Marie Marshall

Author. Poet. Editor.

Category: Article

I Tamburisti di FIREnze – project now running!

12010699_1465307271.6343_funddescriptionI told you in my last news update here about my contribution to Camp Thump Thump’s presentation for Burning Man 2016 I Tamburisti di FIREnze. Well, it has grown arms and legs since then. The text has tripled and the story of the Guild – part fact, mostly fiction, and a little bit Time-Lord – has been brought up to the present day. The plan of the Project Coordinator is to adapt what I have written into a large, scrapbook-like record, to be put on display at the Guild’s mobile HQ on the Playa at this year’s Burning Man, so that people who drop in to the workshop can read it and marvel! I have to say I’m honoured.

Now, the essence of Burning Man is that things are given freely. The members of the Camp Thump Thump team give up their time, energy, materials, and finished products entirely gratis, in the spirit of that BM ethos. But outside of Burning Man – in the world in which preparations are made – things cost money. I wish they didn’t, I wish that everything in the world wasn’t reduced to a commodity and that the Burning Man ethos would spread beyond its borders, but such a thing has yet to be. I live in hope.

This year the team will be doing their bit to spread that ethos beyond its borders by making and donating a dozen drums to a school on the ‘outside’.

Meanwhile, the team is obliged to raise money for transport, workshop construction, materials, etc., and are obliged therefore to ask for donations. If you would like to know more, please click on this link, watch the video, read the blurb, and see if you are able to make a cash donation. If you do nothing else, please help by spreading the word – reblog this item, put it out on social media, tell your friends over a cup of coffee.

I can’t get there myself, but it is so exciting for me to be a ‘remote’ part of the Camp Thump Thump team, helping to create I Tamburisti di FIREnze.

BMstrip

The disappearing original…

Regular readers will know that from time to time I write about art in general. It is not an easy subject to write about, strange though that may seem, because each one of us has prejudices that are difficult to shake off. To one of my readers, for example, technique or technical skill is all-important. To that person, Caravaggio’s work is ‘better’ than Rothko’s because the former’s is representational and skillfully so. Yet as a writer I know only too well that Virginia Woolf, Tolstoy, John Steinbeck, J K Rowling, Barbara Cartland, E L James, and I all use the same technical skills as each other in writing, and that nevertheless we do not produce works of equal – what? – worth, quality, whatever. Nor do we all enjoy equal success, nor is that success necessarily commensurate with any particular literary merit, nor, to come full circle, is that literary merit necessarily relative to our levels of technique. To my mind this subverts the idea that technique is an over-riding rubric for judging artistic worth.

fountain

Duchamp, ‘Fountain’, 1917

“But this argument,” my reader who values technique above all may object, “has been used since the early twentieth century, as an excuse for treating as high art presentation after presentation where skill and care have been abandoned in favour of facility of execution. A child could have painted some ‘modern art’. A chimpanzee could have. Experts have been fooled. A urinal, bought no doubt from a builder’s merchant, has been exhibited as a sculpture.”

I dare say that is all true. And I dare say that my friend never ceases to be irritated therefore by the whole idea of Conceptual Art. This was defined by American artist Sol LeWitt thus:

In conceptual art the idea or concept is the most important aspect of the work. When an artist uses a conceptual form of art, it means that all of the planning and decisions are made beforehand and the execution is a perfunctory affair. The idea becomes a machine that makes the art.

It is an attitude that uses what is presented as art to question the nature of art itself. I dare say that during the period of its currency, a lot of people have jumped on a clever-clever bandwagon. Nevertheless I would say that as a broad movement in art it has certainly made us think. Specifically it has made us think hard about the authorial presence in art. In my own writing – although of course I do write conventional novels, short stories, and poetry – I have never ceased to question my own ‘presence’, and have experimented with work outside my ‘normal’ field. For several years in my regular poetry blog I dispensed with the idea of ‘text’ as it is commonly understood, and presented poems as jpg images. These have looked like text in Courier font, but they have all been images. Though I hardly ever stated this much, I hoped that people would question whether they were looking at words or a picture. Did anyone? I don’t know.

Also I wondered whether it served any purpose to caption each one “© Marie Marshall”. It often seemed an act of desperation rather than fact, an attempt to re-establish the authorial presence where I had only just abandoned it, or where it was at the very least debatable.

Recently the affordance of regular space on someone else’s blog prompted me to carry out a conceptual experiment. Here’s how it went:

The main concept was an exploration of what was an ‘original’ piece of art. I was approaching it in a way that only the technology of the internet could afford – I dare say this concept is not unique, but it was to me. I started with a piece of scrap A4 paper, some magic markers, and some highlighters. On the sheet of paper I made one rectangle of red and one rectangle of yellow. In the red rectangle I placed an upper-case letter ‘F’, and in the yellow a lower-case ‘f’.

