Archive for category Culture

A Provocation

A guest post this afternoon from Kieran Hurley to raise the tone somewhat. Thanks Kieran!

Screen Shot 2015-05-12 at 17.43.52On  Sunday the 10th May I was invited to give a short ‘provocation’ at a sort of conference discussion day thing called “Culture: What Next” at the Scottish Storytelling Centre in Edinburgh. The day was about coming together to talk about Scottish culture and the arts – where we are and where we might be going – with particular acknowledgement of the experience of the referendum and where it leaves us.

This is what I had to offer. It’s pretty short. It is made up of five propositions that don’t sit easily with each other, that contradict each other quite knowingly and deliberately. It is intended, by its nature, to simply spark a conversation.

There were lots of other great speakers at the event, and lots of interesting conversations that followed. For anyone interested in reading more about it you can follow the Twitter account @For_Culture_ and the hashtag #ForCulture, or if you don’t do Twitter you can go to the website I believe they’re going to have a video of some of the day up soon.

Five Strategies For Artists Wondering What They Should Do About Scotland

1. Remember Scotland

There’s a lot that’s gone before us here that we’d do well not to forget. The questions facing us today might not be that different from the questions that were grappled with by those that went before. Writers and singers and musicians and poets from a generation ago, and one before that, and one before that, and one before that asking what is our place in the world, what are we guilty of, what blood do we have on our hands, what gifts to do we have to offer, and what do we mean when we say the word ‘us’? The most formidable artists are those who can engage with the conditions of the world around them with a deep understanding of their own roots. To know what’s gone before even if only to reject to it. To understand our place within a muckle sang.

2. Imagine Scotland

There is no Scotland of the past because Scotland does not yet exist. This is not about whether or not Scotland is a fully recognised nation state. Scotland does not yet exist because it exists only in the moment of our making. A lot has been said in Scotland about the importance of art and of artists in imaging a future we might collectively try to build. Well, if there’s any truth in that at all it surely doesn’t just apply to a time-limited political campaign. Art for art’s sake is a philosophy of the well-fed, and art is not a mirror held up to reality but a hammer with which to shape it. The job of work now and always is to imagine and build, conceive and create, work as if you live in the early days… ok enough inspirational quotes already…

3. Shut up about Scotland

Shut up about it, shut up about it, shut up. Stop going on about it. Forget it. Ignore it. It’s a distraction, it’s a waste of time. Carry on being artists and get on with the job of making art. Art that’s about all sorts of things. Art that tries to wrestle with and shed light on the complexities of being human and alive in a broken world. Not art that functions like content generated for an advertising agency given a brief for ‘visioning’ a new nation. How can we demonstrate to the world that Scotland is this, that, or something else? We don’t. It’s not our job. Which is probably just as well because, honestly, I’m not sure we’re very good at it. No more pictures of Mother Nation type women with long flowing hair clutching thistles, no more male heroic muscular topless avatars with steely warrior eyes and national flags emblazoned across their chests. No. No more. Enough. Shut up about Scotland. Shut up about it. Shut up.

4. Chronicle Scotland

There are two things we might mean when we talk about ‘Scottish culture.’ The first is the culture of officialdom; art that is formally recognised as such and given the label ‘culture’ to denote something of its important ‘cultural-ness.’ The second meaning refers to the movements and trends within a wider, bigger, people’s story. All too often when we talk about ‘Scottish culture’ we mean the first one when really we should be talking about the second. It is, now as ever, in the big people’s story of Scottish culture that something interesting is happening, not in the preoccupation of what in business-speak is sometimes termed the ‘cultural sector.’ We don’t need to try to lead Scottish culture and if we did we’d only find ourselves trampled on. Instead we need to ride it, follow it, go where it asks us. We’ll be the chroniclers, the bards, telling sad stories of the deaths of kings and writing bad jokes about the births of new ones; making sense of the shrapnel and debris as the real story unfolds before us.

