Browsing a second hand bookshop in Stockholm, I came across an anthology from the mid nineties produced off the back of Trainspotting called ‘New Scottish Stories’, translated into Swedish and neatly framed as a new wave of Scottish social narrative.
The ability to imagine new narratives is an important one, because without it nothing would ever change. Every time we do something new, we do it because we have already imagined how it might be. The challenge of storytelling is to extend the realm of the possible. As Scotland approaches a referendum in which the future is open, and in which every single citizen will be asked a fundamental question, it is time for a new narrative on what it means to live in Scotland today, and how we wish it to be tomorrow.
The Swedish novelist, feminist and ecologist Elin Wägner recognised the role played by storytelling in changing society. Her great mission was one of persuasion; of bringing people to the realisation that there were different ways and means of thinking and doing. I have a picture of her on my wall at home, the closest I think I’ve ever come to a poster girl.
Scotland is no paradise, partly because it cannot imagine itself being one. So ingrained are some of the most negative aspects of the country that it is difficult to imagine a time without them. But we must try to imagine a country where sectarianism and racism and resentment belong to a past which has been given up. Where male and female identity are broken down and rebuilt in a better form. Where the new Scottish stories are better than the old ones.
No more dysfunctional Taylor Wimpey suburban homes designed for the Surrey sunshine and not for Scottish wind and snow. No more unambitious architecture. No more motorways and urban sprawl and half-baked dreams. No more politics dominated by overweight, red-faced men in suits and ties. No more ‘benefactors’ disguising egoism and self interest as philanthropy. No more out of town shopping ‘experiences’ and dead cities.
None of these things are inevitable, but too often that is how they are presented to us. The truth is that their legitimacy is only paper thin. Like all of the great failed ideologies which have ravaged the world, mediocrity thrives on a dogmatic belief in the lack of anything better.
But as new media and new technology and new possibilities emerge, what was once fiction can become fact. Nowhere was this shown better than in the survey which showed how 58 per cent of young people in Scotland would vote Yes in the referendum next year, in part because they were exposed to new media and ideas which allowed them to follow a different narrative to the institutionalised authors of old media. When the printing press was invented it radically altered the way in which people were able to consume information. Pluralism was born, and with it the idea that the world outside the window was not the only one possible. As the internet reaches maturity, it is offering those who have grown with it new ways of seeing and doing.
Similiarly, to spend any length of time abroad is to understand the world through a prism other than the British one. Several of the foundation myths of Britain find counter-myths as soon as you step outside of its borders. Winston Churchill’s History of the English Speaking Peoples, an impressive story of a society which arguably never existed, is a masterwork of anglo-saxon nationalism. But Scotland’s story is equally one of Europe, of the North Atlantic, and of the world. It needn’t be any more true historically, but it can become true if it is imagined.
This isn’t a new story that will necessarily be written by politicians, though they are welcome to play their part. They are after all the ones who will have to sign off the advances and push the keys to make this story happen. They will put this vision into print.
So instead of reading the same old verse about how it’s our oil, how about a story in which it’s nobody’s oil? There are more narratives to be discovered than the straightforward nationalism and unionism which confront us. Of ownership and confrontation.
There is scope for Scotland to achieve something truly wonderful. To show that small is beautiful, and to show that beautiful is possible. Leave the oil and turn to the wind and the sea.
And this is not just a story of Scotland, but the story of a changing world. Travelling through this new Scotland should be a journey through a country to which others will turn and listen and learn. It is not a question of destiny or right but of aspiration to build a better way of living for all. To challenge the normalisation of an isolationist and inward looking everyday experience.
An important part of this story is the establishment of Scotland as a centre for new thinking and innovation. The historically rooted aspects of Scottish identity will not vanish, but they must be selectively built upon. So take clean energy and make it a national icon, rewrite tenants as landowners and communities as cooperatives, of education as wellbeing and life as fulfilling.
Self determination for Scotland has the potential to be a Stunde Null, and that involves reimagining parts of the national consciousness which have no place in a modern society.
But only potential. Some fairytales have dark endings. Scotland’s current problems are not entirely the making of Thatcherism and Blairism and Cameronism, but of Salmondism too. Of these cultures of personal political narrative and dogma. When the late Edwin Morgan wrote ‘Open the doors! Light of the day, shine in; light of the mind, shine out!’, he was telling a story about the kind of new political culture which the country needed, one which evidently has not been read by many in Scotland’s two biggest political parties.
And as Jean Urquhart has written on this same forum, it is a potential Scottish constitution which will lay down the basic plot of the new Scottish story. Write it and nail it to the door (or rather the anti-terror security entrance) of the Scottish Parliament, and to the door of every council office from Gretna to Unst.
And as Belle and Sebastian sing on Storytelling:
Now you’re a storyteller you might think you are without responsibility
But in directions, actions and words
Cause and effect
You need consistency