The presence of the letters was itself a supplementary ‘concept’. The ‘Ff’ asked viewers – or readers if you prefer – how minimal a presentation recognisable lettering could be and still convey some kind of meaning; and if that meaning contained expression, was it in any way ‘poetic’. I did not and do not invite the answers yes, or no, or maybe, although I know at least one of my regular readers will give one without hesitation. I merely posed the question and let it hang there.

Anyhow, the next stage was to scan the piece of paper. Having made a scanned image, I shredded the paper. Then I used the standard image-handling programme on my computer to adjust the colour and sharpness of the image. Next I posted it to the blog where I was guesting. Lastly, I deleted the image from my own computer. The only place where the product of all this activity was viewable was on a web page which, when the site owner closed the guesting period, was out of my control.

I won’t labour this point, but having revealed the process, I was asking people viewing the final product whether they considered what they were viewing to be an ‘original’, or whether an ‘original’ existed at any ‘stage’ of the process.

It has always made me chuckle that although one raison d’être of conceptual art has been to challenge the commodification of art, some works have attracted big money from collectors, galleries etc. My ‘Ff’ had, like so much on the blogosphere, no commercial value whatsoever.

You may be wondering why I haven’t included in this article a glimpse of ‘Ff’, or at least a link to it. That’s because the owner of the blog recently removed all the guest items. I took a deliberate step of placing ‘Ff’ in peril when I put it somewhere over which I had no control. That was part of the concept. Its disappearance now adds another layer of questioning. It existed. Does it still exist in the memory* and experience of those viewers and readers who looked at it? Does it count as my work at all, now that it is ‘lost’? Does ‘lost’ work belong in the recognised corpus of any artist or writer, past or present?

It would of course be counter-productive to attempt to answer any of my own questions.

__________

* Memory is not like a photograph album anyway, but rather it is like a million-million tiny bombs of sensation, each exploding in an instant – there and gone – each somehow related, sometimes arcanely, to the next. A sight, a sound, a feeling, a scent, they populate a space in your mind that sometimes seems infinite, more often like a room in a house…

 

 

It doesn’t hurt to ask, but don’t build your hopes up.

watchOver six months ago several things came to a head seemingly all at once. Firstly the flying of the Confederate flag – or rather its lowering – became an issue all over the southern states of the USA. Secondly a prominent activist was outed as trans-racial. Thirdly, Harper Lee’s publishers released Go Set A Watchman.

The latter was significant to me. Harper Lee had always been a heroine of mine, for writing one of the monuments of American Literature – To Kill a Mockingbird – and then retiring. I wanted to do the Scottish equivalent, but as soon as I published my second novel that was out of the question anyway – that fact always makes me smile.

With the near-coincidence of these three things, it occurred to me to write a short story, set in 2015, in which a young female couple, one of whom is of mixed racial heritage, have a rendezvous in the Alabama town where one of them has her roots. Together they see how the town has coped with the realities of the twenty-first century. The central event in the story is the lowering of the Confederate flag at the town’s courthouse; but also the couple visit, in passing, an elderly lady who can remember her childhood in the town, during the Depression. My story remained unfinished. I had planned it as a tribute to Harper Lee, and it only really made sense if I could call the elderly woman ‘Jean Louise Finch’. This was, as I say, to be a serious story and a tribute, not ‘fanfic’. So I did the polite thing and got in touch with Ms Lee’s publishers to ask permission, leaving the story unfinished.

Well, seven months later, long after I had forgotten about the project, I got my answer. No. Not only could I not call the elderly character ‘Jean Louise Finch’, I could not use any character names out of To Kill A Mockingbird or Go Set A Watchman. That’s fair enough, I guess. Not only that, but I could not call the town ‘Maycomb’. Okay, I can see the logic in that, given the interdict on character names. But apparently I could call the town ‘Monroeville’ if I wanted. Well thanks, I know I could – any writer is free to set a story in a real place – but the point would be lost. In any case, seven months after the event(s), the moment for the story has passed. It remains unfinished.

But I thought I would share a passage with you, just for the heck of it. Very little else of the story has been written, and now probably won’t be; so what you have here is a little insight. The accompanying pictures are of the old and new courthouses in Monroeville – and just to be clear, the new courthouse can be seen to be flying the Stars-and-Stripes and the Alabama State Flag, not the Confederate flag, which was another reason why fictionalisation was necessary. By the way, the story was to be called The Standard of the Camp, which is a reference to Numbers 1:52 and Numbers 2:2 in the Bible.

