With the Scottish independence referendum drawing closer, two Newsweek Europe magazine correspondents and friends – Finlay Young (Scotsman), and Simon Akam (Englishman) – travelled the length of the United Kingdom together. They tried to get to the bottom of the independence debate, interviewing politicians, writers, artists, activists, and ‘ordinary’ citizens en route. In this excerpt from their unique dual-narrative 20,000 word account Scotsman Englishman, they meet two well-known Glasgow artists in favour of Yes, author Alasdair Gray and Belle & Sebastian songwriter Stuart Murdoch.
Finlay Young (FY) – On this almighty Glasgow Wednesday, on the Yes side we will meet arguably Scotland’s greatest living writer, arguably Scotland’s finest living songwriter, arguably Scotland’s most engaging young model and actress. On the No side, the leader of inarguably Scotland’s least loved mainstream political party. On days like this Scotland’s choice is pleasingly, if superficially, stark: conservative pragmatic efficient present vs. radical optimistic creative future.
Simon Akam (SA) – To sit at Alasdair Gray’s feet is a privilege. Braces belay his trousers at high altitude. He argues against a particular negotiation of Scottishness in the Scottish novel, suggesting all literature is really about place. Though strongly pro-independence, he is not the grumpy English-hater I was warned he might be. He speaks pertinently about class, and in particular the changing perception of social housing. When he was a child in Glasgow (he was born in 1934), professional families lived in Riddrie, the housing estate where he grew up. That is not true of any of the estates we have visited on this trip.
‘Now schemes are regarded as the equivalent of slums, as they were in the slum clearance days of the 1930s,’ he says. ‘They don’t want public housing renewed, they don’t renew it, they want to knock it down, they want to build things that can be ‘sold on the property ladder.’
Most telling though for me is Alasdair Gray’s personal demeanour. A self-identified ‘octogenarian semi-alcoholic’, he remains childlike and full of glee. He laughs, he pulls faces; he picks a half-finished canvas with prominent bare breasts as backdrop for our selfie. On this trip Fin, and I returned to our old educational institutions – today we will walk around Glasgow University, where Fin studied. Looking back, I now find my school’s determination to produce a certain model of manhood (the ‘mature’ senior prefect of 17) premature. Gray underlines that to be an artist is to sustain childlike wonder into the dim territory of grown-up.
FY – ‘…It is in truth not for glory, nor riches, nor honours that we are fighting, but for freedom – for that alone, which no honest man gives up but with life itself.’
On the wall of Gray’s front room, in a space between the higgledy of books and artworks and all the other detritus of a well-lived creative life, hang not one but two versions of the Declaration of Arbroath, 1320’s assertion of Scottish independence. The emotional language of freedom is now passé in Scotland, but I think it still matters for Gray.
‘Well, if a journalist assumes the cause of freedom is not important, then that is that!’ His small, darting eyes are mischievous. Point taken: it matters. What else is all art but freedom, of expression, of ideas, of the blank page or canvas. The sad reality is that the idea of a blank page is seductive but doesn’t ever exist in politics.
In his most recent book Independence: An Argument for Home Rule Gray wrote,
‘We do not want an independent Scotland because we dislike the English, but because we want separation from that Union of financial, military and monarchic establishments calling itself Great Britain.’
This, of course, is not the independence currently on offer from the SNP. Nonetheless, to Gray, these forces of the UK are those that prevent freedom, encouraging an atmosphere he describes as: ‘you better keep your nose clean or you’ll never get a proper job’. Had such an atmosphere predominated in an upbringing he admits to partially idealising, he would never have received the grants that enabled his art. ‘They saved me from becoming a public librarian.’
In his 1981 masterwork, Lanark, Gray wrote an embellished version of his own early life. I ask him whether we as Scots, and he in particular, fall prey to self-mythology. ‘Surely everybody’s mythology is just a way of summarizing the past as far as you like to remember it, or want to remember it, or have been forced to remember it. Any country, well, anywhere where folks are fairly satisfied with their nation have to that extent mythologized it.’
Is he nervous about Scotland’s future?
‘Nervous? I’m too old to be afraid of my own future… You can only learn to govern yourself by doing it. Speaking from my own experience, painting a picture, or writing a book, you do it as well as you can, you stand back and look at it, you realize it isnae good enough, then you work to improve it. That’s like any-thing you’re trying to do for the first time, You’re bound to get it wrong.’
‘Everybody knows that utopia is not suddenly about to dawn, but hope may. Everyone who isn’t riding on the high horse, who isn’t doing prosperously, doesn’t see much hope for change in the future, except in Scotland where it seems there might be change.’
It’s inspiring stuff.
SA – Musician Stuart Murdoch from the band Belle and Sebastian, sits in a Glasgow bar wearing understated, but evidently extremely well-made clothes. He recently caused a small furore by ‘coming-out’ in favour of a yes vote. ‘I’m naively hoping for an increase in the greater good,’ he says now. ‘I genuinely think, in their hearts, people do want a fairer society, especially it seems north of the border just now, because they vote so differently to the rest of Britain.’
‘I think maybe the emphasis should be on the word naiveté,’ he adds. ‘I think perhaps artists can allow themselves a sense of naiveté, and if they didn’t have it they wouldn’t create.’ I think across genres. The Scottish novelist Alan Warner recently contributed to an independence feature in the Guardian newspaper. Like Stuart Murdoch, like most creatives, Warner favours a Yes vote. But he also wrote of the grievous potential consequences of a No vote for Scottish artists.
‘A No vote will create a profound and strange schism between the voters of Scotland and its literature; a new convulsion,’ he wrote. ‘It will be the death knell for the whole Scottish literature “project” – a crushing denial of an identity that writers have been meticulously accumulating, trying to maintain and refine.’
FY – As many have pointed out, all the Scottish creatives seem to favour independence. We explore this with Murdoch, whose music sound-tracked much of my student life in Glasgow. He readily admits that independence is an act of faith. ‘There’s no doubt about that, you could easily talk yourself out of it, talk yourself out of voting… but I’m choosing to put economic questions almost to one side and facing this.’
As we close, he talks light-heartedly about ‘nursing all these Peter Pan complexes’. It brings me to a line from Scot J.M. Barrie’s book that stuck in my head as a child. Today has been about the intoxication of the possible, the temptation within all this just to give it a go. Independence would indeed be ‘an awfully big adventure’.
Simon and Fin’s Newsweek Insights e-book based on their trip, Scotsman Englishman: Two Friends. One Thorny Argument, is available now through Amazon