By David Black
Fresh in to Tramopolis – the city formerly known as Edinburgh – and what’s all this? Some sort of a literary stooshie, it would appear. For the most part, these whipped up altercations are very much the business of scribes in the non-fiction field, where properly researched evidence has to be weighed and conclusions reached. This is meat and drink for, say, the more combative economists, who frequently can’t agree with themselves, never mind each other.
As a spectator sport, however, it’s the historians who excel at the grudge-matches. Professor Tom Devine on the subject of the man he refers to as ‘the unspeakable Michael Fry’ is a phenomenon which could never be mistaken for a ray of sunshine, and it doesn’t stop there. This is how historians are meant to behave, of course. Why else do we bother to buy their books? Or at least the ones left unincinerated by their rivals.
Fiction is another world, one might have thought. It’s all about stories made up in the authors’ heads, so there isn’t any evidence to argue over. In Tramopolis, let’s face it, for those who hit the mark, life is an absolute bed of roses. The ruling Merchiston Writer’s Block triumverate of Rankin, McCall Smith, and Rowling could pay for the hated tram project in its entirety and still have enough left over for a great night out. JK is said to be richer than the Queen, and the earnings from her Pottering have even enabled her once dog-eared publishers to move into a palatial Georgian mansion in London’s Bedford Square. So what’s going on?
It couldn’t be called a spat, exactly – Edinburgh’s much too genteel for such things – but a very minor contretemps would seem to have arisen over the image of the city, and indeed the country, as portrayed in the currently popular genre of Scottish crime fiction. Are we over-emphasising the negative, asks Alexander McCall Smith, author of various essentially up-beat texts such as The Number One Ladies Detective Agency? Is all the gritty realism of the gloom and grime school really real, when it really comes down to it?
Mr McCall Smith would appear to be defending his right to produce books which some have discerned as unduly optimistic, rather than attacking purveyors of the blood and gore seamy underbelly of modern Scotland. He’s an old friend of Ian Rankin’s, after all, and has no wish to rattle the teacups. Yet he touches a raw nerve here.
From the recent vantage point of America, it seems to me that Scotland, right now, is a country largely understood through its literary output. In Nashua, New Hampshire, I was sitting on a bus minding my own business when a gaggle of elderly ladies climbed aboard, each with a copy of Mr McCall Smith’s latest offering. This was the local book club, and it was on its way to meet up with another book club in Boston, where they would be dissecting every dot and comma of the McCall Smith masterwork – something the author, with his expertise in forensics, would probably have approved of.
Then, only a couple of weeks ago, I was trying to navigate my way around a mountain of Mr Rankin’s latest paperbacks in Austin airport. Apparently Texans love him. So do New Yorkers, evidently, for there were just as many of them taking up space in JFK – and DC’s Union Station bookshop, and in fact anywhere that sells books, as far as I could make out. His accountant probably loves him too.
This isn’t a literary argument in the Norman Mailer-Gore Vidal sense of the word, with fisticuffs being deployed, so there’s no point in taking sides, though, like Alexander McCall Smith, I sometimes wonder if we damage our national reputation with our penchant for emphasising the dark, tormented side of Caledonia’s soul. Maybe so, but I hope it won’t discourage Texans from reading all about Inspector Rebus.
It’s all a bit Edinburgh 19th century, if you ask me, with those of a lofty Walter Scott mindset attending to their quaint social niceties, while the renegade Stevensonians write about hanging out with bad girls in the disreputable hostelries of Lower Calton. Old Town-New Town Edinburgh thrives on all this dualism – it’s the city’s unique selling feature, indeed. We should have more of it, not less. If we lost our seamy underside, we’d simply damage our Brand, and be reduced to a dull place of lawyers, accountants, and unhelpful shop assistants.
That said, sometimes the negative can be over-emphasised. Years ago I had some truck with a clubbish place known as the Scottish Malt Whisky Society, then based on Giles Street, in Leith – Edinburgh’s Docklands area. One day I noticed half a dozen people with spray cans defacing a section of the street with grafitti. They didn’t look like a tearaway gang of feral teenagers out off their heads on crack – more a bunch of respectable casual-smart middle class creatives undertaking an assigned task – they were even being supervised by a man with a clip board. Meanwhile, right next door, in the Society’s plush rooms, respectable Edinburgh lawyers, accountants, and professorial types were esconced in comfortable armchairs with their single malts and discussing affairs of state and high culture. One street, two worlds, on the face of it.
The car repair workshop proprietor across the way was looking on with a certain pensive resignation. I asked what on earth was going on – shouldn’t he be telephoning the police? Apparently not. Everything was above board. The spray-painters were set designers, and a cast and crew would be along in a day or so. The real Leith just hadn’t been gritty enough for the film they were about to shoot – Irving Welsh’s Trainspotting. It seems that the local ne’er-do-well benefit claimants were just too damned lazy to get out of bed in the morning to trash their surroundings with cryptic gang slogans and Papal insults, so the film’s producers had decided to make the necessary corrective and give the place the appearance of an abandoned railway sidings in the Bronx. They’d promised to tidy up nicely after the film crew had moved on. The local residents, one imagines, can only have felt vaguely denigrated by this fake portrayal of their locality.
