The British Council and the Edinburgh Writers Conference by James Kelman
The British Council and the Edinburgh Writers Conference by James Kelman
13th August 2012
On a recent Sunday the Herald had a twenty page full colour supplement in association with the Scottish Tourist Board. Stories from the land that inspired Disney Pixar's Brave. That's us. The land "Where Legends Come to Life". People wonder why we get irritated occasionally. It isn't to do with the movie itself. I havent even seen it. The storyline involves loveable indigenous aristocrats, which is familiar: the kind of shite favoured by Scottish politicians, cuddly comedians and cuddly actors, cuddly rockstar rebels, millionaire sportstars and, of course, the cuddly ruling elite. This particular movie has a royal daughter hero rather than a royal son, which appeals to some as a blow for female emancipation, apparently.
I'm not attacking its author, why bother, he's doing hack work. The Scottish Tourist Board has five sections on Scottish literature on its website. Eighteen writers are referred to in its five Scottish Literature sections. Here's eight of them: Bram Stoker, Dan Brown; Michael Palin, Michael Parkinson, Charlotte Bront, J.K. Rowling, Charles Dickens and Ulysses S Grant. Of the ten Scottish born writers six are deid: J.M. Barrie, James Hogg, R L Stevenson, John Buchan, Muriel Spark and Walter Scott. The four living writers are Irvine Welsh, Ian Rankin, Christopher Brookmyre and John Byrne. I should add that there is no criticism of any of the writers. We don't choose ourselves for this kind of thing. For what it's worth I know two of the four personally and get on fine with them. But I would guess from this list of eighteen names that those responsible for the compilation of these five sections on Scottish Literature have little or no knowledge of the literature, or literary culture of this country - or else they have disguised it most thoroughly.
In the twenty page full-colour supplement there is a wee paragraph entitled Highland Clearances:
To understand why there are clan societies across the world, visit Dunrobin Castle. The man who ordered its construction owed his fortune to the activities of his parents - the fabulously wealthy 1st Duke and Duchess of Sutherland. To some, the Sutherlands were visionaries who modernised a barren estate to make it profitable, to others they were homewreckers who turfed out local families to make way for commercial sheep farms. Such clearances went on across the Highlands and Islands. Some families moved to the coast, others to the lowlands, many sailed across the Atlantic. To delve deeper into this sorrowful story, visit the Highland Folk Museum.
People can write such drivel to their heart's content as far as I am concerned. The part I cannot accept is not that other people publish the stuff. Yes, I am angered that it should be commisioned as teaching material for the consumption of overseas students, tourists and visitors to our country. It is worse than that. Such gross misrepresentation of our history is being served to us, to our children, our grandchildren. Any institution or formation whose funds derive from public sources should not be allowed to employ or commission people who deal in such drivel. Those who do should be held accountable, if not charged with criminal misrepresentation: if holocaust denial is a crime it is time that other denials are, at least, brought to light publicly.
Scotland does have a history. I'm not sure where it belongs, in the history of servitude, subjection, psychotic inferiorisation, god knows, these different ways people avoid responsibility. We need a proper debate and it's up to us that it should go that way. How many of us never mind the rest of Britain know that those in favour of independence are not necessarily nationalist? It's said of me. Let me repeat I am not a nationalist but I favour independence 100%. I was on a platform with four other Scottish writers in France recently. Each of us favours independence, and none of us is a Nationalist, as far as I know.
Independence is not an economic decision, it concerns self-respect. How many countries do we know in the world where the people need a debate about whether or not they should determine their own existence. Ultimately it concerns survival. For whatever value our culture has it is ours, and like Sorely MacLean once said about the Gaelic language, even if it was a poor thing, it would still be loved, and those who used it would still have the desire to see it flourish. We may distinguish between country and culture: I favour 'culture'. It may be the point where a clear separation occurs between nationalists and others.
A proper debate is crucial, about what it is to be a country, what it is to be a culture, the dangers of nationalism, all these different areas up for discussion, among people who share a basic feeling or sensibility. And that includes people opposed to independence, those who have different political positions, people on the right - I don't care, just to see things debated properly, where we know at the outset that the discourse is authentic, that it belongs to us and is not sheltering beneath some patronising umbrella organisation that just happens to be utterly opposed to our existence as an independent country - and I'm referring here to the British Council who just happens to be co-organising the five-day Writers' Conference at this year's Edinburgh International Book Festival.
The 1962 International Writers' Conference that took place in Edinburgh occupies its place in literary history, not only in Scotland. The 2012 EBIF seeks to mark its fiftieth anniversary by staging a similar five-day conference in August. I was invited to Chair one of the five days and accepted by return. Later I discovered that the International Writers' Conference is co-organised by the British Council and I withdrew. I have avoided their patronage for a number of years. I thought to attend one of the daily events and voice my opinions from the floor. On reflection I decided against. Why enter the lion's den to express my right not to be eaten by the lion?
