When the University of Edinburgh commissioned Nathan Coley to create a new artwork for display in its main library, the artist was invited to give a presentation to the committee overseeing the university’s collections. Coley’s brief was to design a piece to occupy a display wall in the library’s main concourse, which had long been host to a peculiar series of paintings of protestant church fathers.
These paintings had previously hung in the Playfair Library in Old College, and had been apparently been gathered together in the early nineteenth century. Their value – as art, and as anything else – was questionable, but they were now so much a part of the institution’s patrimony that a myth had even grown up suggesting that bad luck would befall any man (sic) presuming to remove them from display.
John Dover Wilson was one of the best known, and most influential, Shakespearean scholars of the 20th century. His greatest achievement was the complete edition of the works that he edited and oversaw for Cambridge University Press between 1921 and 1966; yet he is perhaps best known to generations of readers as the author of What Happens in Hamlet, first published in 1935, with which – in the words of Harold Jenkins – ‘he captured the imagination of the general public to a degree probably unequalled by any other Shakespearian scholar’. In doing so – and this is a point to which I’ll return – he demonstrated the particular currency of a specifically literary critical engagement with the Shakespearian text and its dramatic and readerly possibilities that differs from more recent biographical or historical handlings of the playwright and his plays.Continue reading “Shakespeare as Currency”
The answer, when it came, was insultingly brief – perhaps deliberately so. Contrary to some speculation at the weekend, Johnson’s letter to the First Minister showed no signs of careful thought or legal briefing or even a sense that these were weighty matters. A quick reference to the ‘once in a generation’ canard, some false claims about Scottish public services, and that was it. No Section 30. No second independence referendum. Concentrate on with the day job, Nicola.
What on earth is up with British unionism? Although not especially reflective at the best of times, this ideology has recently been thrust into explicitness in disturbing ways. It’s often said that Brexit is in part driven by an upsurge of English nationalism, but I don’t buy that – if only because there’s no such extant thing (yet) as English nationalism. It is, rather, the laying bare of the nationalism that England has instead of its own, which is the nationalism of the UK – aka unionism. And while it isn’t necessarily worked out in any compellingly abstracted form, it is still not properly understood.
This nationalism is profoundly Anglocentric, to be sure, but its commitment to the United Kingdom is just as profound – when Theresa May insists that she won’t countenance dividing the kingdom in order to ensure an open border in Ireland she’s not just parroting the DUP’s lines. But the UK it has in its heart is one in which English dominance is taken as read, and which is hostile to any serious checks on the sovereign power located at Westminster and Whitehall. Devolution is fine as long as it can be overruled when necessary, and as long as it’s the centre that gets to decide when it is necessary. But everything touching on the constitution that has happened with the approach to Brexit makes clear that the Westminster government’s freedom to propose and dispose must be untrammelled and unchecked.
On 16 September, the Sunday Times published an interview with the leader of the Scottish Conservatives, Ruth Davidson. The piece was both about Davidson’s private and public lives (the two can’t really be separated, not in her line of work): her pregnancy and the importance to her and her partner of starting a family, her political career to date, and her desire not to be Prime Minister (despite strong rumours to the contrary). The interview was trying to be a refreshing take on a Conservative politician – as the interviewer points out, on the surface, Davidson is hardly your archetypal Tory, ‘…a working-class, winningly informal, cheerfully profane 39-year-old lesbian former kick boxer…’. The piece even begins with Ruth dancing for the photographer, apparently unembarrassed. She is portrayed as frank, amusing and charming. She has an autobiography coming out, called ‘Yes She Can’, and a lengthy extract from this book, which deals with her breakdown aged 17, is printed at the end of the interview.