5. Destroy Scotland

Aye. Tear it to the ground. Destroy Scotland even to the extent to which it means destroying ourselves, or at the very least the privileged position that this Scotland of ours has afforded us. Like any nation on the planet Scotland is just the name we give to a set of structures, institutions, and establishments within a defined geographical place. The only art of any value whatsoever is art which seeks to illuminate the dehumanising power relations within these structures with the express aim of ultimately dismantling them. Somewhere in amongst this moment of hoping and dreaming, of nostalgia and yearning, we’re in danger of losing this critical eye. Don’t ignore Scotland, no. Don’t forget about it. Fix it firmly in our sights with the intention of blowing it up. Start by recognising that the power relations that make up Scotland aren’t just something external to us, they act within and through us and we’re complicit in maintaining them for our own benefit. Be prepared to scrutinise ourselves and each other, let the scrutiny be uncompromising, and let it be, in truth, an act of care. As we set about destroying Scotland, let’s hold on tight to one another. Be prepared to stand amongst each other naked, and be prepared for it to hurt in order for it to heal. Ask ourselves who gets to be the chronicler and why? Who gets to speak? Look around and ask who is here and who is not here and ask why that is. I’m able to stand here making these so-called provocations as a direct consequence, in some ways, of the cultural privilege Scotland has afforded me as a white middle class male, and each time I speak it takes up space which could be occupied by someone else. I have no idea how to address this reality in the long term, but it’s probable that I’m not the one who has the answers to that question and the best thing I can do right now is clear some space by sitting down and belting up.

Scotland’s public sphere, not the BBC, is the real problem

IMG_4907 Today, thousands of pro-independence activists gathered outside of the BBC in Glasgow in order to protest against bias in the state-run broadcaster.

How right or wrong they are is debatable – bias is often confused with media organisations being under-resourced or needing to satisfy commercial constraints. What it does reveal though is a larger problem – people in Scotland do not have a great deal of trust in the media.

It works both ways too. I recently interviewed a pro-UK activist for an article I was writing who complained of the partisan approach of the Sunday Herald, the only newspaper to openly declare for the Yes side in the referendum campaign. I have also been called a Yes hack, though my only involvement in the Yes campaign has been playing in a charity football match to raise money for Motor Neurone Disease at their request.

This isn’t helped by some aspects of the media that insist on sorting people into one of two camps, the result being that a very well-known and competent Scottish journalist has recently found themselves cold-shouldered by broadcasters as they did not slot neatly into the demands of five minute vox pops.

The campaign has also seen a growth in a particular kind of anti-journalistic campaigning. For too long Scottish journalism got by on the ‘succulent lamb’ approach typified by the financial scandals involving Rangers football club. Journalists were given a ready supply of stories and were not encouraged to ask questions.  Events such as the phone-hacking scandal and tabloid culture have also made the general public highly suspicious of journalists. When talking to a Yes activist in the south of Scotland, he was reluctant to let me record him before knowing exactly what my article was about and having been reassured that I wouldn’t stitch him up.

One of the shorthands of the referendum is MSM – mainstream media. MSM has become a term of abuse almost, and in some cases there are immediately resistant readings by large sections of the population to anything published in the traditional press. The other side of this is the alternative media, typified by more professional undertakings such as Bella Caledonia and the experimental Referendum TV, but also by glorified blogs such as Wings over Scotland.

Often marketing themselves as citizen media, alternative media usually crowdfunds itself for short periods and attempts to counter perceived bias. In many cases such projects provide much needed diversity to the media landscape, and Bella Caledonia for example have a track record of publishing well-written and interesting articles on all aspects of Scotland by some fairly notable writers and experts. What they can never do is attempt to be media organisations that can carry serious weight in a way that newspapers and TV broadcasters do. Between the BBC and this internet fringe there remains very little of substance.

Scotland’s conventional newspapers are severely limited in their ability to fully cover important issues, relying on wire stories, externally produced content and increasingly thin advertising margins. The people marching outside of Pacific Quay in Glasgow may feel wronged, but they should realise that they’re not the only ones being failed by Scotland’s media. There is a public space that needs to be claimed, and we’ll need an entirely new model of public service journalism to do so. Watch this space.

