A background from North of the Border
Scottish writing has many strengths at the moment, and it was a good idea to map out, in this series on living Scottish writers, some at least (though not all) of its variety: Iain Banks, Liz Lochhead, William McIlvanney, A L Kennedy, and Iain Crichton Smith.
Channel 4 has produced five excellent 20-minute programmes. Each one has a standard format, introduced by the writer signing copies of his or her book and saying "My name is . . . and I'm a Scottish writer."
This is followed by a collage of environmental shots, readings by the author, authorial comment to camera, and question-and-ans wer snippets with a teenage studio audience. There are frequent shifts between colour and black-and-white which turn out to be more distracting than significant; perhaps they are there to make sure interest never flags.
The biographical material is well presented: Banks talks against the background of his looming non-human neighbour the Forth Bridge; Lochhead revisits school and art college and stands spotlit on stage; McIlvanney broods in a mining museum and reminisces in a dance-hall; Smith has sea and shore, gulls and a plunging ship; Kennedy, hardest to place environmentally, speaks against mist-shrouded waters which may suggest her voyages of psychological exploration.
As always, it is detail that makes a scene: McIlvanney surveying Hampden Park and saying it seemed to him the nearest thing to a Scottish national assembly; Liz Lochhead placing one of her plays on an empty school library shelf, as a gesture of encouragement to others like the encouragement she had once had by discovering Tennessee Williams.
The well-behaved audience put useful, if largely expected, questions (Lochhead and feminism, Smith and religion, McIlvanney and women), and the authors' answers are generally frank and spontaneous.
The merry Banks, laid-back and unfazable, claims he was astonished by apopleptic reviews of The Wasp Factory, and regards himself as a happy and well-balanced person.
Smith, brought up on Lewis, describes the jolt of adjustment he had to go through when he saw his first train and his first beggar on the mainland. Kennedy, without refusing to be totally non-enigmatic, gives a fascinating account of how she argues with her characters and rejects any concept of a puppet-master.
Their approach to their craft is illuminating: Banks believes "Everyone has fantasies, but the writer writes them down. " While for Smith: "Writing is wonderful, like seeing about 20 miles ahead. " Lochhead feels "Reading should give as much pleasure as food or sex."
Kennedy urges "Learn the bloody language, it's your language!" McIlvanney: "University was a Grand Central Station of the head."
Programmes like these want to be both inspirational and informative, and this can be a difficult balance to strike. Perhaps some of the outdoor shots, atmospheric as they are, could have been sacrificed in favour of a close (if brief) look at a text.
A short poem or a paragraph of prose, shown on screen and commented on, could have been a valuable reminder that we are dealing with that precise choice and placing of words without which the grandest ideas are unempowered.
As W S Graham once said to an interviewer: "My dear, why don't you ask me why I begin each line with a capital letter?" Though posed humorously, this was a serious question in its implications.