Thursday, 3 December 2009

In search of a Scottish Writers Centre

Oh, for a warm and dry centre for Scotland's writers. Or several.
Earlier this week I attended my first DiScOmBoBuLaTe (or is it dIsCoMbObUlAtE? DiScomBoBulaTe?) at The Arches in Glasgow. It was a great show. I've rarely seen such a crowd at such a gathering. Probably having a proper bar, there, helped. Guest readers included Ryan Van Winkle, whose banter with the audience had me laughing (not just me, of course) and whose poems had the right kind of mix of attention grabbing wit and sincerity that are ideal for performance.  Headlining the evening was Bernard Mac Laverty, that most delicate of writers (despite his labourer's hands) who managed - though perhaps only just - to pull off that no-no of short story writing, a packed livingroomful of characters.

I've got so many bones I could pick with the event but that would be negative when my overall reaction to the content was positive. Oh, go on. I have to air them. Controversy is the haemoglobin of blogging.

First - why is it that so many Glasgow-based writers think the whole world should be measured by how poorly it compares to Glasgow? As a Glaswegian, may I just pass on this advice? 'Get over yourself! Everyone else shares the same emotions, the same big heart and small mindedness as Glaswegians, in equal measures, and everyone else is a mix of good and bad just like a typical Glaswegian! Get off your pedestal: you're just one city in a crowded world of cities; no better, no worse - just normal. Get yourself a bus pass, fellow Glaswegian writer, listen to your fellow travellers and look at the view from the windows.' Thank you.

Second - football is enjoyed by many people the world over. This grumble is closely related to the first one, so I'll stop here.

Third - what is it about people who grew up in centrally heated housing in privileged western society? Why is it that slummy venues like The Arches are popular? Mildew on the ceilings, bare brick walls, cracked cement floors whose only covering is the pebble dash of chewing gum? The chill of damp that seeps in through your clothing and the spores of mould that penetrate your lungs? Is it just my impression, or is there a manifest desire among those who grew up in comfort to relax in dirty, slovenly, shabby places? (While I'm on the offensive, let me also mention Tchai Ovna, a place which also celebrates live literature but whose soft furnishings give rise to repressed memories of squats and student flats and tatty, flea-infested, bug-infested housing. Not mine, of course. We were always clean *ahem*. As I'm sure theirs are, she said, worrying about libel.)

There seems to be some kind of reversal, here; it must be a generational thing. My parents were raised in crowded beds set-in behind doors or curtains in crowded rooms in crowded room-and-kitchen flats off wooden lobbies in crowded, TB and whooping cough infested tenements - in Glasgow, coincidentally (see first grumble). They yearned for cleanliness, clean lines and space. A square of carpet, perhaps. Cups that were shop-bought rather than exchanged in return for old clothes in a barter with the rag-man. Only two to a bed instead of three.

Now, two generations later, maybe each having their own bedroom with ensuite has led to a feeling of loss and isolation. Maybe that's why so many of today's twenty and thirty year olds seek out cheek by jowl crowding in damp, dingy dungeons like The Arches sub-railway-station.

Could be, of course, that they flock there because there's almost nowhere else to see established and establishing writers in performance. Fair point. So, what we need is a dry, warm, eco-friendly, modern, twenty-first century Scottish Writers Centre. Step forward the supporters with your money, your skills and your enthusiasm proffered in the palm of your hand...


  1. Glasgow-based Alan Bissett and Bernard Mac may be, but Glasgow they most certainly are not, so I'm a wee bit surprised by your comments. The sad fact is, as Alan Bissett's story demonstrated, sectarianism seeps well beyond the boundaries of Glasgow.
    As for why we hold DIscOmBoBULaTe in the Arches, the answer's simple. They offered us a better deal than anywhere else in the city. And actually, despite being a grand total of 56 years old myself, and my partner, Ian Macpherson who hosts the evening topping me on that, and being from a working class family and knowing childhood poverty only too well, we like the edginess of the venue.
    What's more, to see such top notch writers for £4 and £2 concession lets even those who still live in poor conditions the luxury of attending. We do that because those of us who give up lots of our time to bring it together don't get paid at all.
    I'm glad you enjoyed the evening overall. Actually, I think it's exceptionally special.
    And when will we west coasters ever get over our need to gripe rather than just enjoying the riches we're lucky enough to have?
    I'm all in favour of a Writers' Centre. I'm even more in favour of a Writers' Union. But something even better than these, something that needs no funding, is a group of highly talented writers coming together for no fees to create an individual and special evening to entertain and inspire. That's DiScOmBoBuLaTe. We simply take delight in being part of a creative group of individuals.
    As for the haemoglobin of blogging. Why not buck the trend?
    Magi Gibson

  2. Thanks for your comments, Magi. I'll come back on some of the points you raise. First, I didn't name any Glasgow writers (other than myself, funnily enough). This issue of small-mindedness over our place of origin is a general malaise - one could even see it as a scaled-down version of that ugly and defensive form of British nationalism which has brought two MEPs to power: this 'wha's like us?' which belongs in the past. I didn't actually name the particular writer who sparked my blog complaint because it goes beyond one writer. Certainly, it wasn't Bernard Mac Laverty, and Alan Bisset is a subtle, talented writer, too, who used his football story to point out the way that education broadens the mind and helps defeat sectarianism (and nationalism). He also made a strong point with great subtlety in the way he showed his character was made an outsider because of his education.

    Did I say that I held DiScOmBoBuLaTe responsible for the bad condition of the venue? I think not. I'm happy you find The Arches 'edgy'. Atmosphere is always important. And I won't arm wrestle you over our respective origins! My point with regard to the venue and others like it is that we deserve more; each generation should surely be raising standards, rather than lowering them. Those, like you, who freely give their time and commitment to organise and perform at such events, as well as those who come to hear them, deserve to work in clean and healthy surroundings, in my opinion. Literature should not be the at the stubbed out fag-end of funding.

    As for my little metaphor about controversy being the haemoglobin of blogging: if I'd come on here and said that everything I ever experienced was 'nice', it would do a disservice. A blog is a blog. It's not the front page of The Guardian. And anyway, the comments field gave you the opportunity to put your case, too. And I included links so that readers can discover DiScOmBoBuLaTe and the other places for themselves.

    Best wishes,