'The Voyage Out: An International Anthology of Writing, Art and Science', eds. by Kirsty Gunn and Gail Low (Voyage Out Press)
Have you noticed that in recent years Dundee has been undergoing something of a cultural renaissance? Traditionally known only for the three 'j's – jam, jute, and journalism – orange marmalade, jute processing, the Sunday Post and Oor Wullie are no longer what Dundee is about. Activities of a much more contemporary kind have replaced the industries of the past, and the city which for so long has played fourth fiddle to Glasgow, Edinburgh and Aberdeen is being transformed.
A billion pound redevelopment of the city's Tay waterfront is already underway, and 2018 will see the opening of the Victoria & Albert's Museum of Design – the first museum of its kind in the UK – and one of the reasons why in 2014 Dundee became the first place in Britain to be awarded the status of City of Design by UNESCO. But much more than the building of the museum was involved in that award.
Since the 1990s, largely as a result of pioneering computer studies courses developed at the universities of Dundee and Abertay, the city has become a world centre for the production of video games. In 1997 'Grand Theft Auto' became the world's biggest-selling video game, with the result that Dundee became universally recognised as a centre of this increasingly popular and influential creative industry.
Dundee's widely admired Contemporary Arts Centre, which opened in a fine modern building in the city centre in 1999, houses two contemporary art galleries, a cinema, a print studio, and a visual research centre. Dundee has the only repertory theatre company in the UK, and the city's literary and jazz festivals are major annual events. Dundee's claim to be a major city of contemporary culture is an eminently reasonable one.
I strongly suspect that those behind the University of Dundee's writing practice and study programme see themselves as contributing significantly to the city's role in reflecting the cutting edge of contemporary culture. Kirsty Gunn is the author of five novels, while Gail Low teaches contemporary literature in English as well as co-convening the university's creative writing programme. (Creative writing courses are booming everywhere across today's universities inside or outside traditional English literature departments.)
In their introduction to 'The Voyage Out' – 'Notes towards a journey' – Gunn and Low make clear their postmodern credentials. We are told we should learn 'to see words as things in themselves', recognise 'that language can be chimerical, devious with a life of its own'. We should acknowledge that 'the writing of stories, plays and poems takes a leap of imagination rather than conforming to the standard, and pushing always, the idiosyncratic over the acceptable, the unknown over the familiar.' Yet we should also be 'disciplined in our risk-taking, self-aware and formal in our wild "otherness".' This is how 'The Voyage Out' will celebrate and mark 'achievement and bravery'. All of this suggests to me that what we will find in the 30 contributions to this anthology will be much that is challenging, avant-garde, experimental, new.
To some extent such expectations are realised. As an example of book production, 'The Voyage Out' is unusual. The pages run from 007 to 145. It contains pencil drawings, illustrations, photographs and art installations. Its typeface is unusually small – most of us would need a magnifying glass to read the notes. But more interesting is the way in which certain recurring images and themes attempt to unify a range of material that includes poems, autobiography, historical writing, memoirs, interviews, accounts of film-making and art installations, and one extremely difficult example of contemporary literary theory.
As some readers will have recognised, 'The Voyage Out' is in fact the title of Virginia Woolf's first novel published in 1915. So Woolf becomes one of the book's themes, either by direct reference or by implication. Clearly the editors suggested to their contributors that they might structure their material around the notion of voyaging out – the exploration of experience. 'Voyaging' used to imply, above all, crossing the sea – so imagery of the sea and water in different forms emerges as another unifying factor. Dundee itself also plays a role in this context.
In 1901 the RSS Discovery was launched from a Dundee shipyard. This was the vessel on which Scott and Shackleton made their first exploratory sailing to the Antarctic. The success of this expedition made Scott a national hero, while the Discovery would revisit the Antarctic on several other occasions. However, in 1986 the vessel returned triumphantly to Discovery Quay in Dundee where she remains. So Scott and the Discovery seem also to hover over the book's pages, as it were encapsulating its exploratory, 'voyaging' theme. Finally in this context, the book's opening and closing contributions are poems by Jim Stewart, a late colleague of the editors. The opening poem is called 'Vessel', the closing one 'Sea'.
Are all these subtleties enough to unify, in a satisfying manner, the diversity of material contained in 'The Voyage Out'? In my view, not really. The language used by contributors who are scientists or historians, for example, remains wholly conventional. Ron Hay, a major figure in the world of molecular biology, writes as follows: 'Scientific writing must describe results as accurately as possible. It differs from creative writing in that way. We don't want to be too creative...We don't want too many words. We don't want any ambiguity.' This is hardly a view of language that Dundee's writing practice and study programme would endorse. But 'ambiguity' is in no way characteristic of many of the contributions to this book – from Brian Cox's account of how he became an actor, or Sue Black's description of how she has become a world authority in forensic science, to Christopher Whatley's description of the raising of monuments to Robert Burns in the 19th century.
Such conventional pieces sit rather uncomfortably beside, say, Jane Goldman's 'Discovery Woolf', which becomes a verbal construct created by stringing together every use of the words 'discover', 'discovered', 'discovery' etc., in her 10 novels. But that is the beauty (or the gamble?) of this unusual book.