- The Scottish Sixties: Reading, Rebellion, Revolution? Edited by Eleanor Bell and Linda Gunn
‘The Sixties’ perpetuate impressions of a mythical time populated by catalytic figures in iconic places producing an atmosphere of intoxication and liberation. Behind this broad perception lies the suggestion that the reality was rather more constrained. Yet if most Cockneys could tell you that Swinging London was the louche preserve of a Carnaby Street few, the present volume sets out to dispel the historical orthodoxy that Scotland was bypassed by the seismic upheavals going on elsewhere. ‘On the contrary’, claims Eleanor Bell, the various contributions draw attention to how ‘Scottish culture was changed irrevocably by this decade’ (p. 14).
So, did a Scottish Spring blossom? Addressing this question means delineating the literary and cultural interconnections of a period during which, as T. M. Devine points out, the nation was starting to feel the discomfort of emerging from the fool’s paradise of post-war reconstruction. The point at issue throughout is the tension between internationalism and nationalism. Equally obvious, and evident in repeated references across the chapters, are the few key events, people and places around which debate turned. Most marked, and no surprise given the editors’ predilections, is the seminal part played by the Edinburgh Writers’ Conference of 1962. Here in the McEwan Hall, a stellar cast — Mary McCarthy, Norman Mailer, Henry Miller, Lawrence Durrell, Rebecca West — debated censorship, William Burroughs got his big break and, to quote Magnus Magnusson’s headline, ‘Scottish Writers Stage[d] Their “Civil War” ’. The story is oft-rehearsed: on a whisky-fuelled ‘day of disarray’, Alexander Trocchi, espousing heroin and chronicling the ‘sexistential’, remarked that he was right to leave a provincial Scotland, for which Hugh MacDiarmid denounced him as ‘cosmopolitan scum’. Two years later, MacDiarmid was engaged in another flyting (this time in the letters page of the Scotsman) with Hamish Henderson concerning the place of folk-song in developing the people’s consciousness, Henderson regarding folk and literary culture as an indivisible synthesis, melding traditional ballad motifs with, for example, references to apartheid, while MacDiarmid lambasted it as anachronistic and counter to his highbrow aspirations for nationalism. As Corey Gibson deftly articulates, this was part of wider ‘generational fracture’, the moment when both folkies and [End Page 135] beatniks ‘were forced to define themselves in opposition to the living legacy of the interwar Renaissance’ (p. 223). In his much cited essay ‘The Beatnik in the Kailyard’ (1962), Edwin Morgan had criticised the Renaissance because of the alarming gap between ‘the literary and the public experience’, aided in no small measure by the fetish for Lallans as the manufactured speak of a wilful intellectual elitism. As John Corbett suggests, when Alan Daiches combined his photographs with such text for a BBC television series accompanied by a Britten score, the mass audience might be forgiven its bewilderment, not just because of the difficulty of dialect words but also because interpretation ‘demand[ed] the viewer’s acquaintance with the mediaeval makars … as well as with the works of Shakespeare and Milton’ (p. 268). Yet the alignment of Ian Hamilton-Finlay with the international avant garde through concrete poetry and his mouthpiece magazine Poor. Old. Tired. Horse. was not exactly a populist ploy either. By contrast to both (see Sylvia Bryce-Wunder), Muriel Spark’s reassessment of Scottish themes from an expatriate perspective delivered novels of lasting traction.
Spark notwithstanding, the internationalist voices of the era were conjoined in a remarkably tight personal and geographical network. John Calder and Jim Haynes organised the Writers’ Conference and, together with Richard Demarco, launched the Traverse Theatre Club. Calder published Trocchi. Haynes also ran the Paperback Bookshop, a sort of Caledonian City Lights in Edinburgh’s Charles Street, quite literally a stone’s throw from the McEwan Hall. No stones were actually thrown, no Paris barricades; nonetheless it was a particularly fervid locale. Against this, one must be wary of constructing mythologies by absenting other narratives. Roderick Watson remarks that the Rose Street poets’ work ‘reached full...