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

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This election has sparked a weird debate – one in which no one seems to want to talk

 The noise level hasn’t risen above a low gurgle in the background.

If this is a general election in which the tectonic plates are shifting, they’re the quietest tectonic plates I’ve ever heard. All the parties are standing on pretty radical platforms, yet the noise level hasn’t risen above a low gurgle in the background, like a leaking tap we can’t be bothered to get fixed.

Big issues are being decided here. How do we pay for care, or health, or education? How do we square closed borders with open trade, and why isn’t anyone talking about it? Democracy is on the line, old people are being treated like electoral fodder, our infrastructure is mangled, the NHS is collapsing around us so fast that soon all that’s left will be one tin of chicken soup and a handful of cyanide capsules, and we face the prospect of a one-party Tory state for decades to come. All this and yet . . . silence. There seem to be no shouts of anger in this election. It’s a woozy, sleepy affair.

I knew something was afoot the moment it was called. Theresa May came out of No 10 and said she was having an election because she was fed up with other parties voting against her. No one seemed to want to stand up and tell her that’s a pretty good definition of how functioning democracy works. Basically, she scolded parliament for not going along with her.

Why were we not stunned by the sheer autocratic cheek of the moment? With news outlets, true and fake, growing in number by the day, why was this creeping despotism not reported? Am I the only one in a state of constant flabbergast?

But the Prime Minister’s move paid off. “Of course,” everyone said, “the real argument will now take place across the country, and we welcome,” they assured us, “the chance to have a national debate.”

Well, it’s a pretty weird debate – one in which no one wants to talk. So far, the only person May has debated live on air has been her husband, as Jeremy Corbyn still wanders the country like an Ancient Mariner, signalling to everyone he meets that he will not speak to anyone unless that person is Theresa May. Campaign events have been exercises in shutting down argument, filtering out awkward questions, and speaking only to those who agree with every word their leader says.

Then came the loud campaign chants – “Strong and stable” versus “The system’s rigged against us” – but these got repeated so often that, like any phrase yelled a thousand times, the sense soon fell out of them. Party leaders might as well have mooned at each other from either side of a river.

Granted, some others did debate, but they carried no volume. The Ukip leader, Paul Nuttall, achieved what no one thought possible, by showing the country that Nigel Farage had stature. And there’s a special, silent hell where Tim Farron languishes, his argument stifled at every turn by a media bent on quizzing him on what sort of hell he believes in.

Meanwhile, the party manifestos came out, with titles not so much void of meaning as so bored of it that they sounded like embarrassed whispers. Forward, Together; The Many Not the Few; Change Britain’s Future: these all have the shape and rhythm of political language, but nothing startles them into life. They are not so much ­clarion calls as dusty stains on old vellum. Any loosely connected words will do: Building My Tomorrow or Squaring the Hypotenuse would be equally valid. I still pray for the day when, just for once, a party launches its campaign with something like Because We’re Not Animals! but I realise that’s always going to stay a fantasy.

Maybe because this is the third national vote in as many years, our brains are starting to cancel out the noise. We really need something to wake us up from this torpor – for what’s happening now is a huge transformation of the political scene, and one that we could be stuck with for the next several decades if we don’t shake ourselves out of bed and do something about it.

This revolution came so quietly that no one noticed. Early on in the campaign, Ukip and the Conservatives formed a tacit electoral pact. This time round, Ukip isn’t standing in more than 200 seats, handing Tory candidates a clear run against their opponents in many otherwise competitive constituencies. So, while the left-of-centre is divided, the right gets its act together and looks strong. Tory votes have been artificially suppressed by the rise of Ukip over the past few elections – until it won 12.6 per cent of the electorate in 2015. With the collapse of the Ukip vote, and that party no longer putting up a fight in nearly a third of constituencies, Theresa May had good reason to stride about the place as cockily as she did before the campaign was suspended because of the Manchester outrage.

That’s why she can go quiet, and that’s why she can afford to roam into the centre ground, with some policies stolen from Ed Miliband (caps on energy bill, workers on company boards) and others from Michael Foot (spending commitments that aren’t costed). But that is also why she can afford to move right on immigration and Brexit. It’s why she feels she can go north, and into Scotland and Wales. It’s a full-blooded attempt to get rid of that annoying irritant of democracy: opposition.

Because May’s opponents are not making much of this land-grab, and because the media seem too preoccupied with the usual daily campaign gaffes and stammering answers from underprepared political surrogates, it falls once again to the electorate to shout their disapproval.

More than two million new voters have registered since the election was announced. Of these, large numbers are the under-25s. Whether this will be enough to cause any psephological upsets remains to be seen. But my hope is that those whom politicians hope to keep quiet are just beginning to stir. Who knows, we might yet hear some noise.

This article first appeared in the 25 May 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Why Islamic State targets Britain

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