You leave a country for just thirty years and, blimey, it changes. Here’s a few things there never used to be:
The Scottish Review of Books – a high quality quarterly newspaper given away with the Herald and through bookshops and libraries. The handful I’ve picked up led with the novelist Janice Galloway; the Canadian/Scottish diaspora writer (who happens to be my favourite short story writer) Alistair MacLeod; the new biography of Muriel Spark by the East Midlands’ writer Martin Stannard; and a feature on the deserted villages of Europe. You can subscibe via http://www.argyllpublishing.co.uk/ or track down copies when you are up there.
Northwards Now – this is the one that intrigues me, a thrice yearly literary magazine from Inverness. Again free, I picked up my copy at the arts cinema in Glasgow, but you can subscribe for a fiver via http://www.northwordsnow.co.uk/. This one has an orientation towards the north of the country, as the name suggests, so there is a bigger Gaelic content. But what interested me is that it is not have the feel of the kailyard and is quite mouthy. The current issue addresses the new round of Scottish poetry coming from Salt, admiring the look of the books but suggesting they suffer from “emporer’s new clothes” due to the absence of professinal editing.
Book Festivals – look beyond the overpriced Edinburgh Festival. How about the little one in Portobello (a town that does not even have a bookshop), Nairn, Ullapool, the biggie at Wigtown. Take it as read that Glasgow, Dundee and Aberdee also have theirs. The one I’m not overwhelmed by though is the Borders Book Festival. Overpriced, virtually nobody from the Borders, held outside of Melrose with no involvement of the local bookshop or local businesses and based on the hero worship principle. They could do better.
Bookshops – I hear great things about some of the northern shops, the bookshop/restaurant/gallery at Durness and The Ceilidh Place Bookshop in Ullapool. On my old stomping ground there is the charming and busy Masons of Melrose, Main Street Trading in St Boswells (set up by an ex-Bloomsbury worker) and, astonishingly The Forest Bookstore in the small town of Selkirk, which specialises in the build environment. All have the advantages of Scottish history and fiction for visitors (the Aberfeldy bookshop said in The Bookseller that their sales actually go down towards the Christmas period as there are less visitors) but none of the shops I have mentioned go for tartan tackiness, something so prevalent at tourist haunts. (It annoys me when crossing the border to see bagpipers – the Borders’ tradition is small pipes and no artificial highland dress.)
STANZA – Scotland’s big poetry festival, held in March (http://www.stanzapoetry.org/). Their early programme is out already with Seamus Heaney topping the bill,but there is also a St Patrick’s Night celebration and evening of poetry from Shetland as well as Vicki Feaver, Moniza Alvi and a host over others – including readers from Cuba, Italy and Croatia. Scottish literature has always been internationalist.
Even my own town of Hawick is gettng in on the act. Its second hand bookshop, Waterspode, appears to have given up the ghost – I never, ever found it open anyway – but there is a festival weekend with Kathleen Jamie (one of my favourite Scottish poets) and Janice Galloway.
Yes, there were good things happening thirty years ago. I was introduced to the work of Edward Carpenter thirty years ago in Aberdeenshire by Noel Greig, who has just died, and there were several radical bookshops. But now (most of the developments mentioned above started withing the last few years) it really does feel that literature is centre stage throughout the whole country, in all the languages of Scotland. And I’m homesick.