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Civic Memory

Books make the world more real for us: Andrew O’Hagan on civic memory in Scotland

October 2nd, 2011 by Nuria_Ruiz | Posted in Blog | Comments Off on Books make the world more real for us: Andrew O’Hagan on civic memory in Scotland
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Photo of Andrew O'Hagan by Jerry BauerOn 28th September 2011, award-winning writer Andrew O’Hagan arrived in Stirling to deliver a lecture on civic memory, which he called “An Argument on the Character of Scottish Culture”.  In equal measures thoughtful and amusing, he explored how our understanding of Scotland, and our own place within our home country, is dependent on shared memories and a common culture.

 The lecture was held at the macrobert, as part of the House of Words series in collaboration with Creative Writing at Stirling.

“Scotland”, asserts Andrew O’Hagan, “is a living workshop of the imagination”.  And this was really the unifying theme of his guest lecture on the nature of Scottish civic memory.  We Scots are bound by our imaginations and our unending need to understand what has gone before.  Through the Bell’s Whisky tagline, “Afore ye go”, via an unexpected invasion by the English, to finally praising the Scottish “confederation of the imagination” between its authors and readers, Andrew led us through the creation of a Scottish identity that says as much about its citizens as it does about the continuing strength of its creative industries. 

As a writer, O’Hagan of course emphasised the role of writing in civic memory.  A lovely idea was his perception of the theatre as a vision for how to live, particularly when our lives are becoming politically and economically harder.  But it was the story, the power of fiction, which underpinned his argument.  Mentioning James Kelman, Andrew described his body of work as the most crafted and true representations of Scotland – and for me, it struck home.  Kelman, of course, won the 1994 Booker Prize with How Late It Was, How Late, stoking controversy with his use of Glaswegian language and culture among more traditional critics.  But in Scotland, his book was an invocation of who we are; it was our language, our experiences and anxieties, put into words where it could not slip out of view.

A noteworthy observation, purely from a publishing perspective, was O’Hagan’s idea that Scottish civic memory actually finds its most forceful expression in the arts – Scottish plays, music, art and books are becoming powerful, punching above their weight in the cultural stakes.  In particular, books are playing a bigger role in making the world “more real” for us as Scots.  This led me to question what that could mean for the publishing industry in Scotland.  It might be easy to assume that the home of literary and fiction publishing in Britain rightly lies in the South East.  But as Andrew noted, Scotland is a nation whose stories are largely unwritten, and where our personal fiction and characters are as respected as our national history.  We may for many years have lived a verbal life, but this creation of a civic memory could see our stories, and the stories of those who came before us, power the publishing industry.  If Scottish book culture is on the ascendant, then Scottish publishing can become as commanding as the stories it makes and preserves. 

And everyone in Scotland, after all, has a story.

Núria Ruiz, September 2011