*
monroeville1

Judith parked the car a few blocks away, and we walked hand in hand, joining one of the little streams of people approaching from every direction to swell the small crowd in front of the building. It was indeed a small crowd as a proportion of the population – only a few hundred – but unless a person had a reason to wish to be there for what was, after all, only a minor piece of history when taken with the bigger picture, why make a fuss and stir yourself? To Judith and me, with our own union being also a small part of a bigger picture, there was a reason to come. There was to be no ceremony. Simply, at six o’clock, the Confederate flag was to be lowered from the flagpole outside the courthouse, never to be raised there again. It was to be an occurrence, that’s all.

“Has that flag always flown here?” I asked Judith.

“Not sure,” she said. “The way I heard it, it wasn’t raised anywhere at all until the nineteen-twenties. There’s a picture somewhere of the old courthouse during World War Two, and it had the Stars and Stripes on the flagpole, and another picture taken during the Cold War that shows the same. Someone told me that a group of local politicians pushed through some measure when Obama got elected President. But hell, I’ve hardly ever been down this part of town before, so I wouldn’t know.”

“I guess people didn’t really notice until it became an issue.”

“You got that right!” said someone near me.

I get that. When something is just part of the scenery you don’t notice it. Then one day it’s gone, maybe a tree is cut down or a building demolished or something new built, and the best you can do is wonder what’s wrong with this picture. The Stars and Bars on a biker’s jacket or tacked up in the back of a neighbor’s garage can just be scenery. Until someone decides to become a semiotician, and – bam! Just how important to us all was disposing of this symbol? Apparently it was important to APT and WSFA as they had cameras there, so it was potentially news.

The clock at the old courthouse began to strike the hour. A side door of the newer building opened, two uniformed court bailiffs came out and began to walk diagonally across the lawn towards the flagpole. The buzz in our little crowd died down. I could see that a reporter from one of the TV stations had stationed herself between the cameras and the flagpole and was talking into a microphone. There were no salutes, there was no fuss, one of the bailiffs untied the hoist from its cleat, and began to hand-over-hand it. The flag began to descend, slowly. As it did, a knot of men nearer the front began to chant.

“USA, USA, USA…”

I could see a veteran’s cap, I could see a biker’s bandana, I could see a couple of hand-held Stars and Bars being waved.

“God, they say we Americans have no sense of irony, and they’re right,” said Judith.

“Look at another way, honey,” I said. “The way these guys see it, the ideal of the United States is that the whole is not greater than its parts, there is no over-riding principle that can impose itself on a constituent state, and indeed upon the right of an individual’s expression. In some way that’s what they believe in. In their view of history, that’s what the Confederacy was fighting to establish and the Union was trying to crush.”

“That’s an extraordinary opinion to come from an African-American,” said a voice behind me. I looked over my shoulder at the woman who had spoken. I hadn’t heard any hostility in her voice and I couldn’t see any in her face.

“I guess I’m repeating something I heard from someone here in town,” I said. “Don’t get me wrong. To me that flag is just what they say it is – the symbol of white supremacy – and although I’m not from these parts myself, I’m glad to see it taken down. It’s just that the person who gave me that idea also told me that something like nine out of every ten Confederate soldiers had never seen a black person, let alone owned one. They didn’t decide what the flag meant. Somebody else did.”

“Hmm.”

Judith nudged me, and I turned back. People had their iPhones out, taking pictures of the lowering. Some were taking selfies.

“You want a picture?”

“Nuh-uh. No thanks.” For many reasons I did not.

The flag came to the end of its journey. The guys chanting fell silent. I stood on tiptoes to watch the two court bailiffs detach it from the hoist and fold it without any flourish. One of them tucked it under his arm and they began to walk back towards the courthouse. What would happen to it now? As long as it never flew again, did I actually care? Judith and I turned to go.

monroeville2

*

I recall a similar thing happened when I had an idea for a full-length adventure novel featuring a character created by a fellow-Scot. Her creation was not a pleasant character, he was in fact the arch-rival of her protagonist. But I saw in him the potential lead in a story about a cynical adult wizard. So I wrote to her publishers and asked for permission. And of course the answer came back in the negative. Now, I am all for authors protecting their intellectual copyright, given current social and commercial circumstances. I feel no rancor to either Harper Lee or to JKR because their people said no. Indeed, my cynical adult wizard – Agent Delta of the Chthonic Intelligence Agency© – still exists on my virtual drawing-board, is not named as anyone in any other work of fiction, inhabits a milieu nowhere near any boarding-school, and may come to life in a way that infringes no copyright.

1On the other hand, when I got in touch with Irvine Welsh and asked if I could use his name as the central character in an epic poem – Welshday – in which he journeys through the city of Edinburgh in the company of an inebriate detective and a living statue, in a tribute to James Joyce’s celebration of ‘Bloomsday’, he replied “Why not! Go for it!”. All of which leads me to the point of this post: it doesn’t hurt to ask. Countless authors have based novels and stories on pre-existing characters – the Flashman novels, James Bond novels by Kingsley Amis and William Boyd, and so on. Sometimes a living author will hand on the baton willingly to a successor, and the worst that can happen is that they’ll say no.

