Fresh in from far out - Galloway

<em>New Statesman Scotland</em> - Slowly we are shaking off the shame

In November, my first picture book, Who Is The World For?, will be published. I wrote it while on a writer's bursary travelling down through Africa from Nairobi to Cape Town. It was the first time I had been away from home for a lengthy period as a father and I felt differently from the start.

Sitting on the aeroplane, I had none of the excitement of an unfolding adventure; rather a sense of my own fragility: "God, get me back here in one piece!" And I missed my children, then aged six and four, desperately: I wanted to write them more than postcards.

My story was really a "given". After a visit to the Masai Mara, a question came to me that a lion cub might ask his father: "Who is the world for?" "Why, look around you," his father might answer, and list all the factors that tie the lion into his particular world. Now, with stunning illustrations by the Australian artist Robert Ingpen, the young of a bear, a whale, an Arctic hare, an owl, a hippo and a dad all ask the same question and receive the same answer: "The world is for you!"

I recognised the source of Who Is The World For? in my own Edinburgh childhood. Even sitting in the middle of our large back garden, we whispered. On a summer's day, inside, Mum would warn: "Sssh, the windows are open, people will hear." In the outside world, on holiday or on a rare visit to a hotel restaurant - there were few other kinds in Edinburgh back then - we moved as if underwater or else as fish out of water. Why was everyone detailed to watch us? Why did our behaviour have to be so impeccable? Why was the world for others - loud, confident - and not for us?

It is, I think, a public reticence that is common in Scotland and quintessential to Edinburgh experience. Shame is its begetter: the free-floating shame when one has not quite measured up to some idea of oneself. Many of our students sense it when they are among those they feel are more articulate and confident than they are themselves; and who appear to move so naturally in the world of aspiration and achievement. More importantly, statistics of university uptake say it is also a feeling shared by those from disadvantaged backgrounds: higher education, they sense, is not for them.

At one point, Edinburgh embodied that feeling of not quite measuring up. Returning from my first visits abroad, driving out of Waverley station into what I always saw as the most spectacular vista, there was a feeling, for all the grey grandeur, of being welcomed back into quiet familiarity, rather than into the vibrancy of a capital city. Until fairly recently, there was an apprehension that Edinburgh was a city so finely poised, it could be only damaged, never improved. I grew up firm in the knowledge that Princes Street was "not what it used to be". Only with the new Museum of Scotland, with the displays of capital in stone in Lothian Road and with the triangulation of the new Scotsman building, the Dynamic Earth exhibition centre, and, in time, with the new parliament, is there developing the feeling of a city confidently adding to its own story.

Culturally, it is true, many of the old chips are falling from our shoulders; there is less need to seek validation from elsewhere for our creative acts. This summer, the British Council at the Edinburgh Book Festival will showcase the variety and strength and depth of Scottish writing. A disabling sense of inadequacy, whatever its source, has been lifted from us. However, one result of a year of our own devolved governance is that our social shames now stand unambiguously before us - poverty, racism, bigotry, homophobia.

And who can be surprised by the social complexion of Scotland? Those who thought us egalitarians, based on a reading of our antipathy to Margaret Thatcher, had never studied our literature or, more particularly, the political leanings of our writers: Burns, Scott, Stevenson, Buchan, Muir - never mind MacDiarmid with his desire to be "whaur extremes meet".

Those who say, for example, that the Communities Minister, Wendy Alexander, would have been better to let dangerous dogs lie, are arguing for the sublimation of fissures within our society. For myself, I feel that the issue of Clause 28 has revealed Scotland to be as complex and as morally muddied as any other civic society. And, like any other, it will be judged on how equably it deals with what now so clearly shames it. Any government must strive to arrive at the point where, should any of its citizens ask "Who is the world for?", it can reply, with an honesty underpinned by legislation: "The world is for you!"

This article first appeared in the 03 July 2000 issue of the New Statesman, And is there honey by the Tees?