Poetic injustice



I did not know Norman MacCaig and met him only once. He was in the company of his friend, the literary critic Alan Taylor, and there was a certain amount of collective drowning of sorrows going on. Norman MacCaig had unexpectedly failed to win a fairly lucrative Scottish literary prize, which went instead to someone living in London, competent though not in the same class as MacCaig. I felt for him. He had been robbed. It was a case of poetic injustice.

     Soon, the centenary of his birth will be commemorated. It should be an opportunity for serious reflection of his enduring place in Scottish literature. But already there is a sense that another robbery is about to take place: the misappropriation of his name.
     On the weekend of his birth, there is to be a conference promoted jointly by Highlands and Islands Enterprise and Creative Scotland and organised by a publicly funded outfit called Hi-Arts. It will be called ‘Old Maps and New’ after a MacCaig poem.
     It may be worth reminding ourselves of the poem. Here is an extract:

Pity leaks through the roof
of the Labour Exchange.
In the Leader’s pocket,
wrapped in the plans for the great offensive,
are sweets for the children
and a crumpled letter

     You may well detect a contemporary resonance in these withering lines. But the irony seems to have escaped the promoters of the conference. The ‘keynote’ speakers will include, as well as the chief executive of Creative Scotland, the chair of Highlands and Islands Enterprise, Willy Roe, who is paid £85,000 a year for the part-time chairmanship of a couple of quangos. Whether he or any of the other leaders of this offensive will be carrying a crumpled letter, or sweets for the children, remains to be revealed.
     The ‘head of culture’ at HIE states in the conference’s promotional bumph: ‘Faced with the prospect of shrinking resources we must nurture social entrepreneurship and look innovatively at models to grow creative activity’. The same head of culture talks of bringing together people ‘involved in the sector’.
     ‘Heritage North’ – not sure what that amounts to – promises that the conference in Norman MacCaig’s name will be ‘an invaluable opportunity to meet and network’. Indeed we are assured by Heritage North that it will end with ‘a final lunch and networking session’.

 ‘I do not believe that this curious collection of positive-thinking hugs gurus is as innocent or silly as it looks. It pre-supposes a culture that is firmly individualistic.’

     I have not asked Alan Taylor, or indeed anyone else who was close to Norman MacCaig, what the poet would have made of his work being used to further the cause of social networking. But it happens that I can cast a little light on the conference organiser, Hi-Arts.
     An SR reader, the recipient of a small Hi-Arts grant, someone who does not wish to be named – we now live in an artistic Scotland few of whose members wish to be named – has copied us into an illuminating circular from Hi-Arts to its clients ‘in the sector’:

Hi [name of recipient]
Last week Hi-Arts took some time to reflect on who Hi-Arts is, how is Hi-Arts percieved [sic] by our audiences, and what does Hi-Arts means [sic] to the sector? Like everyone else in the public sector, we too are facing the reality of a changing future, a future where funding will not be as freely available, a future where entrepeneurship [sic] replaces entitlement.
     While an uncertain future is at times a scary and worrying prospect, it is also an opportunity for real change. To think beyond what needs to be done now, and what we should and could be doing in the future. At our retreat I found inspiration, inspiration from the fact that together, as a team, Hi-Arts is as strong facing the future now, as we are now in delivering our projects, inspiration then turns into motivation, which in turn turns into action. So this month I’d like to share with you some inspirational talks from some of the for-most [sic] marketing guru’s [sic] and thinkers.

One of the marketing gurus, to whom people in the arts unfortunate enough to live in the Highlands and Islands are now being directed for inspiration, is called Dan Cobley. Perhaps he is a distant relative of Uncle Tom. He is strong on ‘the fundamental theories of branding’. According to the bejeaned Dan, ‘The more massive a brand, the more force is needed to change its position’. He gives the example of Hoover.
     Another of the Hi-Arts gurus is one Seth Godin, author of ‘Meatball Sundae: is your marketing out of sync?’ Seth’s homilies include:
     ‘The more you rush to follow the leader, the less likely you will be to catch up’.
     ‘Don’t talk to all your employees and all your users the same way because they’re not the same’.
     ‘If you treat an expert like a novice, you’ll fail’.
     No doubt we can expect the wit and wisdom of such gurus [sorry: guru’s] as Dan Cobley and Seth Godin to inspire and ‘motivate’ the gathering in honour of Norman MacCaig. At that final networking lunch, we can expect the names Dan and Seth to be whispered reverentially as our guides to that ever-changing future.
     Although the recipient of the Hi-Arts grant does not wish to be named, for fear of sacrificing whatever future he may have, we should respect what he has to say:
     ‘I do not believe that this curious collection of positive-thinking hugs gurus is as innocent or silly as it looks. It pre-supposes a culture that is firmly individualistic.’
     The strange world we are now being invited to inhabit in Scotland, courtesy of Willy Roe, Creative Scotland, Dan, Seth, et al, calls for a poem. I have not seen that poem, although maybe it exists somewhere. But it would be a fine idea if someone would organise an alternative conference on the weekend of Norman MacCaig’s centenary, an event hostile to everything that the network opportunity stands for, a subversive occasion of cigarettes, strong drink and intellectual freedom.

This article was reproduced with the kind permission of Kenneth Roy.

Read Kenneth Roy in the Scottish Review.