As it happens, Welshday was never finished either. I know the concept of unfinished writings seem strange, almost like the idea of failure. But I draw the analogy with a painter’s studio – no one finds it strange to find drawings, sketches, studies, and unfinished works there, so I have no qualms about admitting to countless novels, stories, and poems that never made it (yet!) to completion. In fact Welshday gave rise to some good stand-alone poems, so here’s one of them for you. Our journeying hero and his inebriate companion visit a bar in Leith, where they are accosted by a Russian seafarer who claims to be the only survivor from the sinking of the submarine Kursk. It’s a sestina:

 

Old Rimbaud said, “Let’s go and take a glass
of whiskey in a jostling pub I know.”
I, like a sodding numpty, dogged his steps,
And tracked him to a clapped-out, frowsy dive,
Where half the clientele were missing ears –
the other half were shouting to be heard!

We’d been there half an hour when I heard
a Russian sailor tap the falling glass;
he grabbed my sleeve, said “This is for your ears
alone, no other bugger has to know.
I heard my skipper calling dive-dive-dive,
as I slid down the conning-tower steps…”

Old Rimbaud, blootered, sunk down on the steps;
the Russian bellowed at me, to be heard.
“The air inside gets hotter when you dive,
the sea is slagged and dark as bottle-glass.
The ghost of every bugger that you know
floats by, and there’s a pounding in your ears!”

His sliding, slootered accent hurt my ears.
I thumbed my belt and slipped some salsa steps;
I said, “Now tell me something I don’t know,
no half-arsed, half-cocked tale already heard,
no shite enigma darkly in a glass,
no bonny buck-and-wing, no duck-and-dive!”

He scowled at me and, miming a crash-dive,
resumed the tale that battered at my ears,
while I, to ease my pain, sucked at my glass.
“Kolesnikov took all the proper steps,
and we went aft – perhaps you might have heard –

but when you’re frigging shark-bait, boy, you know!”
I shut him up, and said, “Here’s what I know –
no fucker made it home from that last dive –
They all asphyxiated, so I heard!”
He laughed, he jeered, I stopped my ringing ears,
and sat down with old Rimbaud on the steps,
to spit at all the demons in my glass.

When ghosts well from a glass you always know,
You’re sitting on the steps of some sad dive,
and though you stop your ears you’ll still have heard!

So, what are you doing if you’re not writing?

Apart from feeling guilty, you mean? No, seriously, that is an issue.

authoressWhen I think about it, my output over the past few years has been quite something. I have to remind myself that, since about 2005, apart from having finished four novels (three of which have been published and the other is with my publisher awaiting publication), having had at least two-hundred-and-fifty poems published in collections, anthologies, magazines, and e-zines, having written enough short stories to fill over two volumes, I have taken part for five years in a poem-a-day project. So why stop? Why stop that poem-a-day, and why halt progress on my latest novel after 20,000 words? Well, let me be clear about this – I needed a break, and believe me I’m feeling the benefit. Output had taken over from quality, and I was exhausted and frustrated.

So where does the guilt come from? I don’t know. Maybe from the little imp on my shoulder who keeps whispering to me, “You’re an ex-writer, that’s what you are! Now you’ve stopped, you’ll never start again.”

Maybe, in fact, it has to do with the continuing output of fellow-writers I respect. There they go, merrily taking part in NaNoWriMo and suchlike, galloping though the creation of a novel in a single month, filling their blogs with poetry, writing columns of advice for colleague-authors, posting their goals and how they have achieved them… I could go on line now and find, with ease, confident articles on the discipline and routine of writing, and below each I would find an almost endless roll of comments thanking the writer for his or her sage advice. And I would know that, try as I might, I couldn’t stick to anything like such a routine. I might manage it for a week… ten days…

And yet, there’s all my output. I must have had some impetus and discipline somewhere. You would think so. A colleague said my writing was ‘visceral’, meeting that it sprang from emotion, from feelings rather than thoughts. When I consider that such movements in art and writing as modernism, expressionism, and imagism have influenced me, I guess she could be right. Certainly when I set out to write something, with certain exceptions, I do not start out with the goal of reaching a goal. By that I mean that my work is seldom driven by the end, I do not start my novels, for example, with the resolution of the narrative already in my mind*. I describe such a practice a ‘male’ writing, by which I mean it is driven along by the desire to reach a single climax, to use a sexual analogy. It’s the authorial equivalent of ‘getting your end away’. And it is something that is so ingrained in our culture, that it is hard to counter, hard to offer any other way of doing things. As we say in Scotland, ‘it’s aye been’, or at least its ingrainedness gives that impression. Writers like Virginia Woolf showed us that it simply didn’t have to be so, it didn’t have to be the unwritten rule that we all revered like Holy Writ. Yet it lurches along still, like some kind of zombie. There, that’s today’s thought – ‘Zombie male writing’.

