Scottish literature, landscape and books

Out and about these last few weeks in a flurry of bookish jaunting…

First, to the MacRobert’s arts centre, to Andrew O’Hagan’s thought-provoking but not overly provocative lecture titled, ‘Civic Memory: An Argument on the Character of Scottish Culture’, ‘on the ties that bind Scottish literature to civic humanism. Meandering playfully, O’Hagan’s conceit was this: parochial isn’t necessarily a bad thing when it has a global reach; the parochial in the global shows humanism in action and is particular to the Scottish psyche, the ‘wha’s like us’ mentality if not mentalité of the Scots and Scottish writing.

O’Hagan brought together supporting evidence that Scottish literature had been ‘punching above its weight’ on the global stage for over four hundred years on the native strength of finding the global in the particular. ‘Scotland is a living workshop of the imagination’ he argued, and then leant back on the usual suspects, Burns and Scott and Stevenson. Surprisingly, he didn’t dwell over long on Scottish Enlightenment thinkers, people like Hume and Reid or writers like Henry Mackenzie whose Man of Feeling most definitely backs up his argument. Instead, he moved on to Stevenson and the way that, even in Samoa, the Scottish landscape continued to haunt his writing. This isn’t nationalism, though, he said, but a desire for that sense of belonging that comes with a tie to the landscape.

For O’Hagan, James Kelman provides the ‘best example of craft and writing’ in his idea of civic humanism. Kelman’s writing, he argued, is compelled by a moral imperative, an insistence on the importance and value of a particular Scottishness within a global scale: “Scotland is the world centre of fictionality’, he said.

In a post-nationalist, post-industrial era now more than ever we need that sense of belonging which seems now a thing of the past, an anachronism. We need to look inside, as in medieval times, when the body represented the state, to our ‘island’ lives [both literally and metaphorically], not in a sentimental way but striving for nationhood which is also self-hood.

  • The best question brought the best answer. Asked, ‘what is a Scot – a Scottish writer?’ – O’Hagan replied, it’s anyone who imagines they are Scottish who puts Scotland at the centre of all their thinking and writing life, for whom Scotland and Scottishness are primary. Reflecting on Benedict Anderson, O’Hagan said that the border isn’t determined by the physical landscape but the imagination: it’s a state of mind.

Andrew O’Hagan is a Scottish novelist and essayist. His latest book is The Life and Opinions of Maf the Dog, and of his friend, Marilyn Monroe (Faber). The play based on his first book, The Missing, opened recently to rave reviews. The lecture was part of the ‘House of Words’ series.

Secondly, a wander around Linlithgow – a town which played a major part in events which shaped Scottish history, brought O’Hagan’s lecture into sharp focus -: a practical example of the global in the particular, where literature and history resonate across the landscape.

And which, rightly, boasts a really good bookshop. The Linlithgow Bookshop is packed floor to ceiling with books, books, books; modern books, books of local interest, history books, contemporary fiction and recent academic books – and a separate but equally jam-packed children’s section. Worth a return visit.

Thirdly, out and about in town with teenager we tripped over a new bookshop. Well, not new but newly moved from a back street to the town centre. The Lit-List Bookshop is a bit different: all books retail for under £2 and mix second-hand and new books. I spoke to the owner, Melissa, but only briefly as the shop got busy (a good thing). I’ll be popping back soon once she’s got settled in and post an interview. I liked the feel of Lit-List, not least because they also support local and new writers.

On the desk was a copy of Matt Hamilton’s Strathcarnage (Matador) and Melissa tells me they’re hoping to host a ‘pop-up’ event with the author and illustrator Chris Odgers in the near future. 

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