JOYCE MCMILLAN for The Scotsman, 29.11.08
AT THE TRAMWAY in Glasgow, this weekend, you can just catch the final performance of a show called Heer Ranjha (Retold). It’s a re-working by a young Glasgow company of a traditional Indian folk-tale about two star-crossed lovers, the poor wandering musician Ranjha, and the lovely Heer, daughter of a wealthy landowner; only in this new version, Ranjha is a young Glasgow Muslim estranged from his family, and Heer is the much-loved daughter of an eminent “curry king”, the owner of Scotland’s most successful restaurant chain. It’s not a perfect show. But like Sanjeev Kohli’s current Radio 4 corner-shop comedy Fags Mags and Bags, it bursts with the energy of its effort to dramatise the lives of a whole new wave of Glaswegians, who – like every new wave of Scots throughout history – come to the city carrying with them whole new worlds of thought, imagery, and faith, new connections and conflicts.
And I thought about the special energy of Heer Ranjha again, this weekend, as the Scottish Government – on the weekend of St. Andrew’s Day – begins to ramp up preparations for Scotland’s 2009 Homecoming year, with the launch of two television adverts featuring a predictable bunch of Scottish celebrities singing a line each of Dougie MacLean’s Caledonia, in front of projected images of famous Scottish landmarks. There’s no doubt that in these dire economic times, the Homecoming Year – which combines with the 250th Anniversary of the birth of Robert Burns, and is backed by at least £1 million of Scottish Government funds – could be the saving of Scotland’s threatened tourist industry, and a useful occasion for raising awareness of Scotland in its key target markets in North America.
But it only takes a single glance at those television adverts – or at the Homecoming 2009 homepage – to remind us that in launching a venture of this kind, the Scottish Government wades instantly into deep cultural, political and psychological waters, apparently without a full sense of the consequences. On one hand, the modern SNP is fully committed to the idea of a multicultural, multiracial Scotland, which is welcoming to new migrants, and recognised for its good community relations; only this week, one expert expressed the view that Scotland could become a global model for civic integration between Muslim and non-Muslim communities.
Yet at the same time, the SNP Government sanctions and supports an event which frames “Scottishness” as a kind of enduring blood-link with people of Scottish ancestry who have not lived here for decades or centuries, and which boasts a web site so loaded with cliched tourist-industry images of what Scotland has to offer – golf, whisky, clans, ancestry, the kitsch version of Robert Burns, and “great minds” responsible for many inventions – that it reads like one of those stereotypes of Scotland that was already being angrily rejected and sent up by every piece of Scottish literature worth the name, as long ago as the 1970’s. Of course, some of these cliches are useful as “unique selling points” in a crowded global tourist market, just as shamrocks and leprechauns are useful to the Irish.
But the moment those images move one step deeper than that into the public consciousness – the moment that modern Scottish citizens begin to feel obliged to embrace them as authentic representations of themselves – then they become profoundly reactionary, divisive and destructive. Reactionary because they misrepresent modern Scotland, in all its huge diversity, energy and ambiguity. Divisive because they turn back towards an idea of national community – mystical, eugenic, born in the blood – that hints at the exclusion of new Scots of all origins.
And destructive because nothing is more fundamentally damaging to a nation’s long-term self-confidence than the feeling that the nation itself is a thing of the past, a place of nostalgia and heritage, rather than of dynamism and creativity for the future; a damage compounded, in this case, by the immensely self-wounding implication that all the best of Scots left here decades ago, and that we no-hopers who remain will be going nowhere, until we get those superior ex-Scots back into the national fold again.
Well, enough. I’m well aware that no-one in the Scottish Government literally believes such things, or means to insult the brilliant creative communities here – in science, in the performing arts, in literature, design, architecture, music – who have done so much to transform Scotland’s self-image over the last generation. Small nations, though, are always at risk of being hi-jacked by external definitions of what they are; and in that respect, events like the Homecoming have to be handled with immense care, lest they become occasions of massive self-misrepresentation in the face of external pressure, and serious long-term psychological harm.
Scotland now should have the cultural confidence to keep its dignity in the face of these pressures, to resist the couthy tartanising of our great and radical national poet, to stage Homecoming events that emphasise modern ideas about citizenship as well as old-fashioned notions of kith and kin, and to steer a safe path towards the kind of inclusive future that offers the best defence against the violence visited this week on the people of Mumbai. But when I look again at that Homecoming website – and at that television advert full of well-buffed white faces, standing in front of historic monuments – my heart misgives a little. Much blood, sweat, toil and tears has been spent, since the 1970’s, in the effort to create a new idea of Scotland, post-modern, complex, creative, subtle, outward-looking. And yet still, it seems that all that effort counts for little, in the face of the big bucks of the global market; and its relentless demand for golf and tartan, and the stuff it insists on calling Scotch.
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