To me, there was so much left undone in modernism, as though they picked up the ball, ran with it, passed it to the next author, who just stood there and let it drop. I know, I know, my mixed metaphors are murder today…

Where was I? Oh yes – what have I been doing if not writing. Well, same as ever. Holding down a job, editing, playing my part in family routine, coping with physical and psychological conditions (my own and others’), reading, in fact all the things I was doing while I was writing. Y’know, I wonder where I found the time to write so much! So will I let all these mundane necessities fill the available time, will I become used to them, so used to them that I will one day forget to write, forget that I ever wrote? Well, let’s face it, one day we will all close our eyes on daylight and not simply forget what we were but lose the forgetting too. Life is about letting go. So it is, of course, possible that I will never write again, ever.

Possible, but improbable.

Despite the imp on my shoulder, I’m not an ex-writer. Hell, what am I doing right now if not writing? I haven’t stepped away from my work entirely. I jot stuff down, the odd word, the odd phrase, the odd idea. I go through my unpublished corpus to see if there is anything worth submitting to a poetry magazine**. Ideas on how to progress my novel – the one I’m half way through, the one I always wanted to write – keep circulating in my head. And anyway, competing with the guilt-imp is the wee wight on my other shoulder, telling me that if I don’t go back to writing someday soon, I’ll end up in that charming little beauty spot located, I’m told, near Harrisburg PA.

Near Harrisburg PA

Gonnae no dae that! Gonnae no!

__________

*Many writers claim not to do this, but frankly it’s what most of ‘em do!

**I haven’t submitted anything since about 2013, at which time I devoted all my energy to writing a collection specially for a publisher. The result was my prize-nominated I am not a fish.

Silver threading – among the gold

091815_1943_inherownwor1Silver Threading is a web site that has as its theme ‘Authors Supporting Authors’. This support can take the form of interviews, book reviews, articles, and so on. Recently they featured me, in an article mainly drawn from my own words. You can read it here.

Reading ‘Go Set A Watchman’

To_Kill_a_MockingbirdBy now we all know the story of how To Kill A Mockingbird came to be written, and how Go Set A Watchman came to be published fifty-five years later. That half-century-and-a-bit has seen a lot of changes in sensibilities about race, particularly in the USA, the country where both novels are set and where their major readership is. The thesis of To Kill A Mockingbird seems to be that, by and large, people are decent, or strive to be decent, or can be reminded of their decency despite their prejudices, not simply about race but about other fears as well; this decency does not always win out against a tragic result, when such prejudices are deeply ingrained in a community’s culture, but that is life. Man, as the Bible says, is born to suffering, as the sparks fly upward. Nevertheless, keeping an eye to that glint of decency leads, step-by-step, to some kind of progress.

To an extent, we readers found it easy to accept this naivety, given that the first-person voice of the book was that of a child, and that Harper Lee was relaying to us how the world seemed to her, that child, the novel being semi-autobiographical. We excused the ingenuous nature of its basic philosophy – indeed, it seemed ideologically neutral to us, because it expressed how we like to feel about ourselves, that there is hope, progress, and betterment. Most of its first readers came to it during the optimism of the 1960s Civil Rights movement.

Nowadays, in the era of ‘Check your privilege!’, it seems such an attitude won’t do. Racism is binary, it is either on or off, it is a thing without shade, hue, or nuance, it is a label hung as prominently around the neck of anyone who betrays a slight slip of attitude as it is round the neck of the most dyed-in-the-wool Klansman. I don’t say this is right or wrong. I do say it is as much cultural as was the liberal feelgood attitude that seems to be there in Mockingbird. Without the hardening of attitude since the date of writing and publication, perhaps a book like Mildred D Taylor’s Roll Of Thunder, Hear My Cry would not have been written fifteen years later. Certainly I could argue that her minor character Mr Jamison, the sympathetic white Rothmc_coverlawyer, would not have been created without the pre-existence of Atticus Finch. But Taylor’s work is much harder-edged, plainly didactic, aiming to show that African-American people must be the prime movers of their own change in circumstance. Thus Mr Jamison is largely ineffectual; whilst a lynching in Mockingbird is prevented by the stoical Atticus and ultimately by the ingenuous Scout, in Roll Of Thunder Jamison can’t swim against the tide, and a lynching is only prevented by a covert act of arson on the part of one of the adult black characters, as a result of which all the characters, irrespective of ethnicity, have to collaborate to save their livelihood. Taylor’s attempt to seize the story of racism in the South and depict it from the point of view of those on the receiving end was understandable. Despite Roll Of Thunder receiving the 1977 Newbery medal, I have always felt it failed as a book, because it never quite managed to give the child characters’ actions any appreciable impact or effect, compared to that of Scout in front of the gaol, and as it was principally a book written for children, that was a not inconsiderable failing.

