The critic from the Johnston Press, and three women writers


By Kenneth Roy

Not much has been heard recently of flyting – a word Scots in origin meaning a slanging match in which insults are traded, often in verse. It seems to be back with a bang in the pages of the Scottish Review, though without the poetry, as the magazine finds itself at the centre of the most bitter rows in Scottish cultural life for many years.

Flyting in Scotland is traditionally associated with the literary establishment and for a long time was inspired and led by Christopher Murray Grieve (Hugh MacDiarmid), whose mastery of the art of vituperation was unrivalled. Near the end of his long life I spent an afternoon as Grieve’s guest in his doll’s house of a cottage. He was warm and welcoming, a genial presence; I sat there marvelling at the contrast between this sweet old man and his fierce public reputation.

What MacDiarmid said about some of his fellow writers, and what they said about him, could not be published in a family newspaper without the risk of frightening the children. It was rumoured, however, that profound differences were occasionally resolved in Milne’s Bar with the assistance of strong drink and the beautiful muse, Stella Cartwright.

In the last fortnight, as the non-voting chairman of a Scottish Review discussion on Scottish writing, I have had an insight into flyting in its modern form. But I doubt that the participants will be reconciled in Milne’s Bar or anywhere else. The words ‘frankly libellous’ about a contribution to SR have been used by a journalist employed by the Johnston Press (publishers of the Scotsman and Scotland on Sunday) – words that the editor of any small magazine must treat with the utmost seriousness. (As a matter of fact, the journalist in question would have to sue under Scotland’s law of defamation, since there is no law of libel in this country. But there is precious little consolation in this distinction).

Small magazines, generally as poor as church mice, are particularly vulnerable to litigation. An outstanding example was the demise of Night and Day (a British version of the New Yorker) after a film actress, Shirley Temple, sued successfully for loads of loot. Happily Miss Temple no longer presents a threat but there has never been a shortage of aggrieved successors pursuing their claims with impressive tenacity. Private Eye, which has somehow survived to celebrate half a century, nearly buckled under the attack of James Goldsmith (‘Sir Jams’ as he came to be known); only the Goldenballs appeal saved the magazine.

How, then, have we reached such an interesting point in the Scottish Review’s history – viewing the possibility of our own Shirley Temple moment? For readers unfamiliar with this depressing saga, here is a summary of the story so far:

I received a further terse email from Mr Kelly: ‘I’m afraid that Catherine’s letter – with its utterly disgraceful and frankly libellous accusation of misogyny – deserves either a response or an apology’.

The novelist Sophie Cooke submitted a piece on contemporary Scottish writing. I thought it might stimulate a minor debate. In it went. A few days later I received an email from someone mentioned in the article, Stuart Kelly, who signed himself Culture Correspondent, The Scotsman Publications. You know you are in trouble when a correspondent dispenses with the normal courtesies of address. We could forget ‘Hi Kenneth’ or ‘Best, Stuart’. Mr Kelly got straight to the point. He wished to have a right of reply to Miss Cooke’s ‘rather rambling essay’. Fair enough. I invited him to write at whatever length he thought reasonable.

The reply was unexpectedly personal. There was a section of it, about his view of Miss Cooke’s attitude to the Holocaust, over which I gulped and paused. But in the interests of free speech the piece was published in full and given the same prominence as Miss Cooke’s original. Two more women writers, Catherine Czerkawska and Tessa Ransford, then entered the frame, Miss Czerkawska suggesting that Mr Kelly was displaying misogynistic prejudices.

I received a further terse email from Mr Kelly: ‘I’m afraid that Catherine’s letter – with its utterly disgraceful and frankly libellous accusation of misogyny – deserves either a response or an apology’. Miss Czerkawska, when I made her aware of this, asked us to say that she withdraws the accusation and apologises to Mr Kelly for any distress she has inadvertently caused him. We are happy to endorse these sentiments and the offending reference has been deleted.

And there the matter rests – for the moment. As it happens, however, there is a further monumental bust-up being played out in the pages of the Scottish Review over an article by George Gunn about funding of the arts in the Highlands in which he attacks the policies of the funding agency, HI-Arts. The BBC picked up the story at the weekend, so it has now achieved much wider notice.

In his reply, Robert Livingston, director of HI-Arts, accuses Mr Gunn of misogyny – the same accusation levelled at Stuart Kelly although in a different context. (No accusations of misogyny in the Scottish Review for years, and then two turn up at the same time. Just like the buses, really.) By publishing it I risk a second life-threatening email, this one from Caithness. But I am publishing it anyway, and here’s why. I hope that Mr Gunn will acknowledge that people who dish it out (I include myself here) should be the last to go running to their lawyers when some of the ordure is flung back in their faces; and that he and Mr Livingston are willing to conduct a robust exchange of views without recourse to our learned friends.

Of course I could be horribly wrong about this. In which case, the poor little Scottish Review may face two concurrent Shirley Temple moments. Meanwhile we press on – until the spirit of Miss Temple descends on Liberator House and orders us to hand over what little we have left in our pockets.

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