Some different ideas to go with your referendum: Scotland 44

scotland44-page001Better Nation does not have a publishing arm, and despite ideas of a Better Nation film being mooted over some drinks last year the realities of living a normal life bit. I have not however, been sitting idly on my hands for the past eighteen months, instead putting most of my effort into the Post Collective publishing project.

The Post Collective was set up last year to provide a forum for progressive green journalism in Scotland. Made up of a merry collection of academics, sometime journalists, economists and science professionals  the project regularly writes about contemporary Scotland, science, culture, politics and democracy on Post also publishes printed books and magazines, and though we do not have any clear view on the referendum itself as a group, we decided to try and make a collective contribution. The result is a forthcoming book about the future: Scotland 44.

Scotland 44 is not designed to argue for independence, instead it sets out a number of different possibilities for Scotland’s next thirty years that would improve the lives of Scottish people in areas from how we build our cities to how we fund the arts, manage information and privacy and generate energy. Arguing for independence as an end in itself will not do much to change Scotland without the will or ideas to significantly restructure the way the country works, and a no vote is no excuse for political stasis from either side.

That said, independence would seem to be the most opportune moment to rip it all up and start again, including an areas the independence debate is yet to touch on. One of Scotland 44’s writers, the urbanist Stacey Hunter of Edinburgh University, will for example be writing about an area the Scottish Government already has full control of. Could independence mean an end to the SNP’s love of suburban estates and motorways over communities and sustainable transport?

And how can power be taken from the Scottish Parliament and given back to people? What would decentralisation mean for democracy and the economy? How do you come up with an arts policy for a nation as diverse as Scotland? Who gets to be Scottish, and what will Scotland in 2044 mean compared with the Scotland of 2014 and 1984? If you could put science and education at the centre of society, how would it work? What does citizenship mean in post-2014 Scotland?

These bigger questions transcend a decision between Yes and No and demand answers from ourselves as much as they do politicians. If you want to pre order a copy of Scotland 44 or find out about and contribute to the ongoing work of the Post project you can do so here.

Londoners and Leithers, struggling together

Ocean terminal – More shops than ships

Walking around Westfield Statford City, a sweeping arc of restaurant chains and pretend outdoor highstreets with speakers pumping out Rihanna to keep the shoppers moving, you see a sports shop with England’s Wayne Rooney in the window. In front of Wayne (who is just a Wayne-sized poster) is the new England shirt, and around it in a neon crest is the motto ‘Risk Everything.’

I’m not an expert on  life guidance, but ‘risk everything’ strikes me as a particularly bad motivational slogan unless you’re on the Rangers board or are a compulsive gambler. It’s definitely a long way from the ‘work hard and you can achieve your dreams’ rhetoric espoused by Michael Owen in the popular Children’s BBC series Zero to Hero. In the latter, Owen appeared out of a lifesize poster to give the show’s young protagonist pep talks. In Westfield Stratford City Wayne bursts forth, and he seems to be asking me to remortgage my house and put the money on the ‘orses.

The particular piece of London where Westfield have set up shop(s) is a footballing heartland, with West Ham and Leyton Orient within spitting distance of the Waitrose, John Lewis and Body Shop outlets of new Stratford. This is what Glasgow City Council hope the new East End will turn into (just as was the ambition with new Leith and the rather forlorn Ocean Terminal), but you need not go far to find people with little to lose.

Fifteen minutes away on the Docklands Light Railway and you are in Beckton, the end of the line. Step off the train and there is a flat vista of car parks and slip roads ventilated by the stiff breeze of the Thames estuary. Across the street is a huge single-story ASDA, a car park surrounding a pretend shopping street where all the outlets are owned by the supermarket. In the window of the supermarket pharmacy is a display made in the run up to the 2012 Olympics by local school children. Eagerly painted flags hang in stasis over magazine collages of athletes and football stars. Presumably they’re still there because nothing has yet come forth to replace them, as if the anticipation just before the event were the high point. It is that kind of promise that can sustain people, and then comes the long tail.  Perhaps not risking everything, but investing everything in nothing is what the people of East London’s outer rim have done. The yuppie flats are changing the skyline in Stratford, but in Beckton the flags still hang limply, sealed off from the Thames breeze by plate glass.