I reserve the right not be swallowed up by the British State. The relationship between it and the British Council is defined clearly enough. Although "the British Council operates at arm's length from the UK government and...does not carry out its functions on behalf of the Crown...[its] objectives and key targets [are] agreed in consultation with the Foreign and Commonwealth Office [whose] Secretary of State is accountable to Parliament for [its] policies, operations and performance." At the same time, the British Council remains a charity, founded in 1934, incorporated by Royal Charter in 1940.
Their Literature Director explains that "with our global team and our offices worldwide, [we are] ideally placed to harness the power of international literature for cultural relations between nations..."
The UK government has identified a range of priority goals which it wishes to target in partnership with other countries, governments and peoples. These range from achieving climate security to making the world safer from global terrorism. There are themes where the UK has the same priorities as many other countries which share the same values... The FCO works in different ways through Public Diplomacy to support the achievement of these goals [and] plays an important role in persuading people around the world that our common interests - and common values - mean we have to work together to tackle shared challenges, and then to turn that consensus into real action on the ground. The aim is to stimulate thinking that will contribute to decisions and actions concerning key issues.
One project engaged in recently by the British Council with countries whose 'values we share' took place in the north of Ireland, "as part of a programme developed by the British Council and Queen's University Belfast..." [O]ur "senior government figures in education and justice" together with those of "Iraq, Armenia [and] Israel...worked together to learn from [our] experiences of conflict resolution...the primary focus was to develop a human rights curriculum in schools..."
The British Council has funded and promoted British writers for years, as Irish writers have been supported by the Irish Arts Council. But few overseas 'international' literary events flourish without external sponsorship. Most visiting writers are funded directly from their own countries' arts bodies or indirectly in which case the sponsorship is channelled through the the host organisation's overall budget. Whether the British Council can distinguish easily between English and British is a moot point. Among its chief priorities is "to develop a wider knowledge of the English language". There is no mention of other languages used within the British islands.
Once upon a time Scottish writers could try for financial support from the Scottish Arts Council. Should Scottish writers seek funding from the SAC or the British Council in order to attend an international event? That was a shady area, no longer applicable, for the Scottish Arts Council has gone altogether and there is no body other than the British Council who funds Scottish writers to take part in foreign events. We have a body known as 'Creative Scotland' whose Director has stated with full confidence that he knew no Scottish writers at all. He had been headhunted for the post by the Scottish Colonial authorities for whom knowledge of the indigenous art is irrelevant for the man in charge of its creation.
Certain forms of ignorance are always beneficial for political authority. The axe is swung more readily when the executioner is foreign not only to the victim, but to the victim's family, community and wider culture.
I am doing a reading at the EIBF this year. It works for me because I don't see it as a Scottish literary festival. It is an international book festival; one among others that exist in different parts of the English-speaking world. Without financial support from the British Council they would be unable to invite so many British writers. This one takes place in north Britain which is sited in Edinburgh, capital of Scottish region - 'Scotshire' as Lewis Crassic Gibbon called it. Like the British Council, the EIBF as in many of these other so-called international book festivals, promotes the ascendancy of English literature, deriving its norms, its values, its ethical dynamic from what we might call 'High English' culture.
I do regret that in my country - which is Scotland - we have a major International Writers Conference taking place that fails to perceive the necessity of its own distinctive literary tradition which is the Scottish literary tradition. In that it merely reflects political reality. It is fair enough. I can attend or not attend. Next time in London I can visit Westminster, or not.
The literary tradition to which the EIBF belongs would be termed 'British', if such a thing existed. Implicit in this 'programming partnership' is the notion of a "British literature". Yet beyond the geographical grouping that is Great Britain and the north of Ireland the idea of "Britishness" cannot be taken for granted. We cannot talk easily about "British Law", "British Philosophy" "British Education": can we on "British Literature"? Is there such a thing? Can "British literature" have any meaningul application beyond a trivial, collective term for the literatures of Scotland, Wales, England and perhaps the north of Ireland? Once we start digging only a little more deeply we are into an area that seems to include, or 'allow in' "Australasian literature", "North American and Canadian literature". And when we look sideways we find it quickly extends into the Indian Sub-Continent, the West Indies, significant chunks of the continent of Africa and Asia.
What is being pushed here as "British Literature" is what we already know as English literature. Except that here it has been enlarged. This "English literature" embraces the output of the former English and British Empire. Not the entire output, for this would include indigenous languages; it includes only languages that may be classified by British authority, as English-based.
Nowadays we distinguish between English literature and English-language literature. The latter allows through the massive body of work that uses the English language as an effect of British imperialism and colonization. People have been forced to use English, their own languages have been debased, proscribed; shelved, set aside or withdrawn. Not simply Scottish, Irish and Welsh writers but writers from the English regions too; writers from Jamaica, Trinidad, Nigeria, Zimbabwe, India, Pakistan, South Africa, Singapore, Australia, USA, New Zealand, Canada and all those other cultures who make use of a force-fed English, the language of imperial authority, to create their own poetry, prose and drama in a process that may eventually reestablish their own identity.
