Daily Archives: January 21, 2011

Deconstructing the First Minister’s Desert Island Discs – Column 21.1.11

JOYCE MCMILLAN for The Scotsman 21.1.11

HE IS, FOR THE TIME BEING AT LEAST, our chief of men; and yet the First Minister remains an ambiguous figure, viewed by the nation with a wary mixture of admiration and contempt.  As politicians go, Alex Salmond is clearly an able and witty man, and not without his own vision of a better Scotland.  Yet there’s something about his public persona – his evident self-confidence, his jocular style, and perhaps the faint whiff of shallow opportunism that attaches to all clever nationalist politicians in a post-nationalist age – that attracts scepticism, even among some of his supporters.  Some unkind nationalist bloggers routinely dub him “Great Puddin’ O The Chieftain Race”, in a back-handed compliment to Salmond’s favourite poet, Robert Burns.

And when he appeared this week on Radio 4’s iconic music-and-chat show Desert Island Discs – well, the scorn in some quarters was unconfined, as Salmond chose five emphatically Scottish tracks out of eight, including such late-20th century patriotic anthems as Dougie MacLean’s Caledonia, and Capercaillie’s 1992 Gaelic-language hit, Coisich a Ruin.   The Daily Telegraph observed, with some force, that it was hard to see what point he was trying to make, since unless we had been on a desert island ourselves, we already knew that Salmond was Scottish; and others accused him of a kind of inward-looking parochialism that did little credit to Scotland, or to the breadth of his own cultural experience.

All of which only goes to show what a fine line the representatives of small nations must tread, in trying to reconcile a proper respect for the often neglected genius of their own country, with a far-reaching awareness of the world beyond.  Apart from Caledonia, Coisich a Ruin, and The Proclaimers’ 500 Miles – three uber-Scottish choices, any one of which would have been enough – Salmond’s selection of music was really not bad.  It’s hard to fault the inclusion of Gerry Rafferty’s superb Baker Street, particularly in the light of Rafferty’s recent death.  Salmond also picked two fine classics of the American radical left, Paul Robeson’s recording of the Ballad Of Joe Hill, and Johnny Cash’s San Quentin.  The inclusion of Eddie Reader’s version of Ae Fond Kiss was reasonable enough, with Burns’ Night in the offing; and if the First Minister wants to mark his early life as a boy soprano with a passage from Giancarlo Menotti’s opera Amahl And The Night Visitors, that is his privilege, although I guess he must have been at least as impressed by Menotti’s Scottish connections as by the quality of the music.

When it comes to Desert Island Discs, though, the balance is all; and for most people in Scotland – never mind those beyond – a choice of five Scottish tracks out of eight is just too many to be convincing, as a genuine reflection of musical enthusiasm.  The quality of most of the music chosen demonstrates that this response is not necessarily fair.  From time immemorial, rising generations in small countries like Scotland have emerged convinced that all previous generations of artists from their part of the world have produced nothing that is not couthy, parochial, naturalistic and dull; only to find, when they have a chance to study the field, that this image of dull parochialism has far more to do with ingrained assumptions about what a marginalised culture might produce, than with the actual quality of the work.

Scotland’s new Makar, Liz Lochhead, has herself sometimes been a victim of these patronising assumptions about the nature of her Scots-inflected poetry and drama; so was the late, great Tom McGrath, the co-author of The Hard Man, and an abstract experimental jazz man in his very soul.  And although some sighed wearily at the First Minister’s predictable choice of the works of Robert Burns as his favourite book, it’s worth recalling that Burns himself is a great poet often dismissed by those who know little of his work; and who have not paused to marvel at the career of a ploughman poet born 11 years before William Wordsworth, whose writing nonetheless mirrors so many of the themes and preoccupations of the radical romantic movement that was about to sweep Europe.

What is slightly ominous about the First Minister’s choice, though – apart from the gaping absence of all the classical greats, from Bach to Beethoven and beyond – is the sense of a musical life somehow trapped in its earlier formative decades.  The most recent song in the whole selection is the 1992 Capercaillie number, itself a reworking of a traditional tune; the radical ballads are historic, and the tracks from Dougie MacLean and the Proclaimers now more than two decades old.
What Salmond’s selection reveals, in other words, is not so much a nationalist leader churning out a series of patriotic favourites – although there is an element of that – as a professional politician who has not really had much time to listen to new music for 20 years or more.  Of course, Alex Salmond is not alone in this; single-track, obsessively busy professional politicians, without perspective or cultural hinterland, are one of the curses of our times, and there are many worse examples.

On Desert Island Discs, though, Salmond made the point that politics today is often bereft of the big, brilliant and challenging ideas that sometimes lit up the political world of previous centuries.  And if big ideas are conceived in the raw experience of everyday life, and first brought to birth in the jokes we make and the songs we sing about it, then this sense of a narrowly-focussed political profession, somehow isolated from the living  culture of the society around them, must be one of the causes of the barrenness of much modern political debate; and of the fear that even if a politician like Alex Salmond were to achieve his lifetime’s ambition of Scottish independence, it would somehow no longer matter as much as it should, down in that deep place where the music of our time touches and moves us, and sometimes changes us for good.