Shots fired in Edinburgh: Many writers and artists who once supported Labour, have abandoned it. Photograph: Getty Images.
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Artists for independence, reading Wilfred Owen and the return of Ian Nairn

Remembering the angst of Scottish writers, a schoolboy's introduction to the poetry of Wilfred Owen, and the eccentric, melancholy genius of the topographer and broadcaster Ian Nairn.

In the early Nineties I was commissioned by a magazine to write a long report on what was being described as the renaissance in Scottish literature and publishing. I found a room in a hotel in Charlotte Square – from my window I could see the front door of Bute House, now the First Minister’s official residence – and spent four or five days wandering around Edinburgh, a would-be flâneur with an expense account.

My visit coincided with an unexpected heatwave and, beguiled by the weather, I thought for those few days at least that there was no better city in which to live in Europe. I was also struck by how few people I spoke to had any sense of a British identity. They were proudly, even militantly, Scottish. OK, most of them were young writers and artists but still their self-identity had been formed in opposition to England and to a Tory government for which none of them had voted and whose policies they despised. It was obvious to me that, given the chance, these people would vote for independence and that a referendum on the issue was inevitable, if not imminent.

A few years later, Blair’s 1997 landslide obliterated the Tories in Scotland (they won none of the 72 seats). The Conservative and Unionist Party had dumped the poll tax on Scotland a year before its introduction in England and myopically opposed devolution. It was a defeat from which there would be no return. Nowadays, Labour is also struggling for credibility in Scotland. The Scottish Labour Party has a likeable but hapless leader and a party machine that has been diminished by the flight of talent south and corrupted by decades of complacency. Many writers, artists and academics who once supported Labour have abandoned it. They are not natural SNP supporters but they will vote Yes in September.

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I spent last week high in the French Alps, where, despite many weeks of unseasonal warmth, the snow fell thickly on the day of our arrival and continued all through the night – the first snowfall I’d seen all winter. We awoke to a windless morning, fresh snow and brilliant sunshine, such a welcome respite from the storms and incessant rain of recent weeks. I returned from France to find an astronaut on the cover of the New Statesman and inside a fine review of Guy Cuthbertson’s biography of Wilfred Owen by Rowan Williams, the former archbishop of Canterbury, who has joined us as a lead book reviewer.

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I can never forget my introduction to Owen’s poetry. One morning the school headmaster strode out before us at the start of assembly and, without introduction, read “Dulce et Decorum Est”, which I later discovered was one of the most celebrated anti-war protest poems. The headmaster was a short, aggressive, bullet-headed man – my father told me he was a communist who had fought in the Spanish civil war (this seems unlikely, in retrospect, though there was a finger missing from his left hand). Now, he was in late career and his idealism had curdled into disaffection. He seemed to hate the school and the children in it. Yet that morning he read Owen’s poem with an emotion I’d never seen from him before. A couple of days later I pulled down from my father’s shelves an anthology of First World War poets – Owen, Sassoon, Gurney, Blunden and others. I was on my way to becoming a reader.

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Towards the end of last year, Matthew Engel published a fascinating essay in the Fin­ancial Times about Ian Nairn, the eccentric and melancholy architectural commentator who became an unlikely TV personality in the early Seventies as he toured the country in his convertible Morris Minor. Dressed in a funereal suit and white shirt, overweight, his receding hair slicked back from a pale, pudgy face, Nairn, who had been a pilot, told the viewers in vivid and uncomplicated language which buildings and towns he liked and disliked and why.

He was often outraged. He was a passion­ate hater and denounced the carelessness and brutality of so much postwar architecture and town planning – “subtopia” was his coinage, a neologism he used to characterise the suburban sprawl he saw stretching all the way from Southampton to Carlisle. At times he seemed to be close to tears – one wag remarked on his edge-of-suicide delivery – never more so than when lamenting the impending destruction of the Emporium Arcade (1901-72) in Northampton. The wrecking balls had done their work even before the programme was broadcast.

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I knew of Nairn’s influence on a generation of psychogeographers and gonzo urbanists but had never seen any of his programmes or read any of his mostly forgotten books. I was still at school in 1983 when he died, aged 52; burdened, it seemed, by some unnameable sorrow, he drank himself to death.

However, since reading Engel’s piece I’ve been watching clips of Nairn on YouTube. I love his conversational style, as if he’s speaking to friends in the pub, his resonant voice, authoritative but not plummy, wavering with regret. And last week – the joy of it – there was an hour-long documentary about him by Kate Misrahi on BBC4. 

It was the model of a kind of documentary the BBC once excelled at before it became fixated on celebrity. It had a narrator but no presenter and featured thoughtful, well-edited contributions from those who had known and worked with Nairn or admired his originality. Now, surely, some enterprising publisher should reissue his out-of-print but much-in-demand book Nairn’s London. I’d buy it. 

Jason Cowley is editor of the New Statesman. He has been the editor of Granta, a senior editor at the Observer and a staff writer at the Times.

This article first appeared in the 26 February 2014 issue of the New Statesman, Scotland: a special issue

Photo: Getty Images
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What do Labour's lost voters make of the Labour leadership candidates?

What does Newsnight's focus group make of the Labour leadership candidates?

Tonight on Newsnight, an IpsosMori focus group of former Labour voters talks about the four Labour leadership candidates. What did they make of the four candidates?

On Andy Burnham:

“He’s the old guard, with Yvette Cooper”

“It’s the same message they were trying to portray right up to the election”​

“I thought that he acknowledged the fact that they didn’t say sorry during the time of the election, and how can you expect people to vote for you when you’re not actually acknowledging that you were part of the problem”​

“Strongish leader, and at least he’s acknowledging and saying let’s move on from here as opposed to wishy washy”

“I was surprised how long he’d been in politics if he was talking about Tony Blair years – he doesn’t look old enough”

On Jeremy Corbyn:

"“He’s the older guy with the grey hair who’s got all the policies straight out of the sixties and is a bit of a hippy as well is what he comes across as” 

“I agree with most of what he said, I must admit, but I don’t think as a country we can afford his principles”

“He was just going to be the opposite of Conservatives, but there might be policies on the Conservative side that, y’know, might be good policies”

“I’ve heard in the paper he’s the favourite to win the Labour leadership. Well, if that was him, then I won’t be voting for Labour, put it that way”

“I think he’s a very good politician but he’s unelectable as a Prime Minister”

On Yvette Cooper

“She sounds quite positive doesn’t she – for families and their everyday issues”

“Bedroom tax, working tax credits, mainly mum things as well”

“We had Margaret Thatcher obviously years ago, and then I’ve always thought about it being a man, I wanted a man, thinking they were stronger…  she was very strong and decisive as well”

“She was very clear – more so than the other guy [Burnham]”

“I think she’s trying to play down her economics background to sort of distance herself from her husband… I think she’s dumbing herself down”

On Liz Kendall

“None of it came from the heart”

“She just sounds like someone’s told her to say something, it’s not coming from the heart, she needs passion”

“Rather than saying what she’s going to do, she’s attacking”

“She reminded me of a headteacher when she was standing there, and she was quite boring. She just didn’t seem to have any sort of personality, and you can’t imagine her being a leader of a party”

“With Liz Kendall and Andy Burnham there’s a lot of rhetoric but there doesn’t seem to be a lot of direction behind what they’re saying. There seems to be a lot of words but no action.”

And, finally, a piece of advice for all four candidates, should they win the leadership election:

“Get down on your hands and knees and start praying”

Stephen Bush is editor of the Staggers, the New Statesman’s political blog.