Last night I went to see David Greig’s phenomenal theatre adaptation of Alasdair Gray’s epic novel Lanark. Afterwards David’s mum asked me what I thought. I was dumbstruck. And not just because it was a brilliant piece of theatre but because I knew that if I started to talk about how I really felt, I’d burst into tears. With more time to think it over, here’s my thoughts on why Lanark made such an impact on me.
I must start with an admission. I’ve never read the book. I’ve got a copy sitting on my shelf where it’s sat for years now, borrowed by my partner Nat but never read by me. Another admission; this was the first thing I’d seen or read by David Greig beyond his Yes/No plays on Twitter last year. These are awful admissions given that I’m working with David on the Two Minute Manifesto. But more importantly they feel pretty shameful in the context of a newly awakened citizenry in these post referendum days.
I think like many people, the referendum opened my eyes to Scottish culture and to just how much I don’t know about my own country and people. National Collective may well be guilty of some of the accusations levelled at it, but the referendum events they held and the debates they initiated opened the eyes of huge numbers of people to what they were missing. I for one will always be grateful for that.
We have been denied so much richness in our cultural heritage and been prevented from using the tools to create our own futures. For me, this trend is apparent in the Scottish cringe where we’re embarrassed by the tartan and shortbread vision of our nation (and I think rightly so) but unable to counter it with anything more genuine because we’re simply unaware that it exists.
This lack of awareness isn’t just about culture but equally about our politics. Last week Alex Salmond gave a lecture for the first Thomas Muir Memorial lecture, organised by the excellent Word Power Books. He said that he hadn’t been aware of Muir until Hamish Henderson (of Freedom Come All Ye fame) told Salmond about him and his struggle to extend the franchise. Think about that for a second. Until a cultural creator shone a light on this 250 year old radical campaigning to extend the franchise, the man who would be First Minister hadn’t heard of him. For me that demonstrates, even in a small way, the power of culture’s influence on politics.
Thinking back to Lanark, one of the things that really struck me was the self-loathing and the self-enforced denial of happiness and self-fulfilment amongst the characters. I wondered – is this characteristic of Scotland as a people? What’s wrong with us? Why do we ignore, suppress, deny our past? Why do we hide our talents and creations?
While watching the performance I asked myself the same question. Why don’t I create things any more? I’ve hardly made a thing since graduating nearly a decade ago. A decade of inaction, inertia and office jobs, pouring my creativity into political words instead of images or objects.
At the end of my Sculpture degree at Edinburgh College of Art, I exhibited in our degree show – an exhibition to the world to showcase our wares. My show was an installation – objects created from amalgamations of others to reflect the process of memory creation and association. It was personal, not political. An exploration of myself aged just 20.
My work shared a room with another installation, with 6 television screens suspended from the ceiling playing videos of men screaming and shouting abuse at the camera. The intention was for the viewer to walk between the two rows of three screens, experiencing the abuse.
I sat in that room for ten days of the degree show, picking apart what I’d made, unable to escape the abuse on repeat and feeling any urge to create drain away. Though I knew full well it was just an art work, that the words weren’t directed at me, I quickly felt any self worth as an artist evaporate in those days as doubt crept in. Added to a general suspicion of the elitism of the art world and a feeling that I could make more of a difference in politics, the experience meant I haven’t made any serious art since. It’s a huge regret and a source of a lot of guilt.
So sitting in Lanark last night, it struck me that perhaps that self-denial and shame I’ve felt for years isn’t so unusual. When you’re told repeatedly that you couldn’t possibly succeed, self-doubt and denial of happiness, creativity and self-realisation becomes a part of your identity.
Is it too much of a stretch to suggest that decades of being told that Scotland is a nation of subsidy junkies (or just junkies); that we’ve only got some farms and hills and tourism to our name; and that we need the union, the monarchy and the financiers has helped to shape Scotland’s identity? To make us feel inadequate and an unequal partner in the union?
Isn’t it time we changed that record, learned more about our past and picked up those tools to shape our future? Perhaps I’ll follow my own advice and start creating again. This time with pride.