Go Set A Watchman is already suffering on many counts in the few days since it was published. I almost feel cheated myself – I always wanted to be a writer, and Harper Lee was my idol for the simple reason she had come along out of nowhere, written one book which turned out to be a literary landmark, and then had written nothing else. I would have loved to have written the twenty-first century’s Scottish equivalent and similarly retired. Therefore I had mixed feelings when the coming of Go Set A Watchman was announced. I had long since given up my ambition of being a second Harper Lee – after all, I had had three novels published, and although I am glad to say they are read, I can’t claim that they have achieved the status of Mockingbird. I wondered whether the appearance of Go Set A Watchman would tarnish Lee’s reputation, rather than enhance it. I knew I would buy it, but frankly I would have waited with greater anticipation the appearance of a new Anne Tyler novel, she being acknowledged as prolific and a good story-teller.

How, then, to read Go Set A Watchman? We know that it is a largely unaltered first-draft of a novel that, with substantial revisions consisting of taking a minor passage and expanding it to novel length on its own, became To Kill A Mockingbird. We know that it is set in the 1950s, closer to the time when it was written. We have to be prepared for some major differences. The first and most obvious one is that we do not have Scout’s direct voice. There is no ‘Scout’ as such, no immediate trace of the overall-clad tomboy, except in a handful of flashbacks. The protagonist is Jean Louise Finch, somewhat of a feisty New York sophisticate in slacks, coming back to her to-kill-mockingbird-gregory-peck-and-mary-badham-atticus-finch-21253840Southern birthplace for a visit. The novel is written in ‘free indirect speech’, which means that although we do see things from Jean Louise’s viewpoint, the actual language is third-person. This holds us at a slight distance from the protagonist, it is not as easy to identify with her. The biggest surprise – well, by now it is, of course, no surprise at all – is to find Atticus Finch holding segregationist views. This troubles our binary view of racism. More to the point, it troubles our binary view of liberalism. Atticus Finch, as shown in Mockingbird and in the film adaptation of the novel, has inspired many people to take up the Law as a profession. He has a monument raised to him in Monroeville, Lee’s home town, which is fairly unusual for a fictional character. Good heavens, Gregory Peck, when I saw him in a TV re-run of the film, became my first and only guy-crush!

Yet, having read the book, I realised that his courtroom address in defense of wrongly-accused Tom Robinson, though thoroughly logical, read like a grocery list. It was flat and undramatic, lacking in rhetoric, as though the facts were enough to carry the day. He won the argument, sure, but lost the trial. He was not an advocate for any great social change, he was simply a man who demanded, plainly and without passion, that the law should be properly applied, and that you could not convict a black man contrary to the evidence. This is a major reason why later reviews of Mockingbird criticised both him and his creator for not being anti-racist enough, for not using the Tom Robinson case, Samson-like, to topple the Philistine edifice of Southern racism once and for all. But – for heaven’s sake! – did that happen in real life? Then why should it happen in fiction? Whilst no work of literature is ideologically neutral, Mockingbird is a realist novel, not a sermon.

51+CUXo8aDL._SY344_BO1,204,203,200_If it really shocks you to find that a character who in one novel was, as a matter of principle, sure that a black man ought not to be convicted of a crime he did not commit, is in another novel, sure that the black and white races should develop separately, then do as follows. Do not regard Go Set A Watchman as To Kill A Mockingbird Part Two. It was never conceived as such. Regard it as a stand-alone novel with stand-alone characters that just happen to have the same names as characters in another novel that you have already read. More properly, regard it as you would regard a first draft that turned up in the posthumous papers of a departed novelist, and cherish it as a record of her creative thought processes. I grant that this will be difficult, but judge it without reference to the literary merit of To Kill A Mockingbird. To have that previous merit in mind will mar your reading. This, however, you should bear in mind: Go Set A Watchman is not a twenty-first-century novel. It is a mid-twentieth-century novel. It is a product of its time and of the culture that Harper Lee lived in and took as normative. L P Hartley said that ‘the past is a foreign country; they do things differently there’, and this is something that I, as a person with very sharply defined political and literary principles, have had to learn to come to terms with as I read literature, and as I write creatively myself. I’ll not spoil the plot for you, but that is how to read Go Set A Watchman.

