Friday Arts Diary

Our cultural picks for the week ahead.

Film and discussion

Made in Birmingham, The Barber Institute of Fine Arts, Birmingham, 12 May

A special screening of Made in Birmingham: Reggae, Punk, Bhangra followed by a discussion. Professor Roger Shannon, of dge Hill University, will introduce a Q&A session with the film’s director Deborah Aston and executive producer Jez Collins. Famous names from influential Birmingham bands, such as UB40, Musical Youth and many more, talk about their distinctive musical styles in this fascinating documentary.



The Seagull by Anton Chekhov, Northern Stage, Newcastle, from 14 May

This new production of the Chekhov classic is a collaboration between Headlong, “the country’s most exciting touring company” (Daily Telegraph), renowned for their innovative, accessible re-imaginings of classic texts, and the Nuffield Theatre, Southampton. Directed by Blanche McIntyre, this production has been widely praised for its innovative staging.



Houghton Revisited, Houghton Hall, Norfolk, opens 17 May

The art collection of Britain’s first Prime Minister, Sir Robert Walpole, sold to Catherine the Great to adorn the Hermitage in St Petersburg, will be reassembled in its spectacular original setting of Houghton Hall for the first time in over 200 years. "Houghton Revisited" runs from 17 May-29 September and is a unique opportunity to view one of the most celebrated art collections assembled in 18th-century Europe. The display will include paintings from the English, French, Italian, Flemish and Spanish schools, with masterpieces by Van Dyck, Poussin, Albani, Rubens, Rembrandt, Velazquez and Murillo.



A SCREAM AND AN OUTRAGE 1: Oceanic Verses, Barbican Centre, London, 10 May

The "A Scream and an Outrage" weekend kicks off with two world premieres of specially-commissioned new pieces by Nico Muhly and Pulitzer Prize-winning composer David Lang. The BBC Singers open the evening with Muhly’s latest composition, An Outrage; followed by Lang’s new percussion concerto entitled Man Made, performed by the BBC Symphony Orchestra, with Brooklyn-based innovators So Percussion. The second half features the European premiere concert performance of Italian-American composer Paola Prestini’s new multimedia opera, Oceanic Verses - in a new version for the Barbican stage. It is a multi media opera, a collage of found folk music reworked into a single, contemporary classical music score by the prolific American composer Paola Prestini.


Scratch festival, Battersea Arts Centre, from 17 May

The Scratch festival provides the opportunity to invent the future of theatre, placing the artist and audience in a creative dialogue to develop new ideas. Audiences will be invited to work-in-progress showings from Adrian Howells, Made In China, RashDash and Sleepwalk Collective and others. Past shows to have emerged from this method include Jerry Springer the Opera and The Paper Cinema’s Odyssey.

Bands such as UB40 feature in the documentary Made in Birmingham (Photo: Getty Images)
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Gael blown: how cultural appropriation went hand-in-hand with the Highland clearances

Madeleine Bunting’s account of her travels in the Hebrides reveals an often-overlooked history.

In the opening pages of this excellent book, Madeleine Bunting tries to provide a justification and rationale both for her Hebridean journey and then her wish to write about the most complex of Britain’s archipelagos. As she points out, the Hebrides comprise no fewer than 270 islands and islets, 51 of which are permanently inhabited, and the Hebridean coastline, at 2,500 kilometres, is almost three-quarters that of England’s.

It transpires that Bunting’s connection to the nation’s north-western extremities really began when her parents went for holidays to a fragment of what she rather archly refers to as the Gàidhealtachd, the cultural territory of Scotland’s Gaelic-speaking, predominantly croft-working population.

Yet the Buntings’ “Promised Land”, as she calls their summer retreat, was nowhere near the Hebrides. It was in a hamlet called Amat at the heart of the salmon-rich Strathcarron, in Sutherland, near Scotland’s north-eastern coast. These visits were intermittent and happened only in her childhood, since when the author, Yorkshire born and bred, has migrated to London and become a committed metropolitan as well as a senior journalist with the Guardian. What right, one wonders, does she have to des­cribe her travels along Scotland’s Atlantic shoreline as in any way a “search for home”?

