Is culture Scotland’s way to the top?


by Brian Morton

Time magazine’s annual list of the world’s 100 most influential people has just been published, and there isn’t a single Scot on it. Unless you count the newly-created Earl of Strathearn, who, along with his new wife, merits a citation under some notional ‘thoroughly modern couple’ category. Really?

For the most part, and as usual, the Time 100 consists of obvious choices and surprise choices. There are the Obamas, listed separately, a smattering of European leaders (those who have kept their trousers on, both personally and fiscally), lots of industry and scientific wonks you’ve never heard of (though you benefit daily from what they’ve invented), mysterious Far East types who have ‘21st century domination’ written all over them, a Tiger mom and a gentler type of mom (the fearsome Amy Chua and the gentler Heidi Murkoff), philanthropists, Facebook founders, film directors, chefs, Jonathan Franzen . . . but no Scots.

There are obvious flaws in any list of this kind, even allowing for a certain editorial subjectivity. The estimably high proportion of female names looks a little cranked and contrived, and there are too many figures you’d say were on the way down rather than up. Angela Merkel’s entry is, for instance, written by French finance minister Christine Lagarde, a slightly younger but considerably smarter and foxier politician. By the same token, Heidi Murkoff’s What To Expect When You’re Expecting has been reassuring would-be mothers and appalling would-be fathers for nearly thirty years.

One can always quibble about the popular culture choices. Oprah Winfrey? She looks gorgeous but is surely on the wane. Joe Biden? Doesn’t he collect the Walter Mondale award for becoming Vice-President and then just disappearing? And then what, apart from following Biden alphabetically, could possibly justify the inclusion of pop pubescent Justin Bieber? Or that Sanatogen sex-god Sting?

The last of these is interesting, as are a few others, for the nominator rather than the nominee. Sting’s piece is done by another glamorous jazz/crossover bassist Esperanza Spalding, who’s very definitely going places. And not the Amazon rainforest either. One Scot, or one that I’ve been able to spot, does sneak in. Gordon Brown writes a few admiring paragraphs on Joseph Stiglitz, the 68 year old boy who cried ‘Fire!’, and arguably the most prescient economist of recent times.

No Scots on the red carpet, though. Is this any more or less than we can expect in our current rather inward-looking state? Do we still move and shake at any level at all on the international stage? Two centuries ago, and without aid of either Amy Chua or Heidi Murkoff, Scotland was nursing the infant James Young, later known as ‘Paraffin’ Young, who gave West Lothian an early taste of land-art with all those pinky-orange shale bings they still haven’t quite managed to bulldoze away. And if your first thought on hearing the name ‘Justin Bieber’ is ‘chloroform’, then think, too, of Young’s exact contemporary and near-namesake James Young Simpson, who pioneered safe anaesthesia in an Edinburgh house just along the road from the old BBC Scotland building. Nowadays, of course, BBC Scotland anaesthesia is practised in new and less elegant premises.

It’s a cliché to say the country no longer punches its weight and to offer Time-like lists of past glories as a way of pointing up the current wasteland. But there is nothing particularly timely about such thoughts. They tend to miss the element of history and the understanding that while distinctive national/cultural characteristics do play an important role in shaping social actors their ‘nationalist’ qualities were always grossly exaggerated in the interest of a grand quasi-imperialist narrative. The whole ‘Here’s tae us’ mentality still needs serious overhaul, in both the toast and the response.

We do, however, need cultural heroes, even if they are underground. The music scene in Scotland is staggeringly rich at the moment, with Trembling Bells, Hudson Mohawke, Konx Om Pax and Dylan Nyoukis all surely on any sharp-eared observer’s top 100. Scottish writing, always somehow resistant to the coterie-driven longueurs of English-English fiction, is still in a healthy state, even if Scottish publishing staggers under financial burdens like the rest of the sector. The ‘Scottish film industry’ is still a hippogriff, though Scottish films and film-makers are doing great work. The same is true of classical music, dance, painting and the other plastic arts.

We need heroes, though, and so it was with some delight that I discovered that Tom Ford, the fashion designer, subsequently movie director and a man who has deeply influenced my own sense of personal style . . . I’m sorry, I’ll read that again . . . who has deeply influenced a whole generation’s sense of personal style, but not mine, was christened Thomas Carlyle Ford.

What is the connection between the Sage of Ecclefechan and the Guru of Button-Four suits? Pass, but I find it intriguing. And as the original Thomas Carlyle said in On Heroes and Hero-Worship: ‘the Great Man was always as lightning out of heaven’ . . . you just never know when the next hero is going to emerge out of the crowd around you. What are the odds on a Scot featuring in next year’s Time 100? Shortening, I’d say.