Here we enter the world of Tony Kushner’s ‘poet’s truth’ – an assertion which, if it emanated from the mouth of a non-poet, would very quickly be recognised as a lie. It seems to have been Kushner’s technique for explaining away a mistake he’d made in his ‘Lincoln’ screenplay – that’s by the by. There was nothing of the poet’s truth in the trashing of Giles Street. Leith has its pockets of deprivation and its drug abusers, but it simply does not spawn the levels of grafitti you’d find in a Bronx railway yard.
But that didn’t suit the film-maker’s agenda, or catch the spirit of Trainspotting. Leith had to be made into something other than itself to achieve the required dramatic effect – a drug infested dystopian sink hole of crime, depravity, and urban decay. The film was a runaway international success, and in terms of its production values and the quality of its acting it undoubtedly deserved to be. Moreover it never claimed to be a documentary, so its director, Danny Boyle, can happily take refuge in the ‘poet’s truth defence – this was a Leith of Mr Boyle’s and Mr Welsh’s imagination, nothing more, nothing less. My granny – the personification of respectability – came from Leith, so I’m kind of angry, but I’m working on getting over it with the help of a few friends in the Port o’ Leith pub. We can take these knocks, believe me.
It wasn’t quite the same when another film crew visited a leafy quarter of Edinburgh’s New Town to make an episode of Ian Rankin’s ‘Rebus’ TV series. Prior to becoming a member of the peripatetic classes I lived in such an enchanted place, and was startled one afternoon to come across a gruesome scene in the Water of Leith, the picturesque river at the end of our salubrious street. Two policemen in high visibility jackets and black waders were pulling a corpse out of the water and dragging it on to the opposite bank. For a moment I was horrified, then someone shouted ‘cut’. The corpse stood up and started drying itself with a towel.
This as you can imagine was a great relief – God knows what a murder would have done for the Ann Street property values. I then caught sight of Ken Stott, who is to Rebus what Sean Connery is to Bond, and our paths in life having crossed now and again, I stopped to have a chat. Despite the chilling conviction he once brought to the role of a ruthless and corrupt Israeli arms dealer in ‘Charlie Wilson’s War’ Ken Stott is a perfectly nice man who would obviously wish no harm upon his native city, or choose to besmirch its international reputation. Moreover, in the days when I used to watch TV I was an avid follower of Rebus, so if there is some problem with the city’s reputation being besmirched, then I’m obviously complicit in the process.
On the other hand, if hundreds of thousands of Americans are buying Mr Rankin’s books what sort of picture are they getting of Scotland? Since they’re literate, it can probably be assumed they have the intelligence to work out that not all Scots are going around murdering each other, much as I long ago worked out for myself that not all Americans are replicating the plots of Raymond Chandler’s ‘The Big Sleep’ or Quentin Tarantino’s ‘Pulp Fiction.’ Indeed, given that you can hardly get into the Oxford Bar some days because of the crowds of Rankin fans being conducted around the ‘Rebus Trail’ it would seem that the city is picking up a substantial revenue net benefit. This is great business, like Morse’s Oxford, and Jack the Ripper’s Whitechapel. Crime certainly pays when it’s a matter of generating an income in the tourism sector.
The point which Alexander McCall Smith is apparently raising is not about the desirability, or otherwise, of gritty Scottish crime fiction. It’s simply that the grittiness is not the only thing in Scotland worth writing about. Dostoyevsky’s description of Raskolnikov murdering his pawnbroker is undoubtedly great literature, but because of that simple fact it hardly follows that Proust’s nostalgic meditation on his madeleine cake is, ipso facto, not great literature. If a national literature is about anything, surely it is about the diversity of the nation, rather than its perceived one sidedness.
Gritty realist novels dealing with gruesome crime and demotic dysfunctionalism are a valid and legitimate literary genre, but they are not the entire modern Scottish canon, as those who are critically dissatisfied with, say, Alexander McCall Smith’s Isabel Dalhousie novels, seem to imagine. Whimsy and the quaint observation of everyday events within a bourgeois-bohemian milieu – even with the occasional murder – can hardly be excluded from the category of serious literature simply because the author is skimping on hard violence, deprivation and social breakdown, and not saying enough about the impoverished working class.
As the standard bearers of a recognisably Scottish literary ‘brand’, authors of the calibre of Alexander McCall Smith and Ian Rankin, amongst many others, should be both cherished and promoted – all of them. No literary form should be regarded as better than worse than any other – that way lies the commissariat of some Soviet-style Academy of Literature dividing the approved from the non-approved.
And the faked-up grafitti of Giles Street? – that’s something else altogether. The great lie masquerading as the poet’s truth, perhaps. Granny would not be pleased.
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