The late Alasdair Gray is widely believed to be the author of the unofficial slogan of Scottish nationalism: ‘Work as if you live in the early days of a better nation.’ In fact, the line was paraphrased from the Canadian poet Dennis Lee, who wrote in his 1972 poem Civil Elegies: ‘And best of all is finding a place to be / in the early days of a better civilization.’ To be fair, Gray never tried to disguise where the expression had come from. ‘I have always attributed it to [Lee],’ he once said. ‘But people started quoting it as if I had invented it’.
In The Literary Politics Of Scottish Devolution: Voice, Class, Nation, Scott Hames — a lecturer in English Studies at Stirling University — examines how Scottish cultural luminaries like Gray have shaped our national political discourse, both consciously and unconsciously, over the past half century.
An early Autumn morning in Edinburgh, some time in the mid-1990s. Two men are walking together through the Meadows. The sun has cast a dull light across the tree-lined paths. They turn up Middle Meadow Walk, passing Edinburgh University’s George Square campus on one side and the crumbling old Royal Infirmary building on the other. As they approach the junction at Teviot Place, their conversation intensifies. They no longer notice the students, the coffee-sellers or the cyclists. They are speaking, in fluent Italian, about Marxist philosopher Antonio Gramsci. One of the men, dressed in a distinctive tweed hat and cardigan, is Hamish Henderson, the celebrated Scots poet and folklorist. The other, less stylishly attired in a plain shirt and suit jacket, is Tom Nairn, the most influential Scottish political thinker of his generation.
You can see them, can’t you? Two silhouettes in the sunlight. Henderson died in 2002, aged 82, an icon of Scotland’s cultural left. But Nairn is still very much with us, and although, at 84, the years are beginning to pile up on him, he remains as perceptive and self-deprecating as ever.
For as long as I’ve been aware of books, I’ve been aware of Tom Nairn’s The Break-Up of Britain. When I was growing up, there were at least two copies – separate editions: the original from 1977 and a later volume from 1981 with a postscript on Thatcherism – lodged on my dad’s bookshelves. It was the later volume, with its distinctive black and yellow jacket design, that first caught my attention.
As I got older and began to delve into them, I was quietly thrilled to find my dad’s name – Stephen Maxwell – among those cited by Nairn, alongside Gordon Brown and Hamish Henderson, in the acknowledgements. But it wasn’t until my late teens that I really began to engage with – or properly comprehend – their contents.