Seasonal thoughts on the First Minister’s Christmas card

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By Kenneth Roy

There is the small matter of the first minister’s Christmas card to consider – that and the national tragedy of youth unemployment, the latest whitewash in the Shirley McKie case, and (if you really must) the incident on the train. The first of these subjects – ‘stories’ as they are known – will still be with us in the new year, the second is all washed up, and the third is a minor passing event. So I’m going with the first minister’s Christmas card.

It is a drawing by Alasdair Gray entitled ‘Bella Caledonia’ and, according to the first minister, depicts ‘a strong woman with a passion for social justice’. How does he know? Is Bella a real woman? Might she be one of those tiresome crusaders, a familiar ornament in the salons of Byres Road, the sort of person who feels ‘abandoned by the Labour Party’? Or is she simply a voluptuous figment of the artist’s imagination?

Also in the picture, to Bella’s immediate right, is a large thistle, conceivably symbolic of something or other. I will leave it to the first minister to interpret its significance, political, cultural or erotic.

The sight of ‘Bella Caledonia’ all over the newspapers took me back many years to an interlude when I was broke (I was working for the BBC: that explains it) and living in a Victorian villa in a village on the wrong side of Edinburgh. The wind howled up the exposed road from the Calders, with such ferocity one night that it blew part of the roof off.

Despite its precarious condition, actors and writers of no visible means came to this house regularly. The three weeks of the Edinburgh Festival were especially perilous; one could never foretell what fresh hell might be visited upon us before its end.

One day, a playwright arrived with a work of art which she called a triptych, created by a then little-known artist, Alasdair Gray. It consisted of various sketches of Scottish literary figures, mounted on inter-connected boards to make a free-standing object for the aesthetic improvement of any corner of the house safe from the passing tempest. One of the figures was perhaps the playwright herself; another I dimly recall as Archie Hind, the Glasgow novelist. The playwright said brightly that the triptych would be staying with us from now on.

We gave it a good home. It hung about the house, as incongruous and mostly ignored as the other itinerant guests. But then, after many months, there was a surprising turn of events. The playwright got in touch to say that she wanted it back. Nothing more was said: the object was duly returned; the friendship continued more or less as before. The request for the return of the triptych had, however, created a slight tension. It had become part of the furniture; even an occasional talking point. Had it not been a gift? Evidently not. It seemed that the work of this struggling artist, the Gray chappie, had been on temporary loan.


The risk of prosecution and the ‘humiliating but uncleansing prison bath’ (as John Osborne put it) should never be far from the writer’s mind as a possible destination and fate.


I felt a little resentful; and, over the years, as the name Alasdair Gray grew in stature and fame, I wondered from time to time what happened to the triptych. On the only occasion I visited the artist’s house – for dinner, which he cooked rather well – there was no sign of it. I was left to speculate that the playwright, desperately short of cash, as she often was, had flogged it. Needs must. But where is it now?

Mr Gray became better known as a writer. I hope not to provoke a further Scottish Review literary spat when I admit that I have not read any of his books, but I understand that they are good; perhaps very good. Mr Gray is indeed a star in the western sky.

There is only one incidental issue; the beginning of a doubt. It is prompted by the chummy encounter between the artist and the politician at this week’s unveiling ceremony of the first minister’s Christmas card, before the usual crowd of obsequious hacks and hangers-on. The beginning of the doubt resides in a belief that writers and artists operate best on or beyond the outer edges of acceptability.

The risk of prosecution and the ‘humiliating but uncleansing prison bath’ (as John Osborne put it) should never be far from the writer’s mind as a possible destination and fate; and, this being Scotland, the land of social justice, the writer can look forward to being denied the consolation of a prison visitor. For such people as writers must inevitably offend the bourgeois sensibilities of the day, scandalise the powerful, and present a threat to the established order. That is their purpose. Anything else is merely light entertainment or the modern novel: it amounts to the same thing.

We are seeing a move in Scotland – I hesitate to call it a trend – towards complicity between the literary and political classes. Nothing wrong with that, so long as the writers do not also expect to be taken seriously. The names of the court favourites come easily to mind, but I hope for sentimental reasons that Alasdair Gray isn’t one of them. Gray and Salmond ‘sharing a joke’ at the launch of the Christmas card did seem a long way from the arrival of the triptych at a windswept village on the outer edges of acceptability.

 

Courtesy of Kenneth Roy – read Kenneth Roy in the Scottish Review