Considering Racial Dysphoria

Rachel DolezalA couple of weeks ago, I drafted the short post below, but never got round to publishing it. Then, the other day, the controversy over Rachel Dolezal broke out. So I wondered whether this might give me the opportunity, in fact, to address the issue after all. Accordingly I have redrafted it in the light of recent events, and the result is below.
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Our current view of sexuality and, more especially, of gender identity is that it is fluid. For example, someone born with all the physical attributes of a girl might, at an early stage or much later in life, feel that a male identity was more in keeping with their psychological and emotional outlook. For some this can be a tenuous feeling, for others it is the strongest indication that they* should take radical steps to correct – as they see it – the mistake of their physical birth-gender. Their first step is often to ‘live as’ a person of the other gender, presenting themselves socially, in appearance and behaviour, as one would expect from a person of that gender, expecting those people-in-the-street who don’t know them, simply to accept what they see. Modern, Western society is increasingly accepting of this fluidity of identity, although the subject still does attract controversy.

I want to ask this question: if gender, then why not other fundamental birth-attributes? Why not race? I can see that you’re shaking your head already, just like we all would have done a few generations ago at the idea that someone could identify with another gender, let alone change theirs to it.

When I was at school in the 1970s, I had a friend who was a James Joyce completist, and if asked for her ethnicity she would say ‘Pseudo-Irish’. I realise that this is a simple question of cultural affinity, and that whether she was by heritage English or Irish she would always be regarded as ‘white’, but on the other hand in these islands the distinction between ‘Celtic’ and ‘Saxon’ was serious, deep, and fundamental. No Irish Nationalist at the time would have seen her as anything but a ‘Brit’. Heads would be shaken at any suggestion that she identify with an ethnicity other than she one she was born and brought up in.

Johnny OtisIn 1921, in Vallejo, California, a son was born to Greek immigrant parents. His name was Ioannis Alexandres Veliotes. His father ran a grocery store in a predominantly African-American neighbourhood. Although his racial heritage was Mediterranean / Southern-European, he identified himself with the African-American community, and lived his life as one of them. He wrote, “As a kid I decided that if our society dictated that one had to be black or white, I would be black.”

No doubt his Mediterranean complexion and his dark hair helped to give the impression that his heritage genuinely included African, and his familiarity with black culture made it easy to fit in. Nevertheless it was a definite trans-racial identification. As ‘Johnny Otis’ he became a musician and bandleader, and was highly influential in R&B, an essentially African-American genre. As such, he was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and the Blues Hall of Fame in 1994.

Johnny Otis’s case was, until recently, exceptional. Incidences of trans-racial identification are far, far rarer than gender dysphoria – until the issues raised by Rachel Dolezal’s covert identification surfaced, the closest I could get was that of Johnny Clegg’s identification with Zulu culture in South Africa. However, when one considers that we are all one species, why should such a thing be a matter for head-shaking? I grant that this would be a problematic issue where there had been extremes of prejudice between the races concerned in someone’s identification – imagine an African-American who today identified as European-American, imagine the resistance to that idea amongst members of both race communities – but even in such scenarios, the overt action of Johnny Clegg and the covert action of Rachel Dolezal may be regarded as politically pioneering.

Seriously, if we ceased to regard matters such as race as fixed – exactly as we now do with gender – would race-hatred gradually lose its relevance in the world? Just think about that for a minute, consider it, ask yourself the question. At some time in the future, will all the opprobrium currently heaped on Rachel Dolezal change, in retrospect, to admiration?

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*I’m using the ‘singular they’ throughout; it’s a usage with a long pedigree, and if it’s good enough for Shakespeare it’s good enough for you.

Cultural appropriation: that ship has sailed!

The question of whether anyone from one community can or ought to take something, in whole or part, that is the practice of another community, and use it as his or her own, is an issue that emerges, submerges, and reemerges. We would all, it seems, like hard-and-fast rules to tell us what we can take and on what terms, and what we can’t. But surely that is unrealistic? Cultures and the communities that sustain them have always been porous, transferring ideas, bringing their influence to bear on each other, sometimes one giving way under the pressure of another, but never standing still.

Henry Reaburn's 1812 portrait of Alexander Ranaldson MacDonnell of Glengarry, wearing a costume of almost total artificiality.

Henry Reaburn’s 1812 portrait of Alexander Ranaldson MacDonnell of Glengarry, wearing a costume of almost total artificiality.

In 1746, following the Battle of Culloden, the clans of the Scottish Gàidhealtachd, irrespective of which side they had fought on, were banned outright, by Act of Parliament, from wearing their native costume. This Act was repealed thirty-six years later, not at the protest of the dispossessed Gaels themselves, but at the instigation of The Highland Society of London, an organisation of English-speaking landed gentlemen and aristocrats of Scottish origin. By this time a generation of clanspeople had gone, and the habit of making and wearing their native dress had been all but lost – they were after all, only a peasant class and therefore insignificant. Soon great numbers of the people themselves would, as the eighteenth century gave way to the nineteenth, be forced out of their native glens and into coastal villages, or to the big cities of the central belt, or away to Canada. Meanwhile a commercial version of their tartan was being produced in the lowland town of Bannockburn, specifically for military use. In 1822, in order to stem popular radicalism in Scotland, novelist Sir Walter Scott and others arranged for King George IV to visit Edinburgh, and for him to be greeted by a pageant largely of their own invention. Highland dress was to be on display, worn by the Clan Chiefs – whose private life was now much less like that of their paternalistic forebears and more like that of English landowners – and by bands of such ‘clansmen’ as still could be mustered. The tartans they wore, specially designed by the company in Bannockburn, were largely the fanciful inventions of the Chiefs themselves. What we now think of as ‘Highland dress’ was a nineteenth-century invention.

