A National Literature

Keynote address given by Theresa Breslin

First presented at the Krasnoyarsk Book Culture Fair, Russia

Theresa Breslin Keynote text: “A National Literature”

Hugh McDiarmid, one of the Scottish participants in the original Writers Conference that took place in Edinburgh 50 years ago, wrote this poem, The Little White Rose:

The rose of all the world is not for me.
I want for my part
Only the little white rose of Scotland
That smells sharp and sweet—and breaks the heart.

For my part, as a child, I never found ‘me’ in a book.

When I was young I read everything I could lay my hands on, but the Scots in my storybooks spent their time fighting glorious battles, rowing across lochs, or escaping over moors of purple heather.

Even those Scots were hard to find. For at school , we recited poetry according to the set texts the teachers taught us. I can remember my father’s reaction when I came home chanting “Drake’s Drum”- a stirring homage to Sir Francis Drake, the great English Elizabethan adventurer and explorer:

Drake he’s in his hammock an’  a thousand miles away
Capten art tha sleepin’ there below?

My father’s antidote was to point me in the direction of Sir Walter Scott’s Border Ballads and the poetry of Robert Burns.

When I had to learn The Daffodils, by the Lakeland poet William Wordsworth, which begins:

I wandered lonely as a cloud
That floats on high o’er vales and hills,
When all at once I saw a crowd,
A host, of golden daffodils;

my father retaliated with Sir Walter Scott’s, Young Lochinvar:

Young Lochinvar is come out of the West,
Through all the wide Border his steed was the best;
And save his good broadsword he weapons had none,
He rode all unarmed and he rode all alone.

In our house the favourite of these Scottish Ballad poems – because each of us six children could have a part to act – was Lord Ullin’s Daughter by Thomas Campbell which is about a certain Highland Chieftain’s (failed) attempt to elope with his true love. Fleeing from the wrath of the girl’s father, who has threatened to kill him, the Highland Chieftain fears his blood will stain the heather.

Now, no disrespect to Mr Wordsworth and his daffodils…. I grew to love Wordsworth’s Ode on Intimations of Immortality from Recollections on Early Childhood and, also, when, as a teenager, I discovered that he was wont to trickle about the Lake District with his mate, Coleridge, ingesting mood-altering substances, I became quite interested in the old boy.

But… But… But… When you are nine or ten years old, there really is no contest between a bunch of daffodils – golden or otherwise – and blood on the heather.

It was the blood on the heather that caught my imagination.

My main source for books was through my local library, the William Patrick Library, which played a key role in providing me with reading material. And here I’d like to pick up on a point raised by a member of the audience in Edinburgh in August when a young lady from Argentina mentioned the difficulty for youth to access their national literature. The ensuing discussion highlighted the essential role of libraries. While I am here in Russia I am sharing experiences with librarians and teachers re book promotion. Ironically and deeply distressing for me, at home in Scotland, as I left, demonstrations were taking place outside our Parliament to protest against cuts to our library services, which, if they go ahead, will seriously impede the provision of books to the future generation.

In this local library of mine, in my youth, I read classical children’s stories by authors such as Robert Louis Stevenson whose works ranged from Kidnapped , to Treasure Island, The Strange case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde, and A Child’s Garden of Verses.
I read J.M. Barrie who wrote about a tiny village in Scotland, and also created Peter Pan and the wonderfully expansive vision of a Never-Never Land.

I loved these books – but when it came to stories set in modern times I found nothing that related to me and the circumstances in which I lived.

When I was raising my own children the situation was essentially the same. I found it difficult to find books that reflected their lives. There were some by writers like Mollie Hunter, Renèe McOwen, Joan Lingard, – but these were very few.

In addition to exploring imaginative worlds I believe that young people should have access to reading material that validates their life, that gives them a sense of identity – to be able to read texts that chimes with their own world, corrals thoughts, and connects with the emotional conflicts of growing up.

In his book The Child that Books Built, – a fascinating personal memoir of the books he read as a child, Francis Spufford discusses how description becomes, faintly, complicatedly, an endorsement.  He writes:

‘The certainty of story that allows a child to add it – with delight – to the category of ‘things that are so’, also lends to its content the slight implication that this is how things ought to be. We cannot be told  “Once there was a prince” without also being told (on some level and in some part) that it was right that there was a prince. What knits together out of nothing, and yet is solid enough to declare that it is so, recommends itself to us, although we don’t receive the recommendations straightforwardly.

In this lies the power, and the danger, of stories’.

One of the reasons I began to write was because I wanted stories for my children where the characters spoke as they did, and had similar life experiences. Did my hearing those first voices – primary voices – mean that I am ‘informed by Scotland’ and thus as a writer ‘formed’ by Scotland’s people, culture, geography, history, landscape and literature?

The first children’s book I wrote, Simon’s Challenge, was filmed as a 2 part drama for television by BBC Scotland. The producer told my publisher it was like finding gold, adding quickly – ‘because there’s nothing else out there relevant to modern Scottish children’.

Since then, there has been an upsurge in the number of Scottish Children’s authors, with writers like  Cathy MacPhail, whose hugely popular gritty novels set in present day Scotland, explore the real dilemmas facing modern youth.
Cathy MacPhail says: ‘I enjoy writing about the young people in Scotland in a voice they will recognise.’

And Julie Bertagna – whose Young Adult novel Exodus is based on the plight of a tiny island in the South Pacific threatened by the rising oceans.

Talking about the book Julie Bertagna tells us:

‘The more I researched global warming, the more I was sure that, if true, this would soon be the biggest issue of our age. Exodus, (which is published in Russian), begins on a Scottish island at the beginning of the next century. Flooding and climate change have devastated the Earth and another storm surge brings the sea to overwhelm Mara’s island home. Like the real-life islanders today, Mara and her people must leave in an exodus of boats to look for a new home in a World that doesn’t seem to know they exist.

Julie Bertagna:

My characters always seem to grow out of the landscapes they live in. Being a Scottish writer, the landscapes I write about are Scottish. I couldn’t think of any futuristic YA novels with a distinctly Scottish setting so I felt it was quite a powerful thing to do to set the Exodus trilogy in a futuristic Scotland. All of Scotland’s literature, whether adult, children’s, or young adult, should be a distinct part of world literature.’

So – A story may be set in the landscape and couched in the language of a specific country, but express, in the particular, larger truths. It may draw upon what might be termed a ‘national culture’ yet illuminate what it means to be human.

Poet Alan Riach, Professor of Scottish Literature at the University of Glasgow, states:

‘Exploring  our literature is an introduction to a range of areas of human experience and is an irreplaceable basis for sympathetic understanding, individual confidence, a sense of social engagement and intellectual stimulation.’

My hope is for a literature that raises the language above the ordinary, makes words both functional and emotional, and to resonate at the frequency of the human spirit – the skill and insight of the writer lifting the parochial novel above the level of regional concern.

Making it personal, national, and universal.

Copyright: Theresa Breslin, 2012