In Scotland, the flags are all one colour. As the referendum approaches the Saltire has taken on a different significance for many people. The 18 September is the day the events kick off and Scotland undergoes regeneration on a national scale. An awful lot of people are investing their hopes for the future in a few short months. The bigger risk is not that independence won’t be achieved, but that its execution will fail to have the transformative effect its most ardent supporters promise and believe. In 2015, as money floods into Edinburgh from around the world, will the country look much different to the single parent dragging their shopping to the car at the ASDA in Newcraighall in the January wind? Will Leith’s Yes posters and fly-posted socialist battle-cries flap in the breeze as Edinburgh’s West End gears up for cheap credit, Dublin style, or will something good be made to come of it? If you’re asking people to risk everything, you need to make sure every one of those people sees the transformation their support deserves.

I, nationalist.

I’ve never been one to call the Deputy First Minister by her first name, as if we’re just mates. The SNP freesheet with the Yes Scotland branding that popped through my door this week promised me an ‘at home with Nicola’ interview, and there she was just chilling out in a comfy jumper.  Nationalism with a human face. The whole of the freesheet was as laughable as the fake newspapers handed out by the No campaign where every headline simply read ‘[noun] better together in UK, say experts!’.

The fact is, a lot of the stuff kicked out by both sides is cheap and ridiculous, and rightly deserves to be laughed out of town. Now writing newspaper articles calling Alex Salmond a fascist is the other extreme to hailing him as a genius and a saviour. He is, at the end of the day, just a middle-aged man in a casual sports jacket. The problem is that people are getting increasingly defensive of things that don’t need to be defending, so when a Telegraph hack phones in some copy calling Alan Bissett an agitprop extremist, people on the Yes side defend him as if he were Scotland’s greatest living playwright, the SNP conference performance included. He’s written some pretty good novels and his Andrea Dworkin-inspired introduction to feminism was patchy but well-conceived, but he can probably look after himself. The last thing we need is a homogenisation of the voting public into two camps where Greens are the SNP with a bit of recycling thrown in and Labour are the Conservatives. The #bittertogether hashtag stopped being funny about ten minutes after it was invented.

Because we have to admit that there are ridiculous things about both sides, from Alex Salmond’s taste in substanceless ‘poignant’ art, as hangs in his office, to George Robertson’s postcard to the apocalyptic. We probably need to find amusement in the ironies of both sides at the expense of the overly zelous and the impressively naïve. We need to accept that Christopher Grieve was a gifted but often tragi-comic figure and not an unsung hero. We need to realise that Nicola’s cuffs of Ayshire lace provided an unexpected comic touch, and that the Yes Scotland film using Big Country on the soundtrack first shown at the Declaration of Cineworld was not the stuff that aspring nations are made of. Quite rightly, we should also laugh (though not in the way they intended) at whichever Better Together staffer thought the best way to respond to the National Collective Yestival was with a ‘joke’ straight from the Top Gear annual. Laugh at far-left splinter groups arguing about whether nationalism is the antithesis of communism or the path to true liberation, and take heart in the fact that the guy sitting in an armchair in Perthshire with ‘Free Scotland’ on his twitter profile is as ridiculous as the guy tweeting from his sofa in Renfrew with ‘British AND Scottish’  under the picture of his face.  We live in a country of complexities and overlaps, divided loyalties and shared values. Pretending there is a big dividing line down the middle of two exclusive groups is equivalent to the Edinburgh-Glasgow jokes trotted out every night in comedy club warm-up acts. Diversity is a good thing, and that means realising you don’t have to be part of Yes the identity, just Yes the voting preference. And if you’re reading Nicola, my favourite thing to do on a night in is cook a curry, have a cheeky glass of red and  watch Michael Fassbender films.