Scottish Arts Row Redux

Alasdair Gray
Alasdair Gray

Late last year Alasdair Gray got himself in hot water by separating English Arts administrators in Scotland into two groups, Settlers, who stay in Scotland for most of their careers, and Colonialists who plunder Scotland for kudos then disappear back over the border. I could see what he meant – that someone who lives in Scotland for a long-time may have a stronger ability to nurture it’s true creative impulse – rather than someone who only superficially samples our culture. But his essay caused a lot of hurt and offence. After all English Arts Administrators are real people – and a job is a job – and the Arts are the Arts – a person with talent and vision may be able to bring out the best in us regardless of the length of their stay. The press created an ugly undertone suggesting that Grey was suggesting that the English were unfit to work here, or Scottish jobs had been stolen, or Scottish talent was being oppressed by invaders. The other side of that argument – that Scots had no confidence in their own artistic endeavours, that Scots were still too literal and Presbyterian to explore the metaphor-ridden, status-shifting, wild-side of our imaginations, or that we all brain-drained ourselves to London as soon as we could leaving only English people who fancied a change of scene to take the top posts – got neglected in the wave of Scottish Independence centred hand-wringing*. By the time Vikki Featherstone admitted she felt bullied for being English during her highly successful stint at The National Theatre of Scotland, the debate had got so toxic it was best left where it was.

Vikki Featherstone
Vikki Featherstone

But a few days ago it managed to reignite itself after a London born producer Pippa Bailey complained that the Edinburgh Festival was run by posh English men. This being an English on English spat we can look at it objectively and put in our penny’s worth. Some big Fringe venues are owned by young posh English men and the fringe itself has a high proportion of young posh English performers. That’s probably down to economics; the South of England has the most rich people, rich people are more likely to be able to stage a show or buy a venue. There’s no language barrier, it’s not like moving to outer-Mongolia and Edinburgh is a nice place to live. There’s not a lot to put a marauding Southerner off. In truth this is a class and gender psychodrama that doesn’t trigger too many Scottish hang-ups. The men in Scotland most likely to be chauvinists are the least likely to leave their golf club long enough to have an interest in theatre. Our working-class – whether it’s shipbuilders or crofters – has been more visible than our middle-class (mainly represented by lawyers and doctors) and our aristocracy (mainly represented by Mary Queen of Scots and Bonnie Prince Charlie). If this ignites into a full scale media flame war I’ll eat my hamster. **

So should we have this Nationality-based jobs stramash at all?

No. We shouldn’t.

There’s no evidence that English Arts administrators in Scotland are shunning local Scottish talent (whatever blind spots or empathy gaps or alien attachments their specific background has given them). If they don’t have a grudge in their hearts – lets not give them a reason to develop one.

If we believe that outsiders do a better job than insiders, or if we’re scared to express ourselves outside of an Anglo-International prism, then we need to get over it without making people who live and work here our scapegoat.

The English mostly take the abuse we fling at them in their stride, assimilating within one generation, eager to fit in – but should they start complaining and cease to give a rat’s arse about displaying tartan affectations – should we get hurt by their hurt, some of us trying to appease, some of us stubbornly upping the insults – we could end up with yet another murky depressing agitating sectarian bitchfest on our hands similar to the running battle we have with Irish Catholicism. It would just be there, lurking, making us all feel like victims or villains or both simultaneously, a constant negotiation between denial and fury.

In other words – it’s bad karma.

And since there will always be at least one Scot or one Angle who will make the other side of the border their favourite whipping boy – then once we’re fighting over it – it can’t have a natural end. YouTube will forever have a drunk chanting put-downs. Newsreaders will forever clutch their pearls in disapproval while escalating the sensation. Tit will follow tat. Schools will waste money by forcing us to agree that we hate each other, then forcing us to like each other, while making us hate each other for having to sit through a lecture. Politicians will condemn, exploit, inflame or ignore the situation depending on how the votes fall. People who lack any other source of pride will be waving flags at each other. Things we give no thought to will become sensitive issues. Symbols we barely see will become loaded. We will do unto others as we claim they are doing unto us and we won’t notice the double standard. We’ll be paranoid and disgruntled. We’ll spread hate and fear. We’ll close our minds and our hearts. We’ll make life difficult for people with a foot in both camps. We’ll have to regularly read melodramatic crap like this paragraph – BUT IT’LL BE FOR REAL.

Like blaming your parents when you’re in your 40s – it does no good.

Be positive about the Arts. Love them. Learn about them. Be open to new things. Encourage your fellow citizens not to think the Devil invented them. That will change the jobs situation without having to deliberately exile incomers. And if all else fails – we can always slag them off at four in the morning, in private, while sloshed – everyone wins that way.

Performers at the Edinburgh Festival. Pic nicked from The Guardian by Danny Lawson.
Performers at the Edinburgh Festival. Pic nicked from The Guardian. By Danny Lawson.

*The Scottish Independence debate is often reduced to an argument about loving/hating Britain or England. It does garner support from people who hate Britain or hate England for whatever political or historical or cultural reasons – but it would. It doesn’t change the fact that there are solid reasons for staying together (the national grid, combined defences, already being in the E.U.) & good reasons for breaking apart (politically and economically we’re nothing like the South of England & I can’t see our interests ever converging in the future, having a hub of activity outside of London would benefit the entire island – not just Scots alone – money and power has become horrifically concentrated in London to the point that it feels like another country, not just a capital).

**I will never eat my hamster under any circumstances.

Endeavour Barclay - it suspects it's doomed.
Endeavour Barclay – it suspects it’s doomed.
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