A search for identity in the shock of the new

Scottish writing fits the mood of the nation, writes Jason Cowley. But can England find an authentic

Much recent Scottish writing has been nurtured by a kind of wounded contempt, by lingering feelings of disenfranchisement, of being yoked to a despised centralised political system - an experience the Aberdonian poet-publisher Robin Robertson likens to being "tied to a dying animal". As Scots celebrate their political re-emergence, it's worth asking if there is such a notion as an authentically Scottish idiom.

James Kelman captured the Scots' tone of submerged rage when he won the 1994 Booker prize, and defended, in his acceptance speech, his right to speak in his own voice, uninhibited by convention. Literature offers permanence to language, and his novel, How Late It Was, How Late, was written entirely in a stylised vernacular, a hectoring language scornful of the conventions of so-called standard English. "As soon as you enter school you are informed that your culture and language are inferior," Kelman said. "My culture and my language have the right to exist and no one has the authority to dismiss it."

Later, at the press conference, he was asked by a Glaswegian journalist whether his speech had been an implicit call for Scottish independence. To which Kelman said (and I paraphrase) that his sentiments applied equally to Liverpudlians and the Cornish.

But elsewhere there was dismay. Simon Jenkins, writing in the Times, compared the experience of reading Kelman to being trapped in a train carriage with a Glaswegian drunk - a view echoed by numerous metropolitan instant opinion merchants for whom the nihilistic flow of How Late was an affront to literature. Not the kind of book that ought to have won the Booker at all. Jenkins, in fact, likened Kelman to an "illiterate savage".

Narrated in a dense stream of consciousness and studded with expletives, How Late tells of the struggles of a blind, unemployed Glaswegian. Not much happens: he waits for his dole money, he walks the decaying inner-city streets, he sits alone for hours in his flat recalling his days as a failed convict. And yet everything happens; Kelman lays bare the man in all his complicated inwardness, and his language - often repetitive and tedious - mimics the clotted loops of consciousness, the way it moves between the past, present and a dreaded future, as we work our way through drab days.

There was a political subtext to much of the anti-Kelman outrage, finding an echo in unease over what Professor Jean Aitchison, a former Reith lecturer, has called the "hypothesis of linguistic equality" - the notion that all languages and dialects are equally valid; that there are no fixed rules and no pre-eminent centre of speech; that we should adhere to no transcendent standard; that languages are inextricably bound up with identity and self-expression.

The emergence of alternative verbal idioms, such as black English, Scots and street English - what Arthur Miller calls "emergency speech" - has unsettled traditional grammarians, most of whom are wedded to the Latinate constructions of standard English usage, with its formal constraints, syntactical pomposity and rigid rules. But for Kelman, and those who have come after him such as Alan Warner and Irvine Welsh, language is constantly unstable: it exists to be bent, stretched, mangled and contorted. It exists as a political mechanism through which to express local identity, to represent lived experience in a way that is vital and alive, in a way that feels authentic, without having to speak in borrowed tongues.

America is the greatest poem, wrote Walt Whitman in his preface to Leaves of Grass, and you have the feeling, certainly reading the early fiction of Welsh, Kelman and Warner, that these writers must feel the same about Scotland: that their contemporary Scotland is a huge open continent of discovery, a place to be reclaimed and revitalised. Nothing is outside our remit, they seem to say, nothing is too decayed, dirty or marginal for literature. So Kelman writes about convicts, drunks and the unemployed in urban extremis; Warner, a former train driver from Oban, writes about the empty lives of ravers and of the rural poor in the Scottish Highlands so rapturously that their lives seem anything but empty; and Welsh, as anyone who has read his million-selling Trainspotting knows, discovers poetry even in the heroin-stricken backstreets of Edinburgh.

And they achieve all this in an idiomatic literary language which, paradoxically, wants to be read as unliterary, as spoken, loose and swaggering; but which is nothing of the kind. Here is Kelman, in his novel The Busconductor Hines: "What he had been hoping for - he had been hoping for something. What in the name of fuck had he been hoping for, he was hoping for something. Hope. What a strange fucking word. Hope. Here I am hoping. I am hoping. Hope hope hope, little bunnies, hope hope hope." This is, as is most of Kelman, not the work of an illiterate savage, but a stylised piece of prose, its boring repetitions and staccato syntax as choreographed as a ballet.