Can I make a confession? It’s not exactly an original one, and the experiences it concerns are anything other than unique. Perhaps it isn’t much of a confession, given how many people – although I’m thinking primarily of men here – have said something similar before me. I was corporeally contemptible when I was a boy – short, skinny, a late developer, and the youngest of three brothers. I was resoundingly shit at sport of all kinds, which was a bit rubbish considering how good at it my nearest brother was – the one I looked up to, the one who couldn’t resist the entirely understandable urge to stress his place one rung up on the ladder of life whenever the opportunity arose. For some reason my brain couldn’t tell the difference between a ball thrown at me and one thrown to me, and the same helpless spasm of indecision would foul me up each time I was called upon to stop or catch one. There wasn’t a tackle I’d fail to pull out of, or a pass that wouldn’t fall short. I could have cringed for England. Participatory sports were little more than a weekly episode of shivering, chafing and humiliation, longing for the time to pass and the bus to come and to just get home, while others shouted and ran and sweated and thrived. The echoes of these episodes rang round the playground and the classroom. The echoes, being echoes, all sounded the same: weak, weak, weak.
At last – definitive proof that there is such a thing as a free lunch!
To mark the release of the new LitLong app for both Android and iOS we’re holding a couple of events about which I’m quite frankly unable to contain my excitement. LitLong is a unique digital resource that allows users to explore literary Edinburgh through more than 600 works which make the city their setting – it’s been put together and developed by a team based in English Literature here, and we’ve been remaking our interface and apps over the last year.
One of the key features of the new LitLong is the ability to make and share ‘paths’ – customised strings of excerpts on any topic or theme that the resource makes possible. So this Saturday, 18 November, we’re holding a free event exploring and making paths through literary Edinburgh. There’ll be all sorts of different activities, a free lunch, and then a chance to explore the settings of Kaite Welsh’s fantastic new contribution to Edinburgh crime fiction, The Wages of Sin, on a tour guided by Kaite herself! You can find further info, and book a place, here. We’d love to see you there!
One of the other things that LitLong does is to bring a lot of long-neglected writing to the surface, much of it by women writers who are less well known than they should be. Since LitLong draws on Wikipedia to inform users about the writers whose work they encounter there, we’re making a concerted effort to create or improve Wikipedia articles on some of the women writers whose books we’re featuring. So on Friday 24 November we’re hosting an ‘editathon’ for anyone who’d like to help us bring these writers out of the shadows. Full training in writing and editing Wikipedia articles will be provided, as will a free lunch, plus LitLong goodies! Please book your place here. We have a Wikipedia page for the event, with practical info and suggestions for articles that might be created or improved, if you want to do some preparation beforehand!
In its death agonies, the vestigial remnant of Scottish Labour is convulsing in some entirely predictable ways. One of them, particularly evident recently, has been an even more ferocious assault on the independence movement in Scotland, which they corral – not, a lot of the time, unfairly, but not always entirely accurately – under the label of ‘Scottish nationalism’. Once again, those of us happy to support or work for the goal of an independent Scotland are being balefully admonished for fomenting a ‘politics of division’. This line is common to both Labour and the Tories, of course (and the Lib Dems, but who notices them?). But it’s Labour who make a particular habit of suggesting that this ‘divisive’ politics necessarily has something of the night about it.
As the ill wind of Brexit swirls all around, we find ourselves skirmishing again over the issue of Scottish independence. The Unionist ultras, at least, seem to be in a state of high anxiety, while those who were still holding out for the messianic advent of British federalism are looking more forlorn and friendless than ever. Back at HQ, Nicola Sturgeon surveys the terrain with what I can’t help but imagine is a coolly calculating eye. The way ahead, though, is anything but clear.
Surrounding her is a cacophony of voices offering advice, most of it unsolicited. There are probably as many different views on how a second campaign for Scottish independence should be run as there are surviving partisans of the last one. Everyone has learned the lessons of 2014 – the only problem is that there’s no general agreement on what those lessons should be.Continue reading “The Rhetoric of Scottish Independence”
Early one morning, any morning, we can set out, with the least
possible baggage, and discover the world.
So begins the brilliant ‘In Praise of Walking’, by Thomas A. Clark, a poem I’d heartily recommend to anyone. But what kind of world can we discover? That’s a writer’s question, to some extent – the suspicion that discovering means making as well as finding, that discoveries are stories we tell as well as brute facts on which we stub our toes.