Martin Hannan: It’s time Scottish artists spoke out

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In all the politicking and blethering that has been havered about independence and the referendum, it seems to me that a very important voice has been missing.

With a few exceptions, the contributions you would expect from our poets and playwrights, our novelists and artists, have been strangely absent. Don’t even mention films and directors and actors – this daft country doesn’t even have a decent film studio so how is anyone in movies ever going to tell this nation’s story on screen in a meaningful way?

Cobbled together television documentaries and meandering features in newspapers are a poor substitute for the insight of true artists in the widest sense of that word, and it seems to me they are not playing their part at this time.

That may be due to the trend in modern culture to listen to cod philosophers, prattling politicians, internet trolls – aye, and journalists, too – rather than people who have a record of creativity.

It is almost as if the imagination and articulacy you associate with the arts have been left out of the greatest national debate in our history. The fact that Creative Scotland has been a long time in its gestation out of the not-much-missed duo of the Scottish Arts Council and Scottish Screen might be a reason why there has been a muted response from the artistic community – you can’t talk or do art if you’re not eating, and grants are down or gone completely. Or then again it may just be that Scotland’s artists are simply not deigning to engage with this utterly crucial issue of where we go as a nation.

In the theatre, for instance, where are the modern equivalents of the 7:84 and Wildcat companies of yesteryear? In London earlier this month I was privileged to see Jerusalem, a quite utterly brilliant play that said more about England and Englishness in one night than a thousand politicians could tell you in a century. It contained the greatest single piece of stage acting that I have seen in more than 40 years of theatre going by the mesmeric and charismatic Mark Rylance, and the production from start to finish was a triumph.

Only the National Theatre of Scotland’s Black Watch has come anywhere near matching it in my recent experience of Scottish theatre, and at least the NTS has tried to reflect aspects of Scottishness with such productions as Calum’s Road with Gerry Mulgrew’s Communicado Theatre and Beautiful Burnout with Frantic Assembly, while even the loudly panned Caledonia tried to say something about modern Scotland.

There is fantastic theatre going on in Scotland led by the NTS, with the Traverse Theatre up there as always. David McLennan’s A Play, a Pie and a Pint at the Oran Mor in Glasgow is the best lunchtime theatre anywhere, and I hear good things about Emerge, an evening of work by new artists and directors which is at The Citizens in Glasgow on Thursday night.

But no playwright or theatre director, or for that matter novelist or painter or sculptor, has emerged to make himself or herself the authentic interpreter of what is going on in Scotland. I cannot believe that this national convulsion is happening without someone trying at least to delineate that most indefinable of qualities – Scottishness.

We need writers to cut through the miasma and show us a clear vision of what Scotland needs to know. We need people with the imagination to imagine what may be, for good or ill.

I would love William McIlvanney or Andrew O’Hagan to move to the fore and speak their mind. Most of all, I would like our poets to articulate the deepest feelings within Scots at this time. And if in doing so they evince dark foreboding then so be it – not everyone in Scotland sees the future through a glass clearly.

There may be those who think there’s no point as Robert Burns and Hugh MacDiarmid have done it all before, and in this Unesco City of Literature you only have to walk up to the Makar’s Court at the Writer’s Museum to see evidence that many poets have indeed pinned down Scottishness before.

From John Barbour’s Fredome is a noble thing to Ian Crichton Smith’s Let our three-voiced country sing in a new world, there is plenty of poetic food for thought on the very stones of the court.

And as someone who is old enough to have shared a glass with my hero Norman MacCaig in the original Edinburgh Wine bar run by his son, and to have drunk the health of Sorley MacLean in Milne’s Bar around the time of his 80th birthday (I think it was 80, the memory of the evening is rather sketchy for some reason), I know they and their friend Hugh MacDiarmid would love to have been alive now and flyting and telling in verse what they thought about the new Scotland and the chance to make this nation independent.

But that great triumvirate of lettered men is sadly no longer with us, and when we celebrate Burns Night tomorrow, it will be words about the Bard written by MacDiarmid in A Drunk Man Looks at the Thistle which I’ll think on:

“Rabbie, wad’st thou were here – the warld hath need,

And Scotland mair sae, o’ the likes o’ thee.