An Open Letter to Professor Louise Richardson, Principal and Vice Chancellor of the University of St Andrews

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By Ashley Husband Powton

Dear Professor Louise Richardson,

Since its inception in 1969 there have been 45 winners of The Man Booker Prize. Only one of these was a Scot.  In the same period only five other Scots have even made the shortlist.  In accounting for a negligible 0.2% of the population of the Commonwealth, it could be contested that this displays, if anything, an over-representation of Scotland.

However of the 45 Booker Prize winners, over half of them – 24 – have been English, whilst England accounts for a paltry 2.5% of the population of the Commonwealth.  These sobering figures leave charges of English cultural hegemony beyond dispute.

Meanwhile any remaining doubt as to anti-Celtic prejudice disappears when one considers the widely publicised denouncement of James Kelman when in 1994 he became the only Scot to have won the prize with How Late It Was, How Late.

One of the judges, Baroness Julia Neuberger, threatened to resign if the book won, and, when it did, stormed off the panel, declaring the book ‘frankly crap’ and its success a ‘disgrace’.  Simon Jenkins, a conservative columnist for The Times of London, deemed Kelman an ‘illiterate savage’ and his novel ‘literary vandalism’.

The previous year Irvine Welsh’s acclaimed novel Trainspotting had been nominated for the Booker Prize shortlist.  However it did not appear on the shortlist as two of the judges threatened to resign if it did.

In his 1994 acceptance speech, Kelman bravely noted that:

‘A fine line can exist between elitism and racism. On matters concerning language and culture, the distinction can sometimes cease to exist altogether’.

In the case of The Man Booker Prize, that distinction, if it existed at all, has indisputably ceased to exist.

Whilst the criticism directed at Kelman and Welsh may be attributed to the critics’ personal taste, it sadly betrays a wider attitude of dismissiveness and prejudice towards Scottish writers and their works.  Although the prize has sought to include a range of international cultures – honouring African and Indian authors, for example – it has repeatedly failed to acknowledge talented Scottish writers who have won far-reaching praise whilst those from the South of England continue to dominate.

It is a blatantly and demonstrably superiority soaked institution which, long after the fall of the Empire, appears to consider its sole purpose as the propagation of the notion of British – that is to say, English – cultural hegemony.  Its contempt towards any lesser indigenous culture which deviates from the established Southern English cultural yardstick is unconcealed.

Later in his speech Kelman referred to the validity of indigenous culture and the right to self-determination.  He went on to speak of a ‘rejection of the cultural values of imperial or colonial authority’ and ‘defence against cultural assimilation, in particular imposed assimilation’.

The announcement of this year’s longlist has sparked renewed and intensified criticism of the award.  Irvine Welsh and Alan Bissett list among the influential Scottish writers and intellectuals who have voiced strong condemnation in recent weeks.

The enthusiastic promotion of The Man Booker Prize Project by the University of St Andrews over the last four years unfortunately places our own institution at the centre of this storm.

As Scotland’s first and oldest university, and at an unparalleIed time in the history of the self-determination and identity of this nation, I would hope that immediate steps are taken to distance the University of St Andrews from the institutionalised anti-Scottish bias and Southern English elitism of The Man Booker Prize.

Ah look forward tae yer response.
Yours aye,
Ashley Husband Powton

Sources:

James Kelman’s Booker Prize Acceptance Speech 1994
‘Elitist Slurs Are Racism by Another Name’

Alan Bissett, Scottish Writer of the Year.
‘The unnoticed bias of the Booker Prize’
Published by The Guardian on the 27th July 2012

Kevin Williamson, Rebel Inc.
‘The Man Booker Prize & 44 Years Of Institutionalised Anti-Scottish Racism’
Published by Bella Caledonia on the 26th July 2012

An extract from a keynote speech delivered by Irvine Welsh at the Edinburgh World Writers’ Conference 2012
‘Is there such a thing as a national literature?’

‘[…]Yet, Scottish fiction has an uneasy relationship in the ‘British’ literary paradigm, dominated by this imperialistic idea of an assumed Englishness, which, as Hall reminds us, exists to negotiate against difference.  Only one Scottish novel has won the highly imperialist-orientated Man Booker Prize, routinely chosen by a largely upper middle-class English panel, and alternating around 50-50 between largely upper-middle-class English writers and citizens of the former colonies, presumably to stamp legitimacy on this ‘global accolade’.

Kevin Williamson of Rebel Inc, and Scottish Writer of the Year Alan Bissett, both recently attacked the anti-Scottish discriminatory nature of the prize, producing hard, sobering statistics in support of their arguments.  That they haven’t been deemed worthy of a reply can only be due to either the arrogance of hierarchical power, this negotiation against difference, or in this case, more likely, that the Booker apologists simply have no arguments to refute these observations.

Hegemony not only breeds arrogance; it also promotes intellectual enfeeblement.  The Booker prize’s contention to be an inclusive, non-discriminatory award could be demolished by anybody with even a rudimentary grasp of six-form sociology.  The academics who are custodians of the prize however, can only offer bland and complacent corporate PR speak in defence of an award based on the conceit that upper-class Englishness is the cultural yardstick against which all literature must be measured[…]’