Shocked and saddened
by the personal animus
of a literary critic
There is a quote from that most distinguished of Scottish novelists, Muriel Spark, which comes to mind whenever I find critics wallowing in their intellectual superiority. 'She thinks to intimidate me by the use of quarter hours'. Miss Brodie was not intimidated and let's hope Sophie Cooke isn't either.
The irritating thing is that Stuart Kelly makes some excellent points (8 November), not least in reminding those who are perhaps not aware of it of the fine, strong tradition of Scottish writing that existed well before the union, although I'm not sure why he mentions 'the wonderful Complaynt' (as a one time mediaevalist to trade, even I had to look that one up to remind myself what it was – but then my formal studies were a long time ago) rather than those late mediaeval stalwarts, Henryson and Dunbar.
There are literary critics who wear their learning lightly. But there are those who use it like a verbal club, and rejoice in beating their erstwhile opponents round the head with it. I may not agree with everything Sophie Cooke wrote, but I found the debate her piece provoked interesting, and am shocked and saddened by the personal animus displayed in Kelly's response.
A piece packed with such intellectual derision scarcely merits serious attention, but it might be interesting to challenge him on his somewhat narrow notions about Scottish 'magic realism' and the contention that 'few writers' have read the border ballads, or are aware of folksongs and sagas. On the contrary, most Scottish state school-children – never mind writers – will have read some of the ballads and all of them will have had a hefty dose of Burns. Even this non-Scottish second generation Pole encountered them. What Kelly calls 'the interplay between elements of the fantastical and elements of realism' is to be found woven into the very fabric of much of our poetry and prose, whether in Scots, Gaelic or English, and it would be a brave soul who attempted to dismiss its influence entirely, in favour of some naive notion that a Scottish novelist will write magic realism only because he or she happens to have read 'One Hundred Years of Solitude'.
Catherine Czerkawska is a playwright and poet
Without claiming to be exceptional (although it transpired that we were so), we did consider ourselves 'essential' in the Scottish Poetry Library in the early 1980s when elements in the Scottish Arts Council literature committee kept trying to persuade us to rename ourselves 'the Poetry Library in Scotland'. (As soon as I retired the logo was changed at much expense and trouble from a Celtic one, expressing integration, interweaving, internationality and infinity, to an anonymous leaf vaguely linked to Patrick Geddes.)
Why were we essential? Most Scottish poetry (apart from the Burns collection at the Mitchell Library) was lost, scattered – often in America and Canada – out of print, unrecorded, unindexed, uncatalogued (MacDiarmid and Soutar were out of print, as were the Oxford and the Penguin Books of Scottish Verse. Scottish university libraries had no contemporary Scottish poetry, though Alexander Scott was building up a department at Glasgow). Our task was to gather, access, catalogue and make available, through bibliographical and outreach work, the poetry of Scotland in its various languages as comprehensively as possible, in a setting among samples of poetry from throughout the world in translation.
An essential feature of our work was to stock a selection of 'background material', being myths and legends, social, industrial, rural and local history, ballads and songs, and literary criticism. This being the kind of material any serious practising poet living in Scotland would need and would want to know. Anyone living and working in Scotland is affected by climate, landscape and language unless they live in a box. We are lucky to have such diversity and richness at hand in a small area, easy to explore. We have the particular and the infinite, as well as music, dance and the visual arts, religion and science, which are deeply interwoven with the written word in our tradition.
The only odd thing about Sophie Cooke's essay was that she felt the need to write it. What other country's writers feel the need to justify their designation? It's just a pity that Kelly was 'clever enough' to qualify for Oxford at such an impressionable age. Adam Smith tried it, and, as I understand, wasn't impressed.
Tessa Ransford OBE is a poet and founder of the Scottish Poetry Library