Alan Warner, learning from Kelman, has understood how to award even the most inarticulate with the gift of language, in a way that is seldom arch. Here is Morvern Callar, a young low-paid checkout girl, alone in the hills of Oban: "I lit a Silk Cut off embers then gazed into the fire. It'd died down and the cinders tinkled. The light from the fire was throwing out less and less shadow round the tent. The dark outline of all the mountains was round me. The butt of a Silk Cut lit up in the ashes. A shadow wobbled by the tent. I yawned and there was a buzzing in my ears. I unzipped the front of the tent then crawled in . . . " And so it goes on, for more than two pages, simple sentence after sentence compressed into richly descriptive passages.

Anthony Burgess, in his witty study of spoken English, A Mouthful of Air, showed that languages change and we cannot stop them changing, and nor can we determine the modes in which they do change. "It is not even possible to legislate for a language, to say what is right and what is wrong. If it is wrong to say 'you was', then the educated men of the 18th century were wrong. If it is sluttish to drop one's aitches, then Elizabeth I was a slut. What we regard as errors are often merely survivals from an earlier form of the language."

The attempt to forge a distinctive Scots literature, founded on the rejection of the metropolis and on buoyant Burgessian exuberance, has been one of the more interesting experiments of our contemporary literary culture. Kelman, Welsh, Warner, Duncan McLean, Alison (A L) Kennedy, Janice Galloway and the veteran Alasdair Gray have all spoken of being radicalised by Thatcherism, by their disgust at what they have considered to be the complacent parochialism of so much postwar British fiction.

But defining your cultural identity against a despised "other", most obviously an enfeebled Conservative England, can only take you so far. The shock of the new soon loses its burnish; and vernacular writing, prone to endless imperfect replication, has assumed the exaggerated dimensions of a fashion in Scotland, with every seemingly hip young writer an aspirant literary outlaw. Irvine Welsh, in particular, is perhaps already written out. In spite of its vigour, his recent fiction - Marabou Stork Nightmares, Filth, Ecstasy - is no more than a fiction of random moments, never coagulating into a coherent hoop of narrative focus, never showing itself interested in the world beyond a meretricious will to outrage. The glitz of vernacular writing has also led to many quieter Scottish writers, such as the excellent William McIlvanney, being overlooked by those eager to be part of the self-declared Scottish "literary renaissance".

Alexander Murdoch, in his new study British History 1660-1831: national identity and local culture (Macmillan, £9.99), writes that Britishness has long been an institutional rather than a cultural identity. At present, after a period of prolonged perplexity, what we are witnessing among many English novelists, perhaps envious of their widely praised Scottish confreres, is an attempt to find and reclaim an English cultural identity. The quest has begun to discover a voice that seems authentically "English", whatever that may mean at the end of the century - a voice untainted by colonial complicity, nostalgia, willed antiquarianism or kitsch.

Already there has been a series of recent fictions explicitly referring to England or Englishness in their titles, as if the very act of naming was itself an act of reification, of bringing the country to urgent life. So, perhaps, just as a new generation of Scottish writers discovered an idiom through writing in opposition - against a homogenous centralising system - so English writers, stripped of the cultural safety blanket of Britishness, may be able to achieve something similar.

It's certainly been too long since an English writer had the confidence to describe an English city, as H G Wells did of London in Tono Bungay not all that long ago, as the "richest town in the world, the biggest port, the greatest manufacturing town . . . the centre of civilisation, the heart of the world!". Or as Conrad did when, contemplating the Thames in Heart of Darkness, he wondered of "what greatness had not flowed on the ebb of that river into the mystery of an unknown earth". Into the mystery of an unknown earth! Could England ever again become the greatest poem, too?

Jason Cowley is literary editor of the "New Statesman"

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