Another Scotland is Possible! The Joy of Jonathan Meades and Momus

Gerry Hassan

February 4th 2010

I have just watched the second part of Jonathan Meades’ idiosyncratic, challenging work of genius, ‘Off Kilter’ http://www.bbc.co.uk/iplayer/episode/b00mqlzz/Jonathan_Meades_Off_Kilter_Episode_2/, his travelogue around Scotland – part rumination, part history, part observations on life, place and the meaning of it all.

The first programme was on Aberdeen and focused mostly on its architecture, while this second one mostly covered Lewis and Harris, and centred on the landscape, the ether and feel of the place. Meades commented that its awesomeness made it felt like being witness to a glimpse of ‘the furthest future’ and ‘the end of the world and the beginning of a new one’.

I cannot help but think that Meades is providing a wonderful, original account of Scotland which is uplifting and liberating. His reflections on ‘spirit’, ‘faith’ and ‘rock’ seem to succeed where Neal Ascherson tried (and to my mind completely failed) in ‘Stone Voices’.

This programme began by briefly passing through Stirling and the Falkirk Wheel, and then towards its conclusion, meditated on the serenity of the Sabbath in Stornoway with Meades pondering moodily (and perhaps happily) in the empty streets and reflecting on ‘the secular case for Sabbatarianism’.

‘Off Kilter’ has provoked me into thinking about how we look on Scotland differently, how we encourage fresh light to be focused on areas we think we are familiar with, and how we can often be drawn to conventional wisdom and thinking. In this case partly there is the power of the outsider, also seen in a seldom lauded book by Charles Jennings, ‘Faintheart’, a travel writer’s ruminations on post-devolution Scotland, which addresses issues of anti-Englishness, sectarianism and Glasgow’s conceit about itself (1). Not surprisingly some people loved it, while others loathed it.

It is revealing that a decade of devolution hasn’t produced one definitive book or any books which have a decent right to live up to claim to be definitive. There is the case made by some (including himself) of Tom Devine’s ‘The Scottish Nation’, but I have always had my doubts. It is too clearly a book of patchwork research, which buys into many of the conventional wisdoms of Scotland, and one which the author has attempted to present as ‘the official story’ of modern Scotland.

Carol Craig’s ‘The Scots Crisis of Confidence’, a book I published and thus have a special relationship with, offered a different account of Scotland, one which challenged the dominant stories of going on about structural issues inside our nation (the poor Scotland view), and external to us (the English thing). But I can’t help feel that the thesis, after its publication, somehow tried to deny the validity of the above accounts, and so became problematic, aided by it being embraced by the then Scottish Executive looking for a new message. Still this was I think a brave attempt.

Part of the answer is in more humble and original historical books such as Catriona MacDonald’s brilliant and refreshing ‘Whaur Extremes Meet’, an economic, social, cultural and political examination of 20th century Scotland, in Richard Finlay’s ‘Modern Scotland’ and in David Torrance’s ”We in Scotland’: Thatcherism in a Cold Climate’, a brave attempt at revising Thatcherism’s impact north of the border.

Then there are more cultural works such as Robert Crawford’s work of utterly impeccable scholarship, ‘Scotland’s Books: The Penguin History of Scottish Literature’. From the worlds of imagination and ideas come crazed works of genius such as the singer-songwriter Momus’s ‘Solution 11-167: The Book of Scotlands’, an account of 150 parallel Scotlands (2). I don’t think I am over-stating it to say the ‘The Book of Scotlands’ will be read and reread, studied and assessed centuries from now for what it says about early 21st century Scotland!

Those are the kind of books, ideas and wonder I want to see more of, and ‘Off Kilter’ is part of showing what is possible. Maybe it is just my leftist background, but I still think writers have to capture, explain and analyse this different Scotland(s) in books and settings which offer a narrative or set of narratives (dread words to some I know!) to show that change is not only possible, but there already!

I do know it isn’t ‘the official story’ of Devine et al, but how can we have the sheer confidence to start creating spaces, conversations and projects which create and give voice to alternative stories?

Notes

1. Charles Jennings, Faintheart: An Englishman Ventures North of the Border, Abacus 2001, http://www.amazon.co.uk/Faintheart-Englishman-Ventures-North-Border/dp/0349114706/ref=sr_1_2?ie=UTF8&s=books&qid=1265243278&sr=1-2

2. Momus, Solution 11-167: The Book of Scotlands, Sternberg Press 2009,

http://www.amazon.co.uk/Solution-11-167-Book-Scotlands-Momus/dp/1933128550/ref=sr_1_2?ie=UTF8&s=books&qid=1265243173&sr=1-2