I’m sitting here in the West End of Glasgow, puzzling at Andrew O’Hagan’s bilious reading of Neal Ascherson’s Stone Voices, and at his general characterisation of Scotland as a xenophobic, schizophrenic, pathological hellhole (LRB, 31 October). Scattered around me is the cultural furniture of a typical Scottish bourgeois lifestyle. Our Sunday broadsheets (Scotland on Sunday, Sunday Herald) and quality dailies (Herald, Scotsman, Business AM) sit alongside my Guardian and FT. Difficult to imagine any of their readers – about three-quarters of a million of them – as a ‘delinquent, spoilt bawling child in a tartan babygro’. Slightly boring pseudo-Scandinavians, perhaps.
Open the pages, and amid the usual political sleaze, lifestyle stats, worthy public initiatives – the same stew as anywhere else – there’s a little chest-beating about the Booker Prize success of Edinburgh’s Canongate Books. Interviews with the directors – neither of them Scottish-born – circle around the classic conundrum of national enterprise: can we balance Scottish roots with global routes? it’s admirably cosmopolitan, and, while we’re about it, I could happily compose a weekly Glasgow-Edinburgh-Dundee itinerary for O’Hagan that would confound his expectations of ‘bigotry, paralysis, nullity and boredom’.
The point is that Scottish identity is displayed at its exclusive, monological worst in the political sphere, and at its expansive, dialogical best in its arts and culture – which could be said, I suppose, of almost any market democracy in the West at present. O’Hagan complains that Scottish writers and intellectuals are ‘willing to serve as soft-pedalling merchants to national character’, yet the Glaswegian Paul Laverty’s script for Ken Loach’s Sweet Sixteen – set in the post-industrial wasteland of Greenock that O’Hagan rightly reminds Ascherson not to forget – hardly soft-pedals when it comes to the hollow carcass of Scottish working-class solidarity. Tom Nairn’s Pariah, published at the same time as Stone Voices, is a literate, no-prisoners-taken critique of the British state which appeals not to a purist Scottishness, but to a desire to participate in what Goran Therborn calls a ‘decent periphery of Europe’. There is in Scotland now a critical mass of civic, non-fatalistic Scots, working in public and private sectors: professionals, team-workers, small entrepreneurs, students and teachers of all kinds. These ‘possible Scots’, as the Scottish Council Foundation calls them, are beginning to experiment with their immediate conditions in an attempt to pass the ‘test of modernity’ that O’Hagan sets them. They are trying to enact tangible community and organisational reform, in an open-ended, day by day manner.
The tragedy for O’Hagan is that the change in Scotland he yearns for at the end of his piece – ‘a new way of thinking, a new kind of relation to the old, a way to live’ – is more likely to be discouraged than encouraged by his own fetishising, sociopathic abuse. Phrase-making from a safe distance has its pleasures, but its utility for Scottish progress is doubtful.
Andrew O’Hagan seems to yearn for an uncomplicated Scottish self-identity, but unless I missed it, he doesn’t properly identify the root of our complications. Which is, of course, England; or, rather, the England of the Scottish mind. In a pre-devolution Glasgow Herald survey which asked what is best about being Scottish, the biggest response, by some margin, was: ‘Not being English.’
The nationalism that O’Hagan describes as ‘shaking hands with the past’ has not a wheen of history about it. Scottish nationalism is a post-Union phenomenon: that is, our sense of nationhood has emerged wholly from the great political fire-damage sale of 1707. We are not seeking a nationhood that has been lost. We are looking for a nation that exists only by virtue of its being already incorporated into another one. To be a nationalist is not to seek the past: it is to reinterpret a present compromise as a historical defeat, to annul the past in favour of a myth. If we Scots didn’t have a problem, we’d be English. God preserve us from that.
It’s not easy to see what the ‘something’ was that Andrew O’Hagan wanted to show Neal Ascherson in Westminster Abbey ‘a couple of years ago’. It can’t have been the empty place of the Stone of Destiny removed from the Coronation Chair, as he says, a few weeks before. The Stone (or the replica) was taken back to Scotland, in an abortive attempt to woo Scottish goodwill, in the last years of John Major. Nor, surely, can it have been the damaged condition of the Chair, which ‘they’ broke when the Stone was first liberated, without official permission, at Christmas time 1950, a good while before O’Hagan was born. What ‘they’ is he talking about?
Obviously O’Hagan thinks it doesn’t, or shouldn’t, matter. But his way with these events fits all too easily a view of national beliefs and attitudes which picks easy targets while remaining silent about the long-standing campaign against the nukes in Scotland. Nor does he mention current opposition to American war plans, unequivocally voiced – more explicitly, as it happens, than by any other party except Tommy Sheridan’s one-man band – by the Nationalists.
It’s not altogether a surprise, therefore, though a melancholy one, to hear in O’Hagan’s peroration – calling on ‘modern Scotland’ to adopt ‘a new way of thinking, a new kind of relation to the old’ and so forth – so distinct if involuntary an echo of another bright and successful young man from Scotland who enjoys being at the heart of things in London, in his case in Downing Street.
Isle of Lismore, Argyll
As a native of Scotland, I have spent forty years serving my community in one way or another. I reject Andrew O’Hagan’s description of me and thousands like me. Scotland can and will have a great future, but there are also lessons that have to be learned from the past. Perhaps O’Hagan’s worst offence is contained in his final sentence – ‘The question of what the past amounted to can lie about in the grass.’
While it may well be true, as Anatol Lieven argues (LRB, 3 October), that some right-wing media and political groups close to or in the Bush Administration are, under the guise of ‘democracy’, seeking to cripple and humiliate China by trying to ensure that the US will continue to defend Taiwan even if the island formally declares independence, it is irrefutably the case that Taiwan is not an ersatz ‘democracy’ but a flourishing democracy. Recent opinion polls show that well over three-quarters of the electorate reject reunification, and want either to maintain the status quo, declare independence at some unspecified time in the future (only 2.4 per cent want to do it now) or, again in an undefined future, come to some sort of non-constraining agreement with China, the nature of which they themselves would determine. isn’t this something they should be allowed to do without being threatened by missile attacks, invasion or blockade?
I share Lieven’s reservations about much of American foreign policy, but if the US does not defend Taiwan, who will? Certainly not the European Union or Japan, or some reincarnation of the International Brigade.
Sai Kung, Hong Kong
Anatol Lieven’s parody of American-Israeli foreign policy amusingly mixes fact and fiction, but one unintended error of fact requires correction: the US Declaration of Independence (written after war had begun) paid ‘a decent respect to the opinions of mankind’.
In his review of my memoir, In the Shadow of a Saint, Adewale Maja-Pearce makes a number of baseless allegations about my father, Ken Saro-Wiwa (LRB, 25 July).
As my portrayal of my father showed, and Maja-Pearce himself knows, Ken Saro-Wiwa worked hard and was miserly with his money. He was a successful businessman who made and invested his money at a time when the naira enjoyed parity with sterling. There were many like him during the oil-boom years in Nigeria. Not all of them were crooks and many of them worked hard and invested their profits at home, abroad and in their children's education. When the bottom fell out of Nigeria's economy, my father was introduced to a currency trader in Geneva by a Nigeria-based Lebanese businessman, Gilbert Chagouri. Maja-Pearce's assertion that it was illegal to move money out of Nigeria proves nothing – any sober Nigerian had savings abroad, and still does. In fact, my father's biggest financial mistake was to repatriate a substantial portion of his profits. As for Chagouri, yes, he was Abacha's banker and yes, he was my father's friend, but what of it? Should that have automatically disqualified Saro-Wiwa from taking a stand against social injustice?
My father was a careful man who had an acute understanding of history and of his place in it; he kept strict records of his life, including his financial dealings. I still have them and I challenge Maja-Pearce to substantiate his allegations.
Why does the source of my father's wealth matter so much to Maja-Pearce? If he focused on this issue as a way of indicating that I did not portray my father as a complex man with links to the military, then he can't have read my book very carefully. I show clearly that Saro-Wiwa was an insider and a power broker, and that he knew all the main players in Nigerian politics. He attended the top schools and universities, and was offered and took some top appointments in Nigerian politics. It is surprising in the circumstances that Maja-Pearce chose not to talk about or mention his own dealings with my father. As for his suggestion that I am an unreliable witness to the complexity of Saro-Wiwa's character and position in Nigerian society and politics, it is simplistic. If he were writing as a literary critic I would have no problem agreeing with him that I might be an unreliable witness, but the context of his criticism turns this literary unreliability into the basis of a serious allegation. My book is a memoir and not a biography of my father. Nor is it a political history of Nigeria or the Ogoni struggle, nor an interrogation of the role of Shell in the Niger Delta. There are plenty of books that offer an exhaustive account of those issues, and I took them to be the context for my story.
Edward Said's analysis of the Bush Administration's obsession with Saddam Hussein (LRB, 17 October) is, alas, accurate. However, in the light of the recent decision by Congress to give Bush a blank cheque for future military action, UK readers of Said's essay may think that the US public supports an invasion. In recent weeks, I have spoken to dozens of friends, colleagues, students and neighbours, and virtually all of them are opposed to any war. Why the lopsided vote in Congress? Republicans are now the natural party of shooting first and thinking later as the means to solve any intractable international problems, and Democrats seem to fear nothing so much as appearing doveish on any issue where the Republicans have seized the hawkish high ground.
Kent State University, Ohio
Contrary to what Leah Price says (LRB, 31 October), the new edition of Margaret Drabble's Oxford Companion to English Literature (2002) does contain an entry on book history. It falls between the Booker McConnell Prize for Fiction and the Book of Martyrs.
St Hugh’s College, Oxford
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