During this 2012 'International Conference' many people from overseas will be in attendance but the majority will hail from England, Scotland, Wales and Ireland. Most every discussion will begin from 'freedom'. What else do artists discuss, apart from money, which is seen as the means to freedom anyway: 'freedom of expression'; 'internet freedom', 'freedom of the press', 'artistic freedom'; 'civil freedom, 'national freedom', 'human freedom', 'linguistic freedom', 'cultural freedom'. And related questions concerning 'rights': the right of a language to exist if the people who use it want to continue using it; the right of a literature to exist on its own terms. Should the different languages of the home countries be allowed to develop as a function of the people who use them or should decisions that affect their survival be made by outside authorities?
One of the functional uses of "British literature" could be the categorising of the poetry, prose and plays created by writers working in any of the languages current in Great Britain and Ireland. These would include the Celtic languages of Wales, England, Ireland and Scotland, and languages such as Urdu, Cantonese, Kurdish, Yoruba, Ibo, Kiswahili, siSwati, Bengali, Hindi and the other hundred and eighty or so languages found within British school playgrounds.
For the political authorities "the role of literature" is primary. For writers it is beyond that, way way beyond. Literature has no 'role'. Literature is art and art is life. "Primary' implies 'secondary'. Once we talk about art as primary we are talking about life being primary; at this point we are no longer discussing humanity but bodies that are either dead or of another species altogether. Either that or we are engaged in a discourse that allows 'us' to dispense with 'them'.
The existence of art is the existence of life itself. In one form or another this most basic proposition will lurk at the root of the conference. The political authorities will not 'allow' that proposition. It makes imperialism awkward, and colonisation very difficult.
The British State is an authority that advances the cause of the United Kingdom; its oneness, its indivisibility. This is the body co-organising the 2012 International Conference to mark, the fiftieth anniversary of the 1962 International Conference at which William Burroughs said he "shared with Mary Macarthy a feeling that something incredible was going on beyond the fact of people paying to listen..." And he added that he "could not but feel that it was indeed The Last Writers' Conference." Maybe he was right.
Present alongside Compton MacKenzie and Malcolm Muggeridge were James Baldwin, Henry Miller, Roberto Fernando-Retamar, Angus Wilson, Sonia Brownell (widow of George Orwell) and the young Margaret Drabble. I don't think we should glamorise the 1962 Conference but people in Scotland deserve to know about it. Neither MacDiarmid nor Trocchi came out of it particularly well although it was their confrontation that settled its legendary status, at least in Scotland. Much else was simmering. On the fourth day Mary McCarthy chaired the debate on "Censorship". This was in the wake of the "Trial" in England of Lady Chatterley's Lover but in USA also censorship and suppression were high on the agenda. William Burroughs' work had been known in Scottish literary circles since 1959 when "an issue of the Edinburgh University Review entitled Jabberwock" included the opening chapter of Naked Lunch as well as work by "Ginsberg...Corso and Kerouac." He and Alexander Trocchi were friends. Within the alternative literary circles of Europe and USA Trocchi was respected for his work as editor of the literary journal Merlin and for his own writings: Young Adam had appeared in 1954 and Cain's Book in 1960. During this debate Burroughs was attacked, "and defended by Mary MacCarthy and Norman Mailer". Mailer already knew Trocchi, following the publication of Cain's Book. Mailer had helped finance Trocchi through a dark period in his life, "funding [his] escape to Canada where he caught a fishing boat to Aberdeen" with the personal assistance of a young Leonard Cohen.
Following his return Trocchi was in Edinburgh in the company of the editor of Jabberwock. They met Hugh MacDiarmid in Milne's Bar. It was not a good meeting. Nevertheless it shows the two writers were acquainted prior to the public confrontation and this is importance. There was a later communication between them in 1964. Trocchi wrote to MacDiarmid, expressing his 'profound respect' for the older man and a dissatisfaction with the 1962 Conference. He wants to work with MacDiarmid "in [his] rightful place at the head of our shock troops, in Edinburgh... [and] help [Jim] Haynes make a success of an 'unofficial conference'.
The British Council involvment doesn't bear scrutiny for long. This is the British State, sponsored by and accountable to the Foreign and Commonwealth Office. It's the FCO's cultural wing, not some free-thinking arts body. Writers coming from other cultures think they're walking into a debate grounded in contemporary Scotland, instead they're attending an event co-organised by a body subservient to the British State's Foreign and Commonwealth Office. These are the people who've got in on the back of this International Writers Conference. The statement issued by the British Council's Director of Literature sums up their participation: "with our global team and our offices worldwide, [we are] ideally placed to harness the power of international literature for cultural relations between nations..."
We should greet foreign writers with a banner at Edinburgh Airport: Congratulations, you have arrived in Northern Britain. Your power is now being harnessed for cultural relations between our nations! It will be of special interest to any writers arriving from countries and cultures suffering forms of oppression, suppression, punishments that include bombings, incarceration, threats to the family, torture, and death itself, for having the courage to engage in the production of literature. I'm sure they will be glad to attend an all-day event co-hosted by a body sponsored by the British State who want to discuss "Is Commitment Necessary? Apparently in 1962 some writers believed that "literature is above the problems of the day."
(C) James Kelman