Second nation, second sex

17th January 1997 at 00:00
"I'm not Jezebel And I'm not Delilah I'm not Mary Magdalen Or the Virgin Mary either.

"Not Medusa, not Medea And, though my tongue may be salty, I'm not the Delphic sybil - Or Sybil Fawlty.

"No, I'm not your Little Woman Not your Better Half I'm not your Nudge, your Snigger Or your Belly Laugh."

Eve speaking in Liz Lochhead's "The Complete Alternative History of the World, Part One" (1991)

The poet, playwright and performer Liz Lochhead is nothing if not forthright. "I've never tried to be an English writer with a prick and I'm not likely to get the chance. I am who I am, a Scottish woman writer."

Lochhead is one of Scotland's leading writers. She has produced six volumes of poetry since 1972 and has more than a dozen stage plays to her name, among them Mary Queen of Scots Got Her Head Chopped Off and Jock Tamson's Bairns.

But, in spite of her feisty declaration, she does not see herself as a feminist writer. "I don't think these labels are helpful to writers. They're only helpful to people telling other people not to read you. The label 'feminist writer' would say 'this is only for the girls at the school to read' or something like that.

"I'd be happy to be called a feminist writer if I wrote about feminism. But I don't. There weren't many women writers in Scotland when I started. So to write at all as a woman in Scotland was to be seen to be doing something 'feminist' - which I don't think it is.

"There is a very interesting point of view that the Scot is in the feminine position anyway. He's in the position of the 'other', not the second sex but the second nation. So that to be a Scottish writer was to be the feminine just like within Scottish culture the Highlander or the Gael is regarded as the 'other'. In London eyes you were allowed to be Scottish but you had to assert very machismo values. Simply by not asserting machismo values you get called a feminist.

"Of course, I am myself a feminist - like most of the men and women I know. It's just believing in equal rights, better child-care facilities and things like that. It's to do with basic socialism and equality."

Lochhead says that, when she began writing, "there was a great interest from London in Scottish writing as long as it was urban, male and working-class. That's what they wanted the Scots to be. You weren't expected to differ twice, by being Scottish and female. You didn't until recently get a great picture of the diversity of Scottish society."

A polished performer and reader of her own work, Lochhead neverthele ss is not always enamoured of schools visits. "You don't get much real contact with the pupils. Frequently you're wheeled into a hall and sometimes they've bussed in pupils from another school as well so they can share the fee. You're put up on a stage and expected to entertain 300 fifth and sixth years, some of whom don't want to be there.

"I enjoy speaking to large groups of kids but it shouldn't last more than 45 minutes max, because often they won't ask questions during a single meeting. In small groups you get a surprising amount of questions. It's good when schools tell you they're surprised by the pupils who do ask the questions."

Born in 1947, Lochhead was educated at Dalziel High School in Motherwell."At school I wanted to be a painter. I mean, I knew that meant being an art teacher. I taught for eight years. I was crap at it. I was always puzzled about how to get kids going. It was my own failure of imagination, really. "

Lochhead started to write while at Glasgow School of Art, and writing gradually became "more vivid and more powerful" to her. "You start writing because of an inner need and through a love of reading. I fell in love with the poetry of Louis MacNeice. I wouldn't say he was a great influence on my work but I think the attraction was to do with voice and speech. I think poems are all for reading out loud, even if you don't understand everything about it at one reading or hearing. Out loud is the way to do it even if it's out loud inside your head.

"Some people are put down because they can't read without their lips moving. There shouldn't be a put-down, because actually to read with your lips moving is to taste the words in your mouth and hear them spoken - and I think it's speech that's the basis of it all.

"You have to write with your five senses and to write things the way you see them. You have to tell yourself you don't care how other people might have written about this before. This is the way you see it. Not that that's better but you're going to get to your own viewpoint.

"All that worries me is where the next idea is coming from, the next passion, I suppose. Once you're writing something, especially something long, like a play, it's kind of like a love affair. You're right into something."

She says that the teaching of poetry is a problem. "Kids often look at poetry as a code that they're trying to crack. It's as if there's a plain English way of putting it but you've chosen to do it in this baroque form instead.

"Of course, that's not true. What you're trying to be is more direct and more truthful and certainly more condensed. It's a pity if people are unsure of what they're teaching but feel they've got to teach it. The best poetry teachers are the teachers with a passion for it. If you love something you understand it."

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