However, its artificiality did not stop its being adopted, in due course and merrily, by high and low as the national costume of Scotland. At weddings from Stranraer to Lerwick, on high days and holidays, and whenever the Scotland Rugby team is hosting a match at Murrayfield, you will see kilts and tartans. At Carter Bar, high in the Cheviot Hills where no native ever wore a kilt in antiquity, you will find a piper in Highland dress entertaining the tourists who stop at the English-Scottish border. Go much further afield and you will find the Pipes and Drums of the Chicago Police Department resplendent in their tartan kilts; even the hatbands that Department uses are in the ‘Sillitoe Tartan’ – actually a checkerboard pattern rather than a true tartan, but first used as a police identifier exclusively in Scotland until 1961. Meanwhile, back in Scotland, you can now buy Star Wars sporrans in the image of a Wookie.

Now, I don’t say all this in a spirit of ‘me-too-ism’. I have simply picked it because it is close to home and readily researched, and more importantly, it illustrates a warp and weft of many complex systems. It is not a straightforward picture of a straightforward process. There are so many different attitudes on show, to what was once exclusive to the peasant culture of the Highlands – violent disruption, appropriation by a different class, misunderstandings and assumptions about its nature, gaps in knowledge filled in with invention, adoption as a national identifier, dissemination as a cultural export, re-importation with external influences, all these and probably more interwoven and difficult to unpick. I only know that I am no longer in a position to feel any direct resentment about this element of Scottish culture, if such a feeling in me could ever have been justified in the first place. I have both Scottish Lowland and Highland heritage, but I am who I am here and now. I am looking at a current situation which was not determined by a small number of great forces, but by billions of little ones; and history is a very fragile thing, within which we have no idea whatsoever what might have happened had one of those ‘little forces’ flipped.

I had managed to get as far as that last paragraph without mentioning ‘the A-word’. Well, it had to come at some time! The term current for the adoption of a cultural asset across a social boundary is ‘appropriation’. Often, sometimes fairly and sometimes unfairly, it is a code-word for outright theft; unfortunately that connotation colours its entire use and too often enables it to be employed as an accusatory bludgeon. Whilst I will grant without reservation that there are points of contact between social and cultural communities that are understandably very tense – I am thinking in particular of the racial dynamics of the USA, where the subject of cultural appropriation is probably most hotly debated today – it would take, in my estimation, a very blinkered outlook to ignore the fact that we now live in a world almost entirely without walls. From our corner of the world we are able to see into all the others, in a way without precedent in history. The porosity of cultures has never been more obvious. The kids of a family in Wales paint their faces in Dia de los Muertos masks, a Tibetan exile makes Hip Hop videos, the presence of economic migrants in Scotland means you can buy Eastern-European food in the corner shops, every indigenous, folkloric, or local music can be searched on YouTube – the walls are down, people, the walls are down! The mechanics whereby culture travels are now almost entirely on the surface, and are intensified!

Bobby Darin, one of the artists who recorded cover versions of Ray Charles's 'What'd I Say'.

Bobby Darin, one of the artists who recorded cover versions of black music.

Is it not high time, therefore, that we say of ‘cultural appropriation’ that that ship has definitely sailed? I am aware that there are still sore places on the cultural body, such as the way in which, in living memory, mainstream American music businesses took and repackaged African-American music, and sold versions of it performed by European-Americans; but to me that says at least as much about the American strain of aggressive capitalism, in which anything which can be commodified will be commodified, as it does about the actual purloining of culture. Moreover, it is a particular case, not a representative case or a test case. Again, complex systems at work, from which it is difficult to narrow our scrutiny to a single point of principle.

I am asking the question. I’m not seeking to close the debate, but to open it out, so please do not think that I am being heedlessly dismissive of your own particular concerns, whatever they may be. Maybe the proposition I have advanced will make you think again – or afresh – and find new reasons why this still seems an issue where we have to tread carefully. Maybe, on the other hand, your reappraisal will open the possibility that we can start to celebrate when our own culture rolls out beyond its former borders, no matter how that happened in the beginning. Let’s see.

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If you click here, you can read an interview with me, conducted by Robin Ouzman Hislop on behalf of Poetry Life and Times.