A flyte on the neglect of Hugh MacDiarmid

By Arnold Kemp, the Herald, August 15, 1992

THIS week has seen the hundredth anniversary of the birth of C. M Grieve (Hugh MacDiarmid). The highlight was a BBC Radio Scotland broadcast on Tuesday evening, mostly from the Queen Street studio in Edinburgh before an invited audience but partly from the snug in Milne's Bar.

There was original music, from Ronald Stevenson, Michael Marra and Hue and Cry. Some Day, a short play by MacDiarmid, was performed, together with a new work, Root to a Tree, by Donald Campbell, which explored some of the contradictions in the MacDiarmid tradition. Norman MacCaig and Adam McNaughtan read poetry, MacCaig including his famous recommendation that MacDiarmid's centenary should be marked by a minute's pandemonium.

Under the generic heading, ”The Flyting”, a panel of educationalists dealt with MacDiarmid’s place — or lack of it — in the curriculum. Since this was a Scottish occasion there was a great deal of girning and resentment at the educational establishment’s alleged neglect of him.

The admirable Lesley Riddoch, who compered the occasion, interrogated the audience to establish if educated Scots could quote from MacDiarmid. Many there could but it was hardly a random sample. Most of the audience had some prior interest in the MacDiarmid oeuvre or were from Langholm, his home town. A recorded vox pop among school children demonstrated that few had knowledge of or interest in the poet.

There was some dark muttering, which drew a cheer, that MacDiarmid’s politics explained his neglect by the establishment. To this a member of the panel indignantly replied that he had never voted Tory in his life and was most unlikely ever to do so. To all this Sir Hector Monro, the local MP and Scottish Arts Minister, listened with good humour.

I reflected on how Scottish all this was — the pessimism, the search for scapegoats, the failure to agree, the depressing distance between literary culture and popular taste, the lamentation over the erosion of the Scottish linguistic tradition. Yet often we have tunnel vision and a phenomenon which we identify as being Scottish is in fact universal.

In the western world it is a long time since the popular and literary cultures coincided. Literature is something you get at school. It is hard work. It is forbidding. Popular culture is powerful and ubiquitous and usually frowned on by the literary elite. It is not that the unlettered school children of today do not know poetry. They know the words of their songs. And if you talk to a middle-class, middle-aged Scot he or she, though unlikely to know any MacDiarmid, may be able to quote from Bob Dylan.

(A random poll in our Edinburgh office, where this is being written, does not support this theory. One claims to be able to recite The Bonnie Broukit Bairn in its entirety and make a decent stab at The Watergaw. None can quote more than a snippet from Dylan.)

In the tradition of flyting, I will not let such facts stand in the way of the argument. The failure of the literary elite to touch base with the general public is now an accepted part of the scene. Frighteningly few copies of new novels are bought unless they break through to become best-sellers. Publishers struggling to survive not only have to subsidise the book trade by supplying it on a sale-or-return basis. They now also seek to sustain sales by publishing books aimed at those who do not read but who might be tempted into buying books about golf, gardening, cooking, and so on.

The distance between literary and popular values has in London spawned a new school of critics committed to treating popular culture seriously. One of their leaders is the columnist Julie Birchill, whose arrogant anti-Scottishness as paraded recently in The Spectator predisposes me to dislike anything else she may write.

Only in totalitarian regimes, it seems, do literature and popular culture coincide. In Russia the poem, the novel and the play carried the burden of dissent, often incipher, often disguised. The reverence that the Russians have for their poets is seen in the care with which they tend their graves, perpetually adorned with flowers. It is one of the sadder consquences of glasnost and all its consequences that literature, or the purchase of books, is in rapid decline in Russia and other parts of Eastern Europe.

Here in the affluent over-amused West, and not just in Scotland, we have to accept that the serious poet will reach only a minority audience, and that each new generation will have to seek out MacDiarmid and the others for themselves. Yet my own reflection at the end of Tuesday evening was that here was much of which a Scot could feel proud. Whatever distance there is between art and the general public, our culture is far from dead.