish writing would want to pass to her today their thanks for her contribution to Scotland as poet and activist.
It takes acknowledgement of where we have come from to recognise that we are in the middle of a significant hotspot right now. All of the above organisations have expanded their horizons – the number of book festivals has grown, a potential tourist trail from Edinburgh to Ullapool, from Dundee to Melrose, from Wigtown to Shetland, and from Shetland back to Stirling. Bloody Scotland? Aye Write! The Scottish Book Trust has also grown, as it keeps butting itself up against the question of what impedes the pleasures and the social advantages of literacy. The Scottish Poetry Library has increased its capacity and collaborated with the Storytelling Centre in interesting ways. Cove Park, too, is having new work done to offer more opportunity to artists. The National Library of Scotland continues to expand its work as a world-class institution. And there are new developments: Moniack Mhor is free to pursue its own exciting agenda (Moniack Libre!); The Saltire Society is re-energised under Jim Tough; and Moat Brae in Dumfries is due to open as a National Centre of Children’s Literature and Storytelling in 2017. It will endeavour to be a centre of innovation and engagement as the Glasgow Women’s Library has proved to be. And hurray, the independent bookshop is back!
Live events – Neu! Reekie!, Rally and Broad and Mirror Ball – are attracting a new, younger audience. If you were ever introduced at Forest Café by Ryan Van Winkle, as he necked a bottle of wine, you might be forgiven for thinking of the old saw that ‘poetry (really) is the new rock and roll’. And, as storytelling, traditional and revivalist, has become part of our ‘official’ (i.e. funded, supported) literary culture, so is spoken word now. Musicians frequently share the platform at spoken word events – Aidan Moffat, Withered Hand, King Creosote – bringing a new focus to lyrics, which, from the Border Ballads to Burns’ songs, have always been a vital part of our culture. And so song writing has also been brought, its mention albeit fleeting, into the larger tent of this Review.
Last summer indyref cultural activists, in word, story and song, reached out to the whole of Scotland – as Neu! Reekie’s summer tour is currently doing. One of the attractive ideas of the Review is the questioning of the Central Beltist concept of ‘out reach’. Instead, it is suggested that regional hubs be set up round Scotland with various kinds of expertise. Connection! Co-ordination! Collaboration! – three significant watchwords within the Review. (They need to be verbs.)
Thankfully, we live in a literary culture now where you don’t need to be dead to be appreciated – though it still helps. The New Writers Scheme run by the Scottish Book Trust produces writers who seem to be born with reputations – Billy Letford, Kirsty Logan, Malachy Tallach, Claire Askew. While at the same time, writers like Ali Smith, Kathleen Jamie, AL Kennedy, Jackie Kay, Louise Welsh – and let’s throw in a token James Robertson and Andrew O’Hagan, now flying a flag of his choice in the Booker long-list – have growing international reputations. That’s not to mention our global brands of Alexander McCall Smith, JK Rowling, Ian Rankin and the Tartan Noires.
Meanwhile, established publishers such as Birlinn, Canongate and Luath, have been joined by the fresher faces of Freight, Cargo, Vagabond Press and current Scottish Publisher of the Year, Sandstone Press. Our publishers respond to the challenges of the digital market place with vigour and imagination, while continuing to produce beautiful, distinctive books, in all three of Scotland’s languages, supported by a more internationally aware Publishing Scotland and Gaelic Books Council. In fact, I think the international section of the Review, with its comparative studies, and call for greater focus on translation, will be one of the most interesting sections of the Review for many here today. The Review comments on all of this, while advocating that the sector needs further re-scoping beyond traditional models to include new digital possibilities of storytelling and collaboration within the ‘creative industries’.
Something that struck me forcefully, engaging with the Review with the members of the steering group, is that it is consciously democratic. It takes writers at all levels, and readers at all levels, seriously. It respects the needs of the child reader and of the young writer; it considers the needs of the commercially published writer and those of the self-published writer; it considers those committed to print and those seeking new platforms. Funding apart, the Review does not preference one literature worker over another – whether working for a literary organisation or reading to a child at night, each is engaged, at some level, with the business of fostering a love of reading and of developing the imagination.
Similarly, it is recognised that publishing, whether a best-seller or a kitchen table pamphlet, can be motivated by a similar passion and desire to share what is considered worthwhile; though again obviously the financial implications are of a different order. This democratic emphasis does not come from nowhere – it comes from all those consulted in the making of the Review; in other words, from many of you here today.
Again, back in the day, my contemporaries – Liz Lochhead, Ron Butlin, Brian McCabe, Andrew Greig and Alan Spence – were from the first generation to make a bare living working in schools. Now, writers are regulars throughout education – from working in primary schools (Itchy Coo! Itchy Coo!), to the numerous Creative Writing Courses at our universities – but also in hospitals, retirement homes, prisons and in parliament: the report sees many more possibilities for advancing the effectiveness and importance of literature as an agent for social good.
Each time I read the Review I am prompted, as you will be, by fresh thoughts. For example, how to sustain a level of critical debate beyond the universities i.e. in our public outlets. For another example, you may find reference to the Open Project Fund rather too frequent. You may also think that certain projects, such as getting more Scottish writing into schools and libraries, are of such significance to our identity and cultural and educational health that funding for them should come from another source i.e. the Government, rather than by putting further pressure on the highly competitive Open Project Fund. If so, this will involve determined advocacy (by someone…) and, in many ways, the success or failure of the ambitions contained here will be decided by how persuasive the literary community can be in unlocking fresh sources of income.
There may be parts of this Review that you will want to argue with vehemently. But do not do so with suspicion. We have always been very lucky with our literature teams at Scottish Arts Council and Creative Scotland – Walter Cairns, Jenny Brown, Gavin Wallace and now Jenny Niven with Emma Turnbull and Aly Barr, people who have cared and who do care deeply about the state of literature in Scotland. The consultant team at Nordicity and Drew Wylie have worked with energy, engagement and commitment. This introduction has been shot through with holes, omissions and oversights – all my own work – but I hope you have filled in some of the gaps with examples from your own ‘kist o whistles’.
Lastly, the best way I can think of to describe the Review is as a manifestation of energy – something sparky, electric, challenging to control. Chris Grieve had to invent Hugh MacDiarmid so that he could both praise and fight with himself. When Alan Jackson, in 1971, published ‘The Knitted Claymore’, his essay on culture and nationalism, he had to write a letter to The Scotsman himself to create a puff of argument. Our literary culture today is not one lacking in energy or confidence – we don’t have to artificially create energy, only to shape it and to direct it. This Review offers us prospects of doing that.’
30 July 2015