The answer is time and commitment. It has taken Bunting eight years to write this book and she made one excursion after the other in order to assemble her thoughts of these beautiful, storm-battered islands. That depth of engagement gives authen­ticity to the writing and substance to her arguments. In truth, she never really claims the Outer Isles as her own but she does ­inquire deeply into the Hebridean people’s own passionate devotion to place. She also illuminates how these islands, but more especially Celtic culture and identity, were instrumental in shaping all of Britain’s, and especially England’s, sense of self.

A critical moment for this came in 1765 with the publication by James Macpherson of The Works of Ossian. These were translations of Gaelic poetry and folk tales that went down a storm in literary Europe and alerted many to the overlooked oral culture of northern Scotland. The Works of Ossian are not without controversy – Samuel Johnson infamously dismissed them as fake and sneered at Gaelic as the “rude speech of a barbarous people” – but the book had a huge impact on Romanticism.

Imbued with Rousseau’s notions of the noble savage and antipathetic to the effects of industrialisation, writers such as Keats and artists such as Turner were suddenly alive to the savage beauties and the more authentic life-ways of the Scottish west coast. Bunting shows that behind this Romantic engagement with Hebridean life was a kind of cultural imperialism that developed through a series of opposites. If Celts were depicted as imaginative, idealistic and wild, then, almost by definition, the Anglos were utilitarian, pragmatic and civilised. If the Gael was backward-looking and melancholic, the Saxon must be optimistic and forward-thinking. Above all, the English were utterly dominant.

The author demonstrates how such cultural appropriation was intimately connected to territorial dispossession. Bunting takes us on a brief tour of the Clearances; the retelling still has the power to enrage, and she shows how the treatment of Hebridean crofters was identical to British imperialism in Africa or Asia. As she puts it tellingly, this is a “history which will not go quietly into the past”. Yet she also demonstrates that it was not Hanoverian England alone which suppressed the Gàidhealtachd. Much of the dirtiest work was done by former clan chiefs who had simply reinvented themselves as London-based grandees.

Bunting further points out that this colonial exploitation has hardly ceased. The recent plans to build a vast windfarm on Lewis, involving 234 turbines with sails the size of jumbo jets, and the 1990s quarry scheme to dismantle whole mountains on Harris to build English roads, are further demonstrations of how the centre plunders resources from its Atlantic periphery.

If I have a small disappointment in Love of Country, it is that Bunting makes too little of the Hebridean natural environment, which involves the most harmonious transaction between human beings and wildlife now found anywhere in Britain. The shell-based coastal lawns known as machair are among Europe’s richest habitats, still smothered in orchids and resounding to the sounds of lapwing display and curlew song.

At times one feels that Bunting thinks much harder than she looks. Occasionally she betrays her metropolitan roots. She describes rivers as being “the colour of manuka honey”, and of a chorus of birds like nothing she had heard before, she writes that “the air vibrated . . . setting all my senses alert”. The prose, however, is always most elevated when she engages the formidable clarity of her intellect. It is the almost perfect marriage of physical travelogue to the inner landscape of political ideas and cultural reflections that makes this such a super read. I cannot think of a more intellectually challenging or rewarding travel book in recent years, except perhaps Jay Griffiths’s Wild.

Love of Country is in every way a richer, more mature work than Bunting’s award-winning 2009 memoir, The Plot. I expect it to bring her prizes and fame.

Mark Cocker’s books include “Claxton: Field Notes from a Small Planet” (Vintage)

Love of Country: a Hebridean Journey by Madeleine Bunting is published by Granta Books (368pp, £18.99)

This article first appeared in the